Q&A: Lava Thomas
By Zora J. Murff, Strange Fire Collective
March 21, 2019

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”Women were at the forefront and were the backbone of the movement, but dominant histories focus almost exclusively on a few individuals…” - Lava Thomas


“Lava Thomas: Rena Bransten Gallery”
By Ara Osterweil, Artforum
January 2019, Vol. 57, No. 5

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”Through her painstaking process, Thomas evokes the corporeal stamina required by all successful resistance movements. Her exquisite attention to detail consecrates her subjects, bringing every hair, wrinkle, and thread to life, and refusing to collapse the women into an undistinguished collective…In spite of—or perhaps because of—their astonishing verisimilitude, Thomas’s drawings transcend a merely mimetic relation to their source material. Her faithfulness to the evidence of the photographic record, to the vernacular materiality of flesh, skin, hair, and fiber, transforms these forgotten saints of the civil rights movement into the Albrecht Dürer subjects of our day.” - Ara Osterweil, Artforum


“Year in review: big changes in the visual arts world”
By Charles Desmarais, San Francisco Chronicle
December 17, 2018

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”In October, Lava Thomas showed drawings at Rena Bransten Gallery that paid tribute to the heroic women arrested during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956. They were much more than mere likenesses, examples of artistic technique itself as a tool of political argument.” - Charles Desmarais, San Francisco Chronicle


“Best of 2018”
By David M. Roth, SquareCylinder
December 22, 2018

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“The subtle and not-so-subtle transformations in Thomas’ drawings,” wrote Mark Van Proyen, “achieve the powerful effect of reaffirming and elevating the personhood and dignity of their subjects,”those being12 African-American women arrested in the Montgomery, Alabama busboycott, and whose mug shots served as the source material for the series.   “As a general rule, police photographs deny and subtly abolish the dignity of their subjects by fixing them to a graphic surface like so many specimens of real or alleged wrongdoing, as if to say, “don’t be like this person.”  Thomas reverses this effect by showing how the dignity of a person can rise above the indignity of official accusation, in effect putting the law on a kind of esthetic trial.” 

“Exhibit explores optimism, beauty amid political climate”
By Alissa Evans, Daily Bruin
November 20, 2018

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Lava Thomas, a UCLA alumna and featured artist, contributed two politically charged pieces: “Freedom Song No. 1” and “Freedom Song No. 2.” The pieces are comprised of tambourines, the heads of which were replaced with colored suede and metallic-painted leather. The tambourines are arranged in a large square and a large rectangle, respectively, on the wall.

Thomas often uses tambourines in her work because they are rooted in traditional music from cultures all around the world. She said the tambourine is an egalitarian instrument because anyone can play it, and that it was commonly deployed during civil rights protests to amplify calls for justice and equality. Some of the tambourines are inscribed with lyrics from songs sung during the civil rights movement, which she said signify hope, resilience and determination. “ - Alissa Evans, Daily Bruin

“When Homemakers Became Heroes: Lava Thomas Drawings at Rena Bransten”
By Charles Desmarais, San Francisco Chronicle
Published October 4, 2018

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Even the placement of certain characters within pictures becomes, for Thomas, a communicative element. Such decisions are likely based on faulty framing in the original photos. In her drawings, she could have easily adjusted for the errors. It is proof of her close attention to the accidental metaphors of photography that, instead, figures are dwarfed by their sterile surroundings, shoved to the side, noticed only as evidence. But if they went unnoticed by those in power as individuals, it hardly mattered in the end. One can be sure that these were women who would not have traded results for recognition — certainly not from the white establishment. The function of this work is not to bring its subjects to life. Those past lives were surely lived with all the dignity we see in the drawings, but Thomas pictures a quiet courage that is still alive, still needed in the future.” - Charles Desmarais, San Francisco Chronicle


“At galleries and at Trails Forever, stories—and nature—shared”
By Leah Garchik, San Francisco Chronicle
Published October 3, 2018

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"Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott” is a collection of precisely drawn images of 1955 ladies. They’re decked out in clothes suitable for business or for church — proper suits, blouses buttoned up and topped with brooches. And each of those perfect ladies gazing steadily into the camera is holding the number she was given upon being booked.” - Leah Garchik, San Francisco Chronicle


“Lava Thomas @ Rena Bransten”
By Mark Van Proyen, SquareCylinder
Published September 28, 2018

