Home and Wholeness, Quills and Fur
Growing up between Fort Yukon and Fairbanks, visual artist Colleen Firmin Thomas became accustomed to living simultaneously in worlds that contradict. Her mother is Gwich’yaa Gwich’in and pursued a career teaching at Fort Yukon School. Her father, who is white, grew up in Anchorage, traveled to Fort Yukon as a teenager to trap, and stayed. Thomas’ life and art are deeply informed by the intersections of cultures, landscapes and worldviews that shape her family.
Thomas has always had her family’s support for her creative work. She started drawing as a child, and her parents told her, “Colleen, you’re an artist!” She credits — or blames — this encouragement for the fact that it is now her career. As the oldest child in her family, she taught younger siblings and neighbors art lessons in her backyard, instructing them in gluing found objects to split logs. “My dad thought it was genius. He put my log on the porch, and my sister went out there and tore everything off the log,” she laughs. In the village, supplies were limited, and she developed a creative style that thrived on that restriction. Her aesthetic is at once whimsical and pragmatic, combining available materials in often unexpected ways.
Alongside her memories of early artistic support and collaboration, Thomas also carries the weight of family and community experiences of alcohol and drug abuse impacts and the generational traumas of colonization. Yet she is wary of drawing hard lines around blame or victimization. “I can appreciate what both sides of my family went through, what was lost and what was gained,” she says. The shared history of arrival, displacement and abuse of power is as integral to Alaska identities as the natural landscapes we inhabit. It’s something Thomas will always consider. “I think about the ways people have been broken, and how it trickles down to my kids’ generation too. I never thought the abuses I saw as a kid would continue. I thought it would end with our generation. It’s heartbreaking. I think about how we can take all these broken things and make something whole.”
Thomas doesn’t address this directly in her art, but questions of fear, healing and belonging permeate her creative thinking. In the Fairbanks Arts Association Spring 2019 Juried Exhibition, she showed a piece with shapes and textures that were compelling —and uncomfortable. The combination of moose fur and porcupine quills against a dress pattern spread across the canvas suggested both stitched-up wounds and glacial river channels, something at once raw and meditative, directive and anarchic. Instructive words, measurements and outlined human forms peeked through paint and fur. It was hard to look away.
Thomas is aware of this tension. Her experiences and proximity to cultural and individual trauma has informed how she presents those layers of meaning and has offered a way to process and heal. “I don’t like to give people too many answers about something,” she says. “I still want these to be pieces people might hang on their wall, so that’s all underneath.” At their heart, whatever else they may contain, Thomas sees her paintings as landscapes, and she allows each viewer to form their own relationship to the rivers, hills and shadowed forests.
As she noted in her statement for a solo show of 17 paintings at Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer, she chooses “materials that bring feelings of comfort, home, care, and belonging.” Still, she acknowledges that those materials and feelings might carry additional weight. Her frequent use of porcupine quills, for example, embodies these layered meanings. “People want to touch them,” she says. “I want to touch them. But they will hurt you.” Growing up with a trapper father meant that killing and using every part of an animal has always been familiar to her, but with that familiarity comes elements of repulsion too.
“There are still parts that freak me out a little. There are things I like and things that scare me. There are things that can trap (a person). What are our snares? I know some of mine.” She finds herself snared on fears of failure or success, and of confrontation, even at her own expense. Becoming a parent has pushed her to create healthier boundaries, and to intentionally make space for herself.
Her son, Rowan, is in school, and her daughter, Meadow, still spends days at home. Both like to paint when their mom paints, but Meadow is more patient. “Rowan will look at a piece and tell me when it’s done. He’d rather be outside,” Thomas laughs. Several works in progress hang on the walls of her home studio alongside finished pieces, beads, fur, quills, fabric, sewing patterns, books and Meadow’s toys. She anticipates this next round of paintings will be more personal. Titles like “I Don’t Want Your Anger” offer insights into origins.
Thomas is an avid reader, and her favorite books are classic tales of strength, resilience and hope. From Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” she is drawn to themes of endurance and survival, and of “Anne of Green Gables,” she says, “I love the optimism. I love that (these books show) that you can be happy in harsh circumstances. I like that philosophy.”
Embracing joy amid darkness is important to her, and painting is her way of exploring difficult spaces, healing herself and, she hopes, offering openings for others to examine their own contradictions and snares. Maybe this invitation is what makes it so hard to look away from her paintings.