Art AND: Carlyn Thomas

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Film Flaneur: DIS | A Good Crisis, Jaws, and Big [...]

Carlyn Thomas has 200 songs in the notes app on her phone, should she find herself under the aging disco balls of Baltimore’s beloved dives on a random Tuesday or Thursday evening. She always likes to be prepared with her preferred selection of ‘80s power ballads.

A proud graduate of UMBC, Thomas actually started her undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she was a Studio Art and Physics double major with designs on being some sort of kinetic sculptor. She transferred to UMBC and ended up dropping Studio Art to major in Art History and Museum Studies when she realized that her greater talent lies in doing all the “woman behind the curtain” legwork that goes into exhibiting art. Thomas completed a number of internships in undergrad, most importantly at Maryland Art Place, where she is still on their Program Advisory Committee. Three floors above MAP, she runs Terrault Contemporary—a gallery which has been around almost five years—mounting six shows a year “to keep the art ecosystem in Baltimore alive and keep giving artists a place to show and have conversations about their work,” she says. Little-known fact: Thomas doesn’t take any salary from her work at Terrault; it’s all volunteer.

Thomas has supported herself with restaurant work since she was 16; currently she’s serving at La Cuchara in Woodberry and she recently completed her first official level of sommelier training. Thomas explains that wine “is an art, it is science, it’s geology, it’s geography, it’s historical research—all these different things make different wines what they are, it’s fascinating!” Wine is not a lark for Thomas, she strongly considered taking a break from arts admin to become a wine rep until she was offered her most recent position at the Baltimore Museum of Art as a curatorial assistant in the Contemporary Art department, helping put together the museum’s 2020 Joan Mitchell retrospective. The position of arts facilitator and curator suits Thomas in her mission of “building up artists and art and making it more accessible to different audiences.” A person of vast interests and talents, Thomas will clearly do whatever she does next with total commitment.

SUBJECT: Carlyn Thomas, 27
WEARING: Navy jumpsuit from “some random cheap website that was advertised to me on Instagram called Alyoa,” red microsuede chunky heels by Madden Girl, Skagen blue watch, ceramic/paracord necklace made by Meredith Moore and purchased from Bottle of Bread (@bottleofbread)
PLACE: Hampden, Baltimore

Carlyn Thomas amid works in the show Become Again, curated by Jared Christensen,
at Terrault February–March 2019

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read?

Carlyn Thomas: I want people to know that one does not have read a ton of books to be smart, relevant, knowledgeable about art or to do meaningful work. Today I find myself reading articles and essays more than entire books anyway. However, I will say something I am reading right now that I am enjoying is Gumbo Yaya: Anthology of Contemporary African-American Women Artists (1995), filled with essays by amazing writers such as Baltimore’s own Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, I recommend anyone to check out this book and learn about how these artists have been killing it for decades! As for fiction I am currently reading Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg, a queer/gender-fluid story of romance, resistance, prison break, and cunnilingus set in 18th-century London. 

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best?

I’m not sure specifically but probably something along the lines of “Don’t major/pursue degrees in art or art history unless you want to be marvelously unemployed.” I knew that I would find a place with an art history degree, I knew I wanted to work in a gallery or a museum, and now I work at both! Fuck you, old white man Renaissance history professor. 

I hate the stigma that so many artists assume that all curators are just failed artists. That is not the case. The art world needs people who can manage and facilitate arts spaces, programming, help with writing, grants, contracts, professional development, etc. And without us, the arts “ecosystem” would not be complete. We all rely on each other. I am happy with where I am and I feel great reward in the work that I do.

I’d say some of the best advice that I have heard a few times from different people is to make yourself indispensable and do as much as you can to make others’ work easier. Going the extra mile to do as much work as you can to lighten the load for a boss or coworker really pays off and shows them how amazing you are at your job. I believe that this has been a huge factor in how I have got as far as I have. More opportunities will come your way and you will achieve your goals faster if you make the people who oversee you happy. 

Did you have a favorite toy as a child? Do you remember what happened to it?

I played with these action figures of all the characters from the animated Anastasia movie and I was obsessed with Anya (her character/name before she realized she was the princess Anastasia) and her dog Pooka. Me and my friend at the time would always fight over who would be Anya vs. Anastasia. I liked Anya’s character because she was unapologetic, crass, curious, and daring. I loved the whole story so much and got everything I could Anastasia-related. I had Anastasia’s diary from that diary book series that was out when we were kids, and I even wrote my own Anastasia fan fiction. My mom recently started going through a lot of my old toys/things from my childhood and showed me that she still had them. I told her back a year ago that it was okay to get rid of them. I am a nostalgic pack rat, and trying to let go of that habit. 

Mandy Chesney’s installation in Become Again at Terrault

Installation by Elliot Doughtie, illustration by Jasjyot Singh Hans in Become Again at Terrault

What is the art supply/business-related material you should buy stock in, you use it so much?

A laser level is one of the best things that has happened to installers doing a precision-grid hang. It has saved hours of my life and I would totally buy stock in it.

Who do you admire? Why?

Locally, Amy Raehse, the Executive Director and Curator for (in my opinion) the most established gallery in Baltimore, Goya Contemporary, is someone I really admire. She is a powerhouse who has transformed a local print atelier into an internationally respected commercial gallery in just over a decade. She is so kind and approachable and willing to offer information and help in any way possible, but also gets shit done in an unapologetic manner with panache. She has taught me a lot and she leads the way for Baltimore art as an advocate.

In your roles at Maryland Art Place, Terrault and the BMA, you look at a lot of art. Do you have any advice for artists when approaching curators or submitting applications? What makes someone’s work memorable to you in a good way?

