By Len Lear
When people think of the most common medium for great painting, they probably think of watercolors and oils, and when people think of the most common medium for sculpture, they probably think of marble and bronze, maybe even clay. What they almost certainly would not think of is screen mesh wire, but if they saw the works of Germantown sculptor Anyta Thomas, they would realize it is great art indeed that would look right at home in the nation’s finest galleries.
Thomas, 38, who has been living in Germantown for 11 years, had a life-changing experience while attending the University of Delaware, where she graduated in 1998 with a major in visual communication and a minor in art. The elective that influenced her most was sculpture, which introduced her to working with sheet metal, glass and wood.
Students were assigned to incorporate the skills they acquired into a final project, which was a sculpture that stood or hung between three and five feet width and length minimum. The restriction was that students were allowed to spend only $10 on material, but an option was to rummage through a sculpture junkyard for material.
The goal was to encourage students to create something completely original and to provide a level playing field among students of different economic backgrounds. “I chose to save my money,” said Anyta, “being a college student, and rummage through the junk materials, where I found chicken wire. Learning in my clay works class that mesh was used as foundation, I wondered what it would be like to use it by itself as art.”
Thomas’ first creation was called “Comic Relief.” It was two teen heads made of chicken wire, one of a little girl with ponytails blowing a gum bubble of mesh. The other was her brother with hat twisted backwards being mischievous. He also had shoulders and one arm. That arm extended to the bubble in anticipation of popping the bubble with an old nail in hand.
“My story behind this theme,” explained Thomas, “was to create humor through a material that is usually seen as serious and industrial. I also wanted my audience to understand by taking a material from its original environment (construction) and using it in a fleshy and airy way, you perceive it to be other than what it is. THAT is what started the journey for me.”
Anyta entered that final project in a senior art exhibit and won a True Value Hardware Award for being clever and innovative. In 2005 she was honored with a grant from the Leeway Foundation, which distributes grants yearly to women and transgender artists “who use a multiplicity of forms of creative expression to effect social change … and to bring awareness about unpopular issues … ” As a result of the grant, she was able to mount a solo exhibition that was attended by 200 guests. She also won an award in a Manhattan Arts International juried competition in 2008 and at a juried competition in a Black History group exhibit in Stamford, CT, in 2011.
Despite her awards, Anyta will never forget that in her final class review at the University of Delaware, many classmates laughed at her. “When the professor asked why they were laughing,” she recalled, “most said you could not use mesh wire raw as art. It was intended to be used only as a foundation for clay or plaster. But this was an insult that turned into inspiration for me.
“I thought to myself, if it was funny it must be unheard of, and therefore, it was meant for me to do. I like challenges. I like being told it can’t be done. Of course my work was rough and unpolished then, but look at it now.”
Thomas’ work has appeared in dozens of solo exhibitions, group exhibitions and workshops all over the country in recent years. The prices of her pieces range from $200 to $5,000. Is it difficult for Anyta to part with her works? “No. I actually enjoy parting with works that go to people who really appreciate art and the effort it takes to create it.”
Has it gotten harder to sell these works of art since the economy went south in 2008? “It had gotten harder to sell work, but … in these times, you have many media platforms via the internet to expose your work. The galleries don’t do traveling shows as much, and many smaller galleries have closed.
“Many artists have started artist collaborative groups with lofts and studios to expose their work, which in turn gives galleries competition in a way. With the ease of being on an artist-based website or creating your own website, infused with social media like Facebook, it is much easier for potential clients to connect directly with an artist.”
Thomas was born and raised in Camden, NJ, and she began drawing figures at the age of 3 and entering art competitions in junior high school. She also dabbled in singing and danced for 10 years at the Sydney School of Dance. She also played the trumpet, even playing with her high school ensemble in London. And she has a journal of poems that she wrote from age 10 to age 30.
Thomas has been married “to my wonderful husband, Stanley F. Burwell,” for four years as of last Friday, Aug. 17. They have no children. “My vision,” she explained, “is to touch the lives of those who find it hard to express themselves. I want my art to be that vessel which others use to connect with their soul, inner spirit and/or memories. I want my art to serve as a way to seek inner peace with stress, hardship and life’s uncertainties while reflecting on life’s treasures.”
For more information, visit www.anytathomas.com.