Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Artist Terri Thomas makes her hometown Detroit debut



Originally from Detroit's suburbs, Terri Thomas is now a fine artist in Austin, Texas. When she was invitated to participate in this year's Dirty Show, she couldn't refuse (she has an affection for John Waters). We spoke with Thomas by phone to learn more about her paintings before she headed back home.

Metro Times: How'd you get started in art?

Terri Thomas: I worked for Gerald's Hair Salon in Franklin. Because I was in the hair industry, I had an opportunity to move and work at Toni & Guy, which is an international hair care company. I was in Dallas working as one of their educators for about 10 years, doing shows and seminars and that sort of thing.

I was a hobbyist painter, and my love for painting began to outweigh the politics of the company I was working for. I moved from Dallas to the East Coast for my husband's work, so I had to reinvent myself. It had always been my dream to go to art school. I went to the Corcoran College of Art and Design (in Washington D.C.) — I felt like the oldest lady there.

MT: There's this cliché in the fine arts that you have to start when you're young and be this child genius to be successful.

Thomas: My grandfather was an oil painter. I think I knew at an early age that I wanted to do that, when I'd peek into his art studio.The first drawing that ever was exhibited was an ink drawing on Bristol board of this big-breasted nurse carrying a tray of belly-button lint from Mad magazine. They put it in the showcase in sixth grade. That was probably the beginning of my perversity.

MT: Did you start exhibiting right out of art school?

Thomas: When I graduated we moved back to Texas, and I had an opportunity to do my first exhibit in this 5,000 square feet space in Austin. People were joking about it being some retrospective because I filled this space up with work. I didn't feel like I had properly paid my dues. It created a lot of opportunities for me to show in other cities. There's a lot of experimental spaces that give artists a great opportunity to do ambitious, cool stuff that aren't necessarily commercial.

MT: You'll love Detroit's art scene, then. What's your piece in the Dirty Show?

Thomas: It's titled "Happy Spanker." It's sort of this idea of the roles that we play and examining the relationships we have within the roles. It has this perversity because I'm a twin. I have an identical twin sister, and I'm playing with these positions that we're put in as kids.

MT: Do you paint from models?

Thomas: I try to use myself mostly. It's this whole idea of not wanting to exploit or objectify another, but also I appreciate work that is risk-taking and not from the safety of the periphery. The only person I really try to work with, my sister, seems to enjoy it and support what I'm doing. She tends to be one of my muses in my work. We'll pose and I'll set the camera up on a tripod. I have a remote control, and I'll take the picture and edit it in Photoshop, and that will be the reference material for my painting.

MT: I'm a twin too, but we're fraternal.

Thomas: It's sort of the same thing, just being weird, being so close with another, right? There's expectations of acting and looking alike. Have you heard the term "twinsploitation"? I read that somewhere. My work is a lot about that, about the media taking twins and negating their personal identities, and over-sexualizing them for the sake of selling product.

MT: Is your twin also an artist?

Thomas: I think Tammy had a style of her own and maybe she could have been the better artist if she stuck to it. Now, we joke about her being the doctor of the family with a masters degree in exercise physiology, biochemistry, and she's also a registered dietician.

MT: How did you get involved with the Dirty Show?

Thomas: (Jerry Vile) contacted me out of the blue. I told Jerry that I'd sworn that I would never come back to Detroit during the middle of the winter. It was enticing enough that I would break my promise to myself.

Check out Thomas' art at Dirty Show (see our interview with Vile on page 40 for more information), or view more artwork at

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