Hank Willis Thomas’ art to change the world

NJERI MCPHERSON | 10/24/2019, 2:36 p.m.
Artist Hank Willis Thomas is leaving his mark in the art community, being featured in art exhibits all over the ...
Hank Willis Thomas Contributed

Artist Hank Willis Thomas is leaving his mark in the art community, being featured in art exhibits all over the states as well as Spain, France and China. Specializing in photography, Thomas expresses a range of ideas in several ways. Moreover, he has given other artists the opportunity to do similar work with the organization For Freedoms.

Thomas was born in New Jersey, but raised in the upper west side of New York City. Coming from a very creative family, he has always had some interest in the arts. 

“My parents were both creative oriented, and traveled a lot with their work. My mother is a curator and photographer, and my father is a man of many talents: a physicist, filmmaker, jazz player, [etc.],” says Thomas. “My mother being an artist and an art historian, I grew up following in her footsteps.”

Art has always played a part in Thomas' life. Attending Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Thomas leaned into Museum Studies, focusing on how art was presented rather than creating art himself. But, he later went to school for photography, and this changed his creative trajectory.

“I never really learned painting, or drawing, or how to play an instrument; I never saw myself as an artist. I have just always followed my curiosity, and I was lucky enough to go to school for photography—I could just look at the art and stare, I never really thought I could make money off it,” explains Thomas. “I had friends that worked at galleries that thought my art was worth showing.” 

Thomas’ curiosity has led him to create art from multitudes of inspiration all over the world. Growing up in New York, and residing in Brooklyn today, it would be easy to assume that Thomas gets most of his inspiration from NYC’s vibrant streets. However, in his opinion, we live in a “global society.” 

“Artists in South Africa, Peru, Japan [etc.] also inspire my work—because we live in a world of social media you don’t have to live in a particular area to be inspired by what people do,” says Thomas.

He has found great inspiration from a variety of cultures and mediums, however, what he finds most inspirational is the idea of evoking change in society. From this motivation, Thomas founded For Freedoms, an organization where art and public discourse can meet. For Freedoms is a place a place for artists to express art delving into topics of civic issues,Thomas hopes to make art a stronger force for change. 

“Artists have a lot to say that could and should be shaping our political views and society,” says Thomas. “Fine art at its best challenges us to rethink norms that we have gotten used to; we need creative solutions to create meaningful change in our society.”

The artist has definitely presented art capable of sparking engaging discourse. With much of his work bringing attention to issues of race in the U.S., Thomas has made an impact with striking images that evoke in-depth thought. Still, with all of his success, he still feels insecurity in his creative process. 

“I think there is always a question of if I am doing something important, something relevant to be done—a concern that my work is worth people’s time,” says Thomas. 

Still, he continues to produce art that he feels is relevant and meaningful. 

“I hope that my work asks good questions about the society we live in and talks more about the things we take for granted, whether that be what we consume, the news, history—not giving in to the narrative that is sold to us,” says Thomas “I hope to express that there is always more to the story than what is in the frame of the camera. I see art in everything, I think at it’s best we don’t separate art from life.”