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“The subtle and not-so-subtle transformations in Thomas’ drawings achieve the powerful effect of reaffirming and elevating the personhood and dignity of their subjects.  As a general rule, police photographs deny and subtly abolish the dignity of their subjects by fixing them to a graphic surface like so many specimens of real or alleged wrongdoing, as if to say, “don’t be like this person.”  Thomas reverses this effect by showing how the dignity of a person can rise above the indignity of official accusation, in effect putting the law on a kind of esthetic trial.  This is even true in the drawings of Ida Mae Caldwell and Jimmie L. Lowe, who both look back at the viewer with downcast eyes and body postures that bespeak physical and psychic exhaustion.  But tribulation notwithstanding, they are still undefeated, as Thomas’ drawings make clear.  In our own racially charged moment of racialized political rhetoric and controversies about widespread sexual assault, these works achieve a special resonance...” - Mark Van Proyen, SquareCylinder

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“At Rena Bransten Gallery, Lava Thomas’ ‘Mugshots’ Are Drawn Out of History”
By Roula Seikaly, KQED Arts

Published September 20, 2018

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Thomas' project incorporates crucial critical topics—the Black body as object, not subject, and how that status is determined photographically—that bear historical and contemporaneous significance. Mugshot Portraits calls up an execrable 19th-century photographic project commissioned by the Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873). Enslaved Africans were brought from regional plantations to J.T. Zealy's Columbia, South Carolina studio and photographed half nude and from different angles. Treating photography as a "factual" tool, Agassiz interpreted these combinations of portrait and scientific illustration through the lens of physiognomy, falsely deducing that Africans are genetically different—and inferior—to their European counterparts. Thomas' subjects descended from the women, and men, who sat vulnerable before Zealy's camera. Like their forebears, they carry the burden of racism's violent gaze. Unflinching, they look back without shame, defying us to acknowledge our complicity in their condition.” - Roula Seikaly, KQED Arts

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“An Uncertain Approach to Political Art at di Rosa”
By Charles Desmarais, SF Chronicle
Published August 18, 2018

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“Lava Thomas chose as her theme the idea of solidarity, producing a soundless tribute to music — a shower of red tambourines suspended from the ceiling — as a metaphor for community. The tambourine, a wall text points out, is an easily learned instrument that plays a part in the traditional music of numerous cultures around the world. Thomas lightly imposes a reference to her own African American heritage here and there, but keeps the whole an open-ended invitation to unity, as a wall of mirrored instruments incorporates the viewer, the room and, by extension, the world.”
- Charles Desmarais, SF Chronicle

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“Whats up in SF Museums and Galleries this Fall”
By Charles Desmarais, SF Chronicle
Published August 22, 2018

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”I had the opportunity last year to see, in process, some of the drawings to be included in this exhibition. During an open house at the Headlands Center for the Arts, where Thomas was an artist in residence last year, visitors crowded her studio. Their intent was to glimpse, unfinished, what promised to be powerful documents of a historic moment of effective resistance. This will be our first chance to see the artist’s completed tribute to the unsung church ladies, homemakers and local pillars of the community who became heroes on national scale. “ - Charles Desmarais, SF Chronicle


“Part Two of di Rosa’s ‘Be Not Still’ a Lesson in the Importance of Being Earnest”
By Gretchen Giles, KQED Arts
Published June 28, 2018

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”Lava Thomas celebrates solidarity by hanging some 600 pink and orange tambourines artfully from the ceiling, where they tinkle quietly, kept in constant motion by fans. Thomas says that she wanted to create something purely beautiful that would resonate beyond mere aesthetics. The tambourine is an instrument anyone can play, a sound used in both praise and protest. Quotes from female historical figures beginning in 1830 forward cover many of the instruments' faces. An additional 100 mirror-faced tambourines hang flat against the adjacent wall, allowing the viewer to see herself reflected in the piece (and incidentally providing a great spot for selfies).” - Gretchen Giles, KQED Arts


“Walnut Creek: African-American art show opens at Bedford Gallery”
By Lou Fancher, East Bay Times
Published April 13, 2018

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Thomas’ work includes alternative portraiture that features identifiers like hairstyles vs. likenesses to create identity or support themes of social justice or feminism. “Fictitious Self-Portrait” is a limited 25-edition print from an etching inspired by memories of her grandmother’s Los Angeles salon. “Hair was a way to express women in community. It was styled to fit within societal parameters but within those conventions there was enormous creativity. Marcel waves were common. She did no coloring, so hair was kept healthy.”" - Lou Fancher, East Bay Times


“Two Shows at Zeitgeist Gallery Explore the Power of the Feminine”
By Laura Hutson, Nashville Scene
Published January 25, 2018

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There’s an emphasis here on various states of matter (solid, liquid, gas and plasma) that’s made especially evident by its proximity to Lava Thomas’ “Lung Breasts.” “Lung Breasts” features four identical ceramic pieces mounted to the gallery wall that resemble both breasts (bodily vessels for liquid) and lungs (bodily vessels for gas). The matte-black pieces point to the idea of a woman aging and changing shape after motherhood. There’s a lot there, and all those possible interpretations give the space a sanctity of being instructed by women, regardless of whether they’re physically present.” - Laura Hutson, Nashville Scene