Paisha Thomas sculpts with the blood, sweat and tears of her ancestors
The artist is in the midst of crafting a sculpture of Aminah Robinson that will incorporate a handful of red clay taken from the Randolph Plantation
On the first Sunday in November, Paisha Thomas leaned over a clay likeness of Aminah Robinson, working with a loop tool to transform one of her eyes from closed to open, patiently carving out an iris.
As Thomas sculpted, working in the airy, sunlit kiln room at South Side complex the Fort, she discussed the lessons she had gleaned in the relatively short time she’d been working with clay, which, at times, appeared to double as life lessons. She talked about the importance of strengthening the sculpture from the inside, and about how virtually any mistake could be repaired given enough time and perseverance.
“With clay, you can always reclaim it and make it something else,” said Thomas, who also described herself as being in the midst of a personal transformation rooted, in part, in a recent visit to Randolph, Virginia, where she walked the Randolph Plantation grounds once worked by her ancestors, collecting a small handful of red clay that will become a key element of the in-progress Robinson sculpture.
“My life was in a pretty chaotic transition; I had just gone through a breakup the day before I made the trip,” Thomas said during an early October phone interview, describing how she drove 18 miles of back roads, winding her way up a mountain to the isolated plantation. “I was on a clear mission. And it was all about my people, my ancestors, and learning the path that they took, and experiencing and feeling and being at one with them in the place where they had toiled. … And that’s what made me want to grab some clay from the ground, because I felt like their blood, sweat and tears was physically in that clay.”
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Thomas was born in Piqua, Ohio, and traces her lineage to the slaves who once worked the plantation owned by John Randolph, whose will stated that, upon his death, all of his slaves would be granted freedom. In addition, the will contained a stipulation providing transport and settlement to land Randolph had purchased in Ohio, where each slave above the age of 40 was to be granted a 10-acre parcel. In 1846, 383 former Randolph slaves arrived in Cincinnati, many ultimately settling near Piqua, the site of African Jackson Cemetery, where a number of Thomas’ ancestors are buried.
While the former slaves were granted their freedom, the promised land never materialized, and Thomas has adopted raising awareness of the cause and fighting for reparations as part of her mission, beginning conversations with Where Is My Land, a California-based organization centered on helping Black families and descendants claim financial justice.
In making the drive back from Virginia, Thomas tried to follow as closely as possible the route her ancestors traveled from the Randolph Plantation to Cincinnati. “And so I took with me that hope … and I just really tried to emotionally embody what they might have been feeling in each moment,” Thomas said. “And I think it really penetrated the core of who I am and why I exist right now. It really steeled my will to keep on working using all of my various skill sets and gifts and storytelling to really bring justice, because there hasn’t been any as of yet. … I feel like my purpose in life is to move the rock forward toward that goal. Even if I don’t see it in my lifetime, I’m charged with pushing it closer.”
These gifts with which Thomas is blessed include her voice as a musician, as well as her developing skills as a sculptor, a craft she started in earnest in 2011, when she would sculpt feet and hands while seated at her desk at work. Beginning in 2015, Thomas started to approach the craft more seriously, enrolling in classes at now-defunct Clayspace. Nowadays, she visits the kiln room at the Fort on a weekly basis, molding, shaping and experimenting with the clay, a substance that can be full of contradictions: it can be both malleable and resistant, and it can force a sculptor to work with both speed and patience. “It’s a battle at all times,” Thomas said. “To make sure it doesn’t break, that there’s not a fault that bursts in the kiln, that the glaze looks right.”
It’s a pressure further compounded by the emotional weight of Thomas’ current undertaking, an idea at which she arrived after sitting with the red plantation clay for weeks, and which is rooted in a 2010 run-in with Robinson.
“I remember being all proud to tell her I was an artist,” Thomas said. “And she was like, ‘Really? What are your work habits?’ And I was just so embarrassed that I wanted to crawl under a table and hide because she’d found me out and I was a fraud. But I’ll never forget her asking me that, and it’s a question I have to keep answering.”
Thomas, in turn, has given her in-progress sculpture of Robinson the name “Work Habits,” a reference to both her own increasingly dedicated approach to art, as well as to the labors of her ancestors, since Thomas intends to complete the piece by smoothing a slip atop parts of the sculpture using the red clay scooped from the plantation grounds. In a bit of cosmic good fortune, the red clay exhibits an orange hue almost identical to the color used by artist Lance Johnson in his painting of Robinson, which Thomas encountered at Streetlight Guild and has since adopted as the model for her piece.
Of course, working in clay creates issues that a canvas does not, which is why Thomas started that early November day in the kiln room working to strengthen Robinson’s slender neck, which was struggling under the weight of the hollowed-out head. “Aminah is just so skinny,” Thomas said, and laughed. When completed, the sculpture will stand roughly 18 inches tall, depicting Robinson from the shoulders up, but also incorporating her hands, which Thomas described as one of her defining features.
Prior to starting on the Robinson piece, Thomas spent months sculpting a statue of a woman that, once completed, stood about 27 inches tall. As with the Robinson sculpture, the piece's development appeared to mirror Thomas’ life journey at the time, with work on it beginning when she was still in a relationship that she now describes as toxic.
“He lived in Newark, and he always wanted me to be there, and that kept me away from my pottery wheel, and away from the kiln room,” she said. “And so I wasn’t keeping up with the sculpture, and I was rushing and not using very much patience and really forgetting my mission. … And, in rushing, she broke at the ankles, fell over and smashed on the backside.”
Similarly shattered, Thomas set the piece aside for weeks, a time in which she ended the relationship and embarked on her pilgrimage to Virginia, eventually returning to the broken sculpture feeling spiritually and emotionally renewed. Adapting a technique she learned throwing pottery, Thomas covered the broken statue in wet paper towels and plastic wrap, moistening the clay enough that she could heal the woman piece by broken piece.
“That sculpture you see today, it was busted, like someone had smashed it with a hammer,” Thomas said. “And now she’s standing there strong and rebuilt, and uncolonized.”