I review and am exposed to lots of art! Some great, some awful, some awfully great. In my opinion, the best way to approach a curator about wanting them to show your work is to send a formal proposal via email. Nothing gives me more anxiety than someone approaching me and saying, “Hey I’m an artist, can I have a solo show in August?” No, it does not work like that! I need a lot more information to make any sort of informed decision about your work. Approaching someone in person with ideas and starting a conversation about wanting to review work is totally okay, but don’t put anyone on the spot. Instead, make a PDF with a well-thought-out artist statement, bio, and any other information you would like the curator/gallery to know about you or your process. I’d say include anywhere between 5-15 images of your work in the PDF. Having all the information in one place makes it easy for whomever is reviewing your work. 

As long as artist has a compelling argument as to why two very different bodies of work should be shown together, then it can work. Strong writing is a plus, but not required. The curator should be able to help edit any writing, but the artist should be able to defend their work and talk about it confidently that isn’t just artsy-nonsense.

Some things that make work memorable to me is first if the proposal is organized, neat and clean, and then if the work either addresses relevant socio-political issues, uses new techniques or uses new technical approaches to old materials or vice versa, things that have an interactive or more conceptual component, or any combination of these things. 

Installation by Elliot Doughtie, illustration by Jasjyot Singh Hans in Become Again at Terrault

What’s the best local snack food?

Mozzarella sticks from CVP with a side of ranch. I am a mozzarella stick connoisseur and CVP has the best in the city, hands down. If anyone has other opinions I am happy to hear them because I want to eat all the good mozz stix.  

Pen or pencil?

Pen. Pilot Precise V5 pen, extra fine, to be particular. I’m a blue ink kind of person.

Complete this sentence: My parents _______

My parents are so supportive. My mom is definitely my biggest fan and has always encouraged me to follow whatever path I wanted. Never once discouraged me from going into art, and she and my step-dad come to pretty much every single Terrault opening and get involved in and attend many things I am involved in.

My mom bought a membership to the BMA right after I got hired, it’s so cute. I did not come from a family that cared about art, so I taught myself everything about art on my own through schooling, but my mom is always willing to learn, listen, and ask questions, and push her comfort zone with art, politics, and culture, and I think that is very admirable. My mom is not shy to ask any questions or talk to anyone, and I have definitely picked up those traits. My step-dad went to MICA in the ‘70s and I think I keep him on his toes in terms of contemporary art.

Drawing by Jasjyot Singh Hans

Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What is it? How did you get into that?

I would say being a karaoke enthusiast is one of my hidden talents. I have a whole note in my phone of songs I have done or would like to do or think about, so that when I’m at karaoke I don’t have to look through the whole book, I can just look at my phone to choose a song. I love doing ‘80s power ballads. Most likely to be found singing Heart, Blondie, Britney Spears, or Melissa Ethridge. I’m not even a great singer, I think I’m just really enthusiastic. I’ll lay on the floor and roll around and be very dramatic, I’d like to think I’m a good performer. I’ve always wanted to be an entertainer of sorts. While I love music, making it isn’t for me, so karaoke is like the best substitute. The first time I did karaoke was at a summer camp when I was 12 and I sang “Waiting for Tonight” by J Lo.

Whose work would you want in your home? Specific piece?

Wangechi Mutu’s “Water Woman.” I am fortunate to be able to see this work anytime I want at the BMA, but I would love to one day live in a house where I can have room for sculpture and not just mostly 2D art, and this piece in particular. I have always loved Wangechi Mutu, when Terrault was invited by the Contemporary to select one person we could bring to Baltimore for an artist talk, she was first on my list. Obviously we were unable to secure her, but goodness would I love to meet her. 

Do you have a typical day or not right now? Do you wish you had a routine if you don’t, or do you thrive on change?

Kind of yes to both. I am a planner. My life runs on Google Calendar and when I hang out with friends I jokingly call them “friend appointments” because everything goes down in my calendar and I often am making plans over a week in advance. However, I love when something spontaneous is able to happen. Now that I am back in the 9–5 style of work life, I have more of a routine. Make breakfast and pack lunch for myself everyday before walking to work. After the BMA, my nights either consist of working on Terrault events, working at La Cuchara, trying to catch up with friends and my partner, or nesting in my house. I’m newly trying to become the kind of person who can keep plants alive and has a cute Pinterest-y house that is bright, clean, organized and full of art and plants. Getting there slowly but surely, I’ve got all the art, but working on the rest.

Does your astrological sign match your personality? 

Yes, I care about astrology way too much, definitely an armchair astrologist. I’m a Virgo through and through, with a Cancer rising and Pisces moon, Leo Mercury and Venus. The Cancer and Pisces help round me out and give me the little bit of “chill” that I have. Otherwise I’m your typical, terrifying, overanalyzing Virgo.

What was the most memorable assignment you were given in school? What did you make?

In an intro to video class or something like that at UMBC, I remember learning about the Fluxus art movement and we were supposed to make a video/performance inspired by Fluxus. I gathered a bunch of friends and we headed to Patterson Park and Fells Point and made a video I called “Cleaning Up Baltimore” in which we all walked around and began cleaning random objects (pay phones, monuments, sculptures, trashcans, benches) with unconventional cleaning supplies for the particular object being “cleaned,” like shampoo, toothbrush, air freshener, Swiffer duster. We also did this in the presence of strangers who were sitting on said bench, or walking around just watching us, trying to make it an awkward experience for them.

Become Again install view featuring work by Mandy Chesney, Nick Simko, Jasjyot Singh Hans

Magna Naturalis by Pete Cullen is up at Terrault through July 18 (closing reception 7–9 p.m.). Terrault’s fourth juried exhibition, For the Love of Material, is on view Aug. 3–Sept. 19, with an opening reception on Aug. 3 from 7–10 p.m.

Photos by Justin Tsucalas.

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