Interviewed & Photographed by Alex Free
Lea Thomas is a multidisciplinary artist and musician living in Brooklyn, NY. Originally from the island of Maui, Hawaii, Lea moved to New York at 17 to further her study of audio engineering. Over the years she has incorporated the practices of traditional Western herbalism and weaving to build a healthy, rounded, and beautiful life. ‘Currents’ a solo exhibition of her fiber art, was on view at Trestle Gallery in Brooklyn in late spring. Her woven work, varied and responsive in its different iterations, is characterized by tonal harmony and connectivity of textures, and an abiding appreciation for the natural world: its beauties, its trials, its complexities, its resources. Her next album, a collaborative release with musician John Thayer, is entitled Blue of Distance and is due out October 4 via Spirit House Records.
Alex Free: So I’d like to talk about your background as a weaver, and how that got started.
Lea Thomas: I was first inspired by a women’s gathering that I went to in Joshua Tree, where I was teaching herbalism, and it was the first time I had encountered the practice as an art form of its own as opposed to a process used to create a practical object like clothing or home textiles. I came home and I just started watching a bunch of YouTube videos. It’s an incredible tool that is available to us now. I learned most of the basics that way, using a picture frame as my loom. I purchased a rigid heddle loom and then, a few months later, found a floor loom on Craigslist. That floor loom continues to be my main tool. I took a class and learned how to set up a floor loom but other than that I’m mostly self-taught.
If you want to go way back, my earliest artistic exposure was from my dad. My dad was a painter, he’s kind of a jack of all trades—he’s done woodworking, and textile design, and incredible surrealistic paintings. He even had his own clothing and accessories line, working with incredible ikat and batik textile artists when we lived in Bali, Indonesia. I still have a lot of those old samples and yardage to study.
I’ve always dabbled in visual media, but I’ve never felt a thing that locked in with what I wanted to express. And as soon as I started weaving I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is my thing.’ It was exciting because I’ve been studying herbalism for a few years at that point, and working with textiles and yarns gave me another way to learn from and interact with plants on another level.
AF: You’ve been drawn to the color indigo, you were telling me. And to me that creates these cloud-scapes, or sea-scapes. I was wondering what the draw to that particular type of blue is, and what it creates for you, tonally.
LT: I’ve always been kind of afraid of color. Something about having so many options is a little overwhelming to me. Working with only natural dyes is not just an ecological choice, it is also a way for me to narrow down my color palette which, in turn, forces me to lean more towards using the textures, depth of color or woven structures to tell a story. It’s true that the color blue is so naturally imbued with the feeling of expansiveness, because of those references that you mentioned. It immediately makes people think of the sky, or the ocean, or moving waterways.
Indigo is also an ancestral color for me, being half-Japanese. It had such historical importance within my ancestral, my family lineage—my maternal ancestors lived and worked as kimono makers in a part of Tokyo where the historical nickname roughly translated to ‘where the indigo dye is made.’ There were a lot of indigo dyers in that neighborhood at one point in time. I find ancestry fascinating and resonate with the aesthetics of Japanese traditional culture quite deeply.
AF: That’s incredibly beautiful.
LT: I find comfort in following signs, to a certain degree. I like to feel that what I am doing or creating is rooted in something that is beyond me, and honors something that is greater than me. Like family lineage, honoring the people that came before me and gave me space to exist in the world. But also the obvious things of: I grew up on an island surrounded by an ocean. Blue is pretty. It is my natural state, you know. There’s nothing that makes me feel more at peace and more at home than the way the ocean meets the sky. It’s the greatest sense of freedom that I can feel visually and I think that’s a large part of why I’m drawn to it.
And I do love that it was such a working class color- indigo was the plant that many Japanese people would use to dye all of what was essentially their work wear. Because it’s a pigment and not technically a dye, it overlays on top of the fiber, layer after layer after layer. The layers of pigment strengthen the fiber and are said to provide certain health benefits for the person wearing them as well. I love that so much. I love that there’s an intrinsic usefulness to the color- even though the art that I make is predominantly not really practically useful. It’s visually useful.
AF: What do you hope to communicate artistically with your weavings?
LT: It’s different for every work. I don’t know if there’s one overarching theme to things, other than connectivity to your environment. I really love visual harmony right now, as a general theme. I want to create work that gives people a place to rest their eyes, you know? A little respite from a very busy world.
AF: Also, you were telling me that you started out weaving with a lot of wool?
LT: Sure, most people start weaving with wool. It’s a common material, for sure, and very traditional in the European lineage of textile art. Wool also takes on dye quite well and I still use it when I feel called- always sourcing from small farms that really care for their animals.
More recently, as I’ve continued to explore aesthetic traditions of Japan, I have been drawn to working with hemp. Hemp is one of the ancient materials of Japan, used for everything from cloth-making to spiritual practices. Unfortunately, it has become severely vilified in the country over the years, largely due to pressure from post-WWII United State. These days, you can be imprisoned for possession or for growing it without a license, and the licenses themselves are very strictly enforced. There is a movement growing out there to pressure the government to reverse these laws now and allow people to reconnect with this ancestral material...
The installation that I did in my recent show (‘Currents’ at Trestle Gallery) was the first time I dove deep with hemp. I wove ten-foot long sheer panels in varying shades of indigo to create an immersive, oceanic scene. The way they were staggered throughout the room allowed the pieces to layer over each other, depending on the viewpoint.
So these are all hemp, and I just love the translucency of it. Playing with light, and playing with layers of blue, not just on the piece itself, but overlapping, and the visual sense of depth you get with that are really stunning to me right now.
AF: So hemp as an agricultural material and resource...
LT: It just seems like the sustainable material for now, requiring much less water, pesticides and time to grow than cotton. But I also have tons of other materials that I’ve collected and worked with over the years. I’m still working through things. My current works won’t be purely hemp, but hemp is really interesting. I love the inherent structural element to it. It’s very stiff, you know, and has shape to it. I love mixing metals and hemp and paper and raffia. I’m way more interested in sculptural things, right now. There is just so much to explore.