ericamerylthomas [at] gmail [dot] com

Added on by Erica Thomas.


Earlier this fall I spent some time distilling some ideas about my art practice for an audience of conference-attending arts administrators. These thoughts have stuck with me and now a few weeks later it seems that they may contextualize my work in a way that nothing else has yet. So, I feel compelled to share, despite them being intended as part of a larger presentation in person. I hope the absence of proper transitions can be forgiven so that I can bring this writing to light for those who weren't there and may want to read.  Here is the text as it was presented, including the few slides and inserted quotes and images.

I am the artist in residence in my own life. This research-based residency began with me considering my role as an artist in relationship: collaborator, wife, partner, daughter, neighbor, co-worker, and so on. I wanted a new, experimental model of relating that resisted dominant patriarchal structures. In this ongoing practice, I open up my personal space, domestic life and emotional/interpersonal landscape as a site of experiential research and experimental practice.

I set forth to examine my identity and to challenge and shift the conventional expectations that define the way we must behave in relationships, and in some cases to resist definition at all.

I decided I must situate these domestic, interpersonal, actions as art and put as much care into their formation and maintenance as I would my work. They must be not only be nurtured but also examined, continuously challenged, and approached with radical levels of questioning and honesty.

"Everything I say is art, is art. Everything I do is art, is art. 'We have no Art, we try to do everything well.' (Balinese Saying)." -Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Declaring this residency gave me a contain to explore my role in society as a disrupter, and to validate intuitive, non-linear thinking and inquiry. As such, this residency is a decidedly feminist practice: I refuse to define an expected outcome or path. This process mirrors the shapes of my relationships. I situate this practice within the framework of art playfully considering scale, form, material and naming my own life as site or context. I am creating something from nothing-- which is it’s own form of magic.

"The only audience for my work is [my partner] Ross.” - Felix Gonzalez-Torres

You may ask, Why self-declare? Or what differentiates this from a project?

  • A self-declared residency model affords me an indefinite duration. (it is lifelong, my life’s work).
  • It is a framework I have placed around my process of discovery, experimentation and learning that leads to projects. It encompasses everything I do that serves projects, that isn’t itself a project.
  • I get to decide what constitutes research, what lines of inquiry to follow, what is valid or valued as research.
  • It also means I can retain control of privacy, and can maintain the shared intimacy that is largely only achievable in with one-on-one or very small group interaction. It that takes place in a space that feels safe for these.

Through the residency I am collaboratively developing a set of relationship ethics for which the only constituents are me and my “collaborators”.  

Primary criteria for the research:

  • Inter/personal

  • Relational/Contextual

  • Feminist

  • Ethical

  • Questioning

  • Reflexive

  • Radical

  • Nuanced

  • Responsive

  • Vulnerable

  • The relationship comes before the art.

These criteria have become my aesthetic.

Research tactics are widely varied and (beyond the obvious reading and writing) have included documentary photographs, interviews, informal conversation, body movement, and conceptual acts: For example, my marriage, a collaborative project listed as such on my CV, 2012-present, ongoing.

"Rule 8: Don't try to create and analyze at the same time. They're different processes." -Sister Corita Kent, From Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules [for students and teachers]

The residency is a space where I can focus on work without any requirement to produce something tangible, or to analyze the process. It is driven by my own instinct and only thinking, conversation, identity and relationships are formed. I cite feminist ethics for these parameters, rejecting an economic exchange for the exchange of love and support within an economy of feelings.

For me, it is important that this practice be fully integrated within my life. It has only made sense to investigate these ideas in a physical/cultural space that was of my own making. The idea of applying to do something I’m already doing and then to situate the work within an institution, hasn’t seemed particularly helpful or necessary. It must remain autonomous.

That said, if this residency were to benefit from the support of an institution it might exist somewhere in between a fellowship, a performance space, a publication and a conversation series.

