I first saw Ashley Thomas’s work five years ago. At the time, Image File Press was inviting artists to share their work online, in PDFs that combined texts and images about their art. I came upon Thomas’s file and opened the link, stopping at a set of vintage postcards. The first showed a field of bluebonnets with the iconic ‘Selena’ signature stamped over the flowers like a cattle brand. In the next postcard, Selena’s name hangs over a Gulf Coast petrochemical plant, then over two cowboys on horseback, and finally over an aerial shot of the city of Corpus Christi. It immediately made sense to me that Thomas would emblazon Selena’s name across the Texas landscape. After all, Selena is Texas to many of us — she represents so much about where we come from and who we are. I can’t count the number of times I’ve blasted Selena’s music while dancing in my room, singing karaoke, or driving across the state. And that’s how Thomas’s art works — she shows you something that, if it touches your own experience, grabs you so tightly that your memories come tumbling out.
Looking back, it’s odd that I first encountered Thomas’s work on the web. Postcards and zines are part of her practice, but her main body of work is made up of large, labor-intensive graphite drawings that depict household and handheld items with impressive realism. Her drawings require an enormous amount of skill and time. In fact, the two most common questions that viewers ask her are “Did you draw that?” and “How long did it take?” Genuine awe is a rare feeling, but Thomas delivers it using simple materials: paper, pencils, charcoal, and erasers. Her drawings defy the scrollable, shareable, downloadable immediacy of today’s internet-infused visual culture. The slow hours behind each piece slow the viewer down, too.
Thomas prefers drawing over painting or other modes because, as she says, you can see the hand more. It’s true that you can observe the artist’s hand in her technical skill and meticulous mark making, but it’s also present in her carefully selected subjects. Thomas draws things that she has collected and kept close to her over time — pieces of jewelry, candles, flowers, curtains, shells, a molcajete, a telephone, a sand dollar, a pencil, and pottery. The artist’s soft but precise portraits of these things form an autobiographical archive of her life and experiences. Curiously, it is Thomas’s visual specificity and rigorous detail that trigger visceral and personal reactions in her viewers. We see Thomas’s drawings and feel certain that we had that paint set, we picked up that shell, we grew up seeing that butterfly in our backyard. In Thomas’s drawings, there’s no need to guess at what’s being shown. The subject is drawn clearly and resolutely, allowing viewers to really look at the object and consider their relationship to it, or to form a new one.
Thomas’s studio is a peaceful place. Drawing materials are stored neatly in boxes and drawers at her wide oak desk. Dappled light filters in from swaying mesquite trees in the yard. Two holy cards sit inside a bone white shell. This is the first time that I’ve seen her workspace since she moved to Corpus Christi in 2015, but I suspect that it will look different the next time I visit. Thomas keeps her house in constant, quiet shift. She is a curator of objects in space, arranging furniture, plants, and things into different configurations until they finally find a place in her work. The artist’s ongoing experimentation with her space and the objects within it form a relationship between the home and the studio, between memories and the present mind. In the domestic sphere and in her drawings, composition is key. The right arrangement is what ‘creates a world on a page,’ as she calls it.
There’s a phrase that inevitably comes to mind when I’m looking at Thomas’s work or inhabiting her studio or home spaces: to draw attention to. To draw attention to something means to make someone notice it. I think of this phrase not just because of her exquisitely beautiful drawings, but because of the intensity and sincerity of attention that she pays to the things around her. The holy water she draws from will evaporate, the perfume bottle’s scent will dissipate. But Thomas records and keeps them in her drawings.