Cyanosis: “What happens when my skin turns blue?”

Maggie Collins

Editor, Arts and Entertainment 

PC: William Paul Thomas

William Paul Thomas is the artist of the wonderful art exhibit you might have seen as you passed the Gatewood Gallery at UNCG this month. Each wall featured portraits of individuals who while strangers to most, were people with whom Thomas had created a connection. 

As I walked through the exhibit admiring each portrait, it was obvious that I had never seen the people depicted in person. However, their personality seemed to speak through their expressions from the brush strokes on the canvas. From the expressions on each individual’s face, I knew they were not strangers to Thomas. 

Throughout the conversations that he had while photographing, Thomas noticed that everyone reminisced and ruminated on the significant relationships they have with women, girls or children in their life. This sparked a unique naming system for each of the pieces of artwork. Instead of naming the painting after the individual’s first name, he decided to use the names of the female figures that had a significant impact on their lives and how they were related, like a painting called “Linda’s Guy.”

Something that draws your attention is that the faces of the individuals were made to be half blue and half of their original medium to dark complexion. This was a way of pushing against the idea of being racially colorblind, as folks sometimes say they don’t have a racial bone in their body without acknowledging that they might have some unconscious bias or negative feelings about dark skin. Thomas decided to remove the key aspect of identifying race in the paintings by replacing the warm brown skin tones with cool gray tones. Thus eliminating the element to question: How much does complexion have to do with the ability to empathize with others?”

This exhibit was originally called the “Black and Blue Project,” but the name was changed to “Cyanosis,” which is the term for the phenomenon by which skin turns blue from oxygen deprivation. Thomas asks the questions: What happens when my skin turns blue? Am I dying? Or is my breath being restored? Does my skin or my complexion turning to some unnatural color make me a more empathetic character than my skin in its natural state? These are essential questions to ask when considering if you are able to empathize with people who don’t have the same characteristics as you.

These portraits are representative of many aspects, one being the idea that we all want to be seen and we all want to have our humanity recognized by others in some way, shape, or form. Thomas stated in his TEDx Talk that “painting individuals that people coming into a gallery might not have prior knowledge of, is an opportunity for me to stretch my own capacity for empathy.”

 People like Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Lebron James all did great things and should be recognized, but their legacies will organically live on. We all have the opportunity to recognize the spaces that all of us occupy and see our roles as mother, father, brother, son, daughter, cousin or bestie as valuable roles. The portraits of an anonymous admirer, like me, won’t know the true depth of the stories and impressions left on those who know the individuals in the paintings. However, if at least one person can know the immense complexity of them as they gaze into the portrait, they have created a life well lived. 

Two of the paintings in this exhibit feature some of our own Spartans. The painting titled “Courtney’s Love” depicts Phill Loken who is a UNCG alum, and the painting called “Cheri’s Son” is of Jevon Blanchard who is currently an animation major in the art department. 

Unfortunately, the last day of the exhibit was Sunday, Feb. 26, so it is no longer available to be seen in person at the Gatewood Gallery here at UNCG. However, Thomas does have a website where you can see all the artwork from this exhibit and admire the beauty and veracity that it displays. The work featured in the show does not have a next confirmed destination, but there has been conversation around a possible display at UNC Asheville in June. I encourage everyone to take a look at the website to partake in all this yourself and keep an eye out for the next destination of this exhibit to see it in person.

William Paul Thomas’s Exhibit website: Both Things Are True — William Paul Thomas

TEDxDuke Talk: The Invisible Notoriety of Strangers | William Paul Thomas | TEDxDuke – YouTube

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, featured

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