Sometimes the research leads to projects, in which I invite others to think about these ideas together in a public space. The research is the soil out of which my projects grow.

Pillow Talk at the Portland Art Museum

Pillow Talk at the Portland Art Museum

Though I believe this work is enough and stands on its own, I would like to briefly give a couple of examples of public facing work.

In Pillow Talk I use a series of text-based pillows to prompt conversations and confessions on love, fear, sex and loss. Participation is on a one-on-one basis between me and one other willing person. I offer myself as primarily a listener and reciprocate conversation only as the circumstances lead me. It has been produced in both public and private spaces, and visitors to my website are invited to commission it in their own homes.

Public Displays of Affection, at the Portland Building

Public Displays of Affection, at the Portland Building

Public Displays of Affection is a project in which Emily and I asked people who work in the city offices of Portland to be photographed with their chosen families in the lobby of their workplace. We asked participants to talk with us about what chosen family means to them, and why they had chosen to be photographed together. What resulted was a raw, honest and emotional response that we shared in a public space. 

From Self Declared: Practice and Politics of DIY Artist Residencies (Originally part of a panel of speakers at the Alliance for Artist Communities)
Roya Amirsoleymani, Erica Thomas, Emily Fitzgerald, Ariana Jacob & Katy Asher, Taryn Tomasello

an apology

Added on by Erica Thomas.

Dear Mme. Rodham Clinton,

I'd like to begin by apologizing for my delay in writing this. Through my Wednesday morning despair, friends urged me to watch your concession speech. It was exceptionally brave and inspiring, It will make you feel better, they said. I planned to write this letter the moment you conceded, but I hope you will forgive me for taking nearly a week to muster the strength to watch. I wasn’t ready to feel better. I needed some time to process my profound grief, and steel myself to the prospect of four more years of continuous heartbreak. Like the beginning of this letter, and as many women before us have, you also began your concession with an apology. Ever gracious, even in defeat. I only, tragically, can recognize in hindsight your experience with concessions as yet one more accolade that would have served you and all of us well in the office of the presidency.

At 3am on Election Day I woke from a terrible nightmare, that I now see as a premonitory vision. I had dreamed that I was being held captive in a cavernous, dank, underground warehouse. Filthy water dripped from the oppressively low ceiling into black pools on the cement floor. My wrists were shackled to a support pillar in heavy, metal chains. My clothes were torn and I couldn't remember how I had gotten here. I felt the cold, rough floor beneath my knees rubbing them raw. I could hear muffled sounds arriving from scattered locations around the room, like echolocation for suffering. Women were being tortured, crying out, struggling, and though I couldn't make out the looming figures of our captors, I knew that these men were enacting the singular vision of a much more evil figure, yet unseen. I managed to free my hands from the shackles while my captors were distracted and made a run for a tiny window, climbing up and out onto a deserted street. I knew I didn't have much time before I would be caught, so with haste and stealth I propelled past my fear to look for someone who could help me come back and free the others. I saw an open door and entered. There was a slight man standing in the small empty room. I started to tell him what had happened to me and with a flat expression he interrupted to ask if I knew who had done this to us. "No," I said. And he looked into my eyes and said, "It was me." When I woke I was beating scratching punching screaming kicking like a wild animal fighting for its life, hair on end, heart racing. Although I realized I was safe in that moment, in my bed, I felt no comfort. Because even when he doesn't show his face the man is still there all of the time, in my subconscious, and in all of our collective unconscious. I understand that I am not the only warrior for those women in my dream, and that women aren't the only ones who need me to stand up for them. Above all, however, I felt a renewed sense that I am needed in The Struggle. But that is another letter altogether.

