Kamar Thomas is a needle in a haystack—you’d be hard-pressed to find people with as surprising (or encouraging) outlooks and approaches to life. Born in Jamaica and originally keen on medicine and theoretical physics, he is naturally attuned to generating new expressions for old ideas. Kamar’s paintings buzz with energy and colour; they reflect his determination and creative force. No money? Find a way. No tools? Find a way. Fake it till you make it. There are no excuses – even if you’re broke. Through Kamar, we’re learning that nothing is impossible, selfies are okay, uncertainty is exciting, and everyone wears a mask (in one way or another). Join us with Kamar and redefine home, redefine your future, and redefine what’s possible.
LAB: You were born in Jamaica, correct? Where is home for you – do you feel at home where you are? What is one way travelling has impacted your work?
KT: I was born in Jamaica and it is where I most identify with. The idea of home is hard for me. If you define home by where I feel most at ease, where my identity is like those around me, then home is Port Antonio, Jamaica. But I have a partner, and wherever she is, that’s also home. Also, wherever I can make my work, that’s also home. To complicate matters, unless I am asked, I very rarely think about feeling at home – in the last few years, I’ve found myself in places so geographically unlike my homeland that I’ve adopted the curious detachment of an unqualified, intuitive, and amateur cultural anthropologist. That is the result of travelling – curiosity and a detached perspective. Travel immerses you in a new culture. I look at individuals’ behaviour on cultural and social levels and look for thought patterns. I make work about those patterns. Travelling is the genesis of my work – or, more accurately, watching cultures change is the origin of my work. Feeling at home is not something I give much thought to.
LAB: Did you always want to be a painter – why or why not? When did art become the more obvious path for your life?
KT: I certainly did not always want to be a painter. In high school I did mostly sciences and thought about becoming a doctor in Jamaica. Just before college I wanted to be a theoretical physicist/science populariser and make heroic TV appearances to dispel ignorance before returning to the lab to work on my Grand Unification Theory (on a whiteboard, of course). I never considered art a possible profession even though my best friend’s father, Michael Layne, is an artist. Art as a path in life came slowly in college when I decided to drop my physics major. Almost arbitrarily, I picked art history and then backed my way into studio art while taking the art history requirements. By the time I declared an art major, I abandoned all else. I didn’t make the professional connection right up until the moment I sold a piece during my undergraduate studies and I have never looked back.
LAB: Name three things you love most about your craft:
KT: I love inventing new ideas for drawings or paintings or ways to explain old ideas. I love finishing a painting and adding details. And I love mixing paint colours.
LAB: Your paintings are electric – could you say more about your process? Have you always used such bright colours? (If yes, why? If not, what changed?)
KT: I have not always used bright colours and I sometimes work exclusively in black and white if the subject calls for it. I’m making charcoal drawings right now that are quite dark. However, I was always drawn to bright colours and use them because I want to make work that is optimistic, positive, and inspiring, like my island upbringing. I initially made paintings by physically applying makeup, jewellery, face paint, glitter and whatever else could stick to my face. I made an abstract painting onto my face and covered my identity with a bright mask that removed stereotypical associations and allowed an intimate encounter and encouraged a more psychological, rather than physical, thinking. The bright colours and large size were a way of arresting attention and allowing the viewer to think, step back, become intimate, make meaning, or simply feel. Bright colours do that for me.
LAB: What has been your greatest technical struggle as an artist? How would you advise younger artists who are facing the same struggle?
KT: Practically, my greatest technical struggle was not only that I needed funding, but that I couldn’t legally work for it (immigrant student status prohibits work off-campus); but that circumstance also happened to be my best opportunity. It forced creative thinking. I had to use what was at hand. I couldn’t afford pre-made canvases, so I learned to make them (albeit badly). No money for paint? Draw. No space to draw? Take reference photos. Broken camera? Practice editing what you already have and make something new. Most importantly I came out of a self-constructed, entitled shell and simply asked for help when things got to that point. My advice is two-part: use what you have and ask for help (after you’ve used what you had, of course).
LAB: How has creativity (take that as broadly as you’d like) impacted your life? Can you think of an experience in which you had to use creativity to problem-solve?
KT: Creativity has changed my life entirely from a pre-determined path to a less certain and more exciting one (for me). One problem it solved was the one I mentioned before, where I could not legally work off my college campus to raise money. I managed to get money for various situations by way of photography, logo designs, set decoration, and T-shirts. After I graduated I couldn’t find a job, so naturally, I applied for jobs that I was utterly unqualified for at foundations and businesses I wanted to work with or have sell my art. I always included a few images of me and my work together in my attempt of a cover letter. I got interviews and made many friends and a few patrons that way and, in one case, Artists for World Peace gave me a grant. We collaborated on an art show; I continue to support them to this day.
LAB: Why do you think selfies get a bad rap these days? What, in your estimation, is the purpose / value of selfies? (We love yours, by the way!)
KT: Thank you for the kind words. I think selfies get a bad rap for a few reasons. One, they are everywhere, in every conceivable situation, from surgery to sex, which to some confirms that nothing is sacred. Two, there is a suspicion about my generation, as loosely defined as that is, that we are narcissists that believe the world revolves around us and our happiness, which taking pictures of ourselves constantly confirms. Three, taking a selfie removes you from the experience of living your life and demands you put on a face (usually happy) to present to the public. Selfies contribute to a narrative about your life that people suspect is false. One thinks “I know you in real life and you are not that happy/well-travelled/happy in your relationship,” etc. For the first two points I only have anecdotal proof, but I find value in the third: people represent themselves. Sure, a selfie does not accurately represent one’s life, but it represents how you want your life to be seen. This tells me your value system, your culture, and a little about how those two interact and where they contradict. The value of selfies are in what they try to represent.
LAB: You’ve written before that you’re interested in the ways people present themselves, the masks they wear, etc. What is your “mask?”
KT: I don’t have one that I can name specifically, but I represent myself as I aspire to be, and in so doing, fulfil some of that aspiration. The face fits the mask, so to speak. For example, I represented myself as a productive artist and wear that mask. I tell people I make art, I show myself making art and I talk about making art. The best way to present that mask is to actually make work and become productive, which leaves less time to think about the mask of production. I have become the mask I wear.