Now as I sit here on another Tuesday, salty-eyed with perspective, I have a few things I'd like to say to you and one thing I'd like to ask. First, I owe you another apology. I am complicit in this shameful state of public affairs where we have all arrived. You faced criticisms for your wrongs from all sides. Nobody is perfect, but you were never the "lesser of two evils." You have always been great. I didn't protest the disparaging criticisms, the tone of the dialogue, the unreasonable weight they were given, loudly nor often enough. I tried to warn anyone who felt cocksure about your potential win, Don't be so sure! But really what did I personally do to reassure anyone that we need you? I didn't advocate. I didn't find allies and rally together. When a funny man said you were qualified for office in part because of your role as a mother, I protested, She is good enough on her credentials alone! And then like a gaslit survivor, I spent my days building my case in my head only to walk away from conversations or news stories with that same queasy feeling that I had done something wrong. I spoke about my support for you the way I practiced being a woman, by qualifying and excusing, apologizing, and then warning against him, but not speaking up for you. And so shone the light on this blind spot in my feminism. Is it more right to say that you were most qualified because of your resume, or your humanity? You were most qualified because of both. Not in spite of being a woman, but because you are a woman.

Being your electorate should have been one of the best honors of my life, but instead I, like many others, took you for granted and didn't do enough. This will be painful for many of us for a long time. For those it affects the most, those who are accustomed to heartbreak, it has come as no surprise.

I know no other way to respond to these feelings than with Art. My practice is centered on creating new models of radical love. The kind of love that emerges like weeds between the cracks in our infrastructure. The pre-verbal, instinctive love like you have for your parents when you are an infant. Love that cannot abide. Protest is love for our country. Art is love for our human potential. My humanity, and the humanity, existence, and personhood of my beautiful black and brown, LGBTQ, differnently-abled, feminist, non-Christian, kind, and decent loved ones were dismissed by the hateful white supremacist patriarchal capitalist power structure. Those who benefit from these structures seek to erase our personhood. Despite the fact that I will continue to protest, I can accept your request for peace and willingness to continue working within these systems. I admire you for it. But I do not accept this as a transfer of power. The power is exactly where it has always been. And so I lead you to my proposition.

I propose a true transfer of power. As a conceptual artist, I decide what my own reality is. It is how I dream, how I live, how I survive. You won my election, which to me is the only one that counts. I would like to ask, Madam President, if we may begin a direct dialogue, circumventing those people, structures, and monsters who wish to keep us apart, and begin a four year long conceptual presidency in which I am your citizen, your constituency. We can welcome others into our nation, if they wish. The only barriers for entry are rejection of any form of oppression and acceptance of all encompassing love. You like to say that we are stronger together, so here I am. I am with you. If you'll have me.


Erica M. Thomas


real estate as conceptual art

Added on by Erica Thomas.

As both research into my interest in the city as art material and as a potential means to sustain my art practice, I have been studying to obtain a real estate license. I have struggled with what this means for my identity as an artist. Can I still call myself an artist if my income is generated from real estate? (Of course I can, but the voice of self-doubt can be quite loud and difficult to tune out sometimes. I mean, just ask any musician/bartender. Teacher/playwright. Etc.) Ultimately I believe so deeply that I simply AM an artist, that I cannot not be an artist, that I am forging ahead with this pursuit of financial sustainability. And occasionally, mired deep in the thickets of appraisal processes and valuation concepts I find gems like this,

"The principle of change holds that value estimates are valid only as of a specific point in time as neighborhoods and properties tend to go through a four-stage life cycle: 

1. Integration (development or growth)
2. Equilibrium (stability or maturity)
3. Disintegration (deterioration or old age)
4. Revitalization or rehabilitation"

Hard stop. With all of my willpower I finished this section of study first and then spent the rest of the evening thinking about this concept. I understand the utility, for the purpose of state licensing prep, of putting it in succinct, black and white terms like this, but I have so many questions. Is this still true? In Portland? In Pittsburgh? In Detroit? In SanFrancisco? How is it unique in each city? In each neighborhood? What would a step 5 look like? How can this cycle be interrupted? Can art be the interruption?