Thony Aiuppy is a practicing visual artist and an art educator. He is also a husband and father of three children. He and his family live in the historic Jacksonville neighborhood of Springfield.
Making Springfield home for he and his family was an intentional act after previously residing in both Riverside and Jacksonville Beach. The diversity of the area appealed to Thony, as did the urban neighborhood’s history. In his blog Thony has said the following about Springfield: “This is the setting for which my journey starts in regards to the story of the work that I make as an artist.” Thony’s work as an artist is an extension of his desire as a citizen to better understand local and regional history.
Thony is a formally trained artist. He holds an MFA in Painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design (2013) and a BFA in Painting/Drawing from the University of North Florida (2010). Thony’s work powerfully intermixes socioeconomic and political themes with his own personal experience living in the American South.
“This is the setting for which my journey starts in regards to the story of the work that I make as an artist.”
In wake of current events, and on the forefront of an upcoming election, the themes present in Thony’s work are especially relevant. Thony neither ignores nor retreats from difficult subject matter. Thony is drawn to the African American experience, which is illustrated in his work. This wasn’t always the case though. In 2013, during a conversation with a professor on his thesis committee, Thony made the sobering realization that his paintings were devoid of any persons of color. His experience as a white male, and the privilege that extended from it, blinded him and had prevented him from telling a more complete and compelling story through his work.
Gothic writers have played an influential role in Thony’s life as an artist. Thony has credited authors such as Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and William Faulkner as describing a South that was tangible. Through their writing these authors created a heat Thony could feel and an air he could taste. He was also drawn to their work because at times it was dark, grotesque, and even violent. Their words embodied the South that Thony wanted to express visually. However, his work needed soul and to add that soul he drew inspiration from the words of African American authors such as James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston. Johnson, born in 1871, was a native to Jacksonville and Hurston lived in Jacksonville while attending Baptist boarding school.
Thony’s work is currently on display at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens as part of the exhibit Lift: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience. The exhibit began in June 2016 and runs until February 12, 2017. The title of the exhibit is a direct reference to a poem written by James Weldon Johnson, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. The poem was composed in 1899 and publicly performed by 500 students from Jacksonville’s segregated Stanton College Preparatory School as a song during the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 1900. It has been referred to as the “Black American National Anthem.”
“Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers died
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forgot Thee,
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.”
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”
by James Weldon Johnson
10 Questions with Thony Aiuppy
1. What in particular do you want people to see in your work, and why is it important that they do?
When people look at my work, whether that be in a gallery, museum, or in a patron’s home, the goal is that the work would be engaging. We live in a hyper visual culture where the average person spends maybe three seconds looking at a painting or sculpture before they move on to the next thing. As an artist I am looking for that entry point where the viewer stays a little bit longer and begins to ask questions about the world they live and function in as a participant of our collective society.
2. What have you come to learn about yourself through the art that you create?
There is a resilience and persistence that I have now that I never thought I had, or could ever obtain. Making work is just that-work. Creating art allows me to ask myself hard questions, look at the world around me, and introspectively find out what I actually believe about the world and my role in it.
3. What role has community played in the development of your art? Likewise, how would you define your role as an artist in a local and national scope?
One of the major roles community has played in the development of my art is through the venues that I have had the opportunity to exhibit my work. My solo exhibition “Breath from the Sky” was on view at FSCJ Kent Campus Gallery and “Nomad Exquisite” is currently on view at the Vandroff Art Gallery at the Jewish Community Alliance (JCA). I was in a group show at the Haskell Gallery at the Jacksonville International Airport called “Face Forward” and am currently part of a group show at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens called “LIFT“.
Not only am I able to have shows, but I am able to receive feedback from people who visit the shows and that has led to some speaking engagements. In addition to the shows, I was able to go through the Creative Capital Professional Development Program with the help of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. Learning the skills of time management, financial planning, grant writing, etc. was perhaps one of the best things I have been offered as an artist and it will impact the trajectory of my future as a creative for years to come.
The role that I play as an artist, no matter where I am is this: I am a creator; I am a culture maker and shaper; I am an advocate for all the arts; I am an art educator, engager, and integrator; I am a collaborator and instigator (when need be). That’s what I do and I take it very seriously. I am not just a guy who works in a studio and has epiphanies of genius. There are generations in our community who went to school without any arts education or integration and now it seems everyone is hungry for the arts. Some of these folks see the arts as mere decoration and that vocationally it’s a pipe dream and never seen as leading to viable, sustainable work. It’s my job to help bring understanding of the value of arts on our economy and culture as well as to help implement strategies that allow the arts to flourish in an area where it has stifled off and on for decades.
4. What is the genesis of your current body of work? Is what you’re currently working on a continuation of or a departure from your past body of work?
The work that I have spent the last three years on started in graduate school. I wanted to make work that merged socioeconomic and political themes with my experiences of living in the American South. The characters and fabricated scenarios in this body of work provoke understanding of the physical and metaphysical aspects of the human experience in light of recent regional and national events – inequality and injustice against persons of color and the disparities between those who have access to goods and services and those who do not.
5. What is your approach to starting a new project? Do you have any patterns, routines, or rituals?
This is a great question. I am in the process of this right now. When I begin a new project I need a lot of solitude so that I can think, read, research, and write. I rely on a schedule that has structured blocks of time where I sit and think in my studio. Beginning something new can be refreshing, but it can feel daunting if I don’t have space to explore a new direction that I want to go into. To help me find this quiet space for where I want to go next. I made the decision to disable all of my social media accounts. The goal is to limit distractions, even the good ones.
I’m not sure how long this stage will take. I read a lot of books as it is, but when I start a new project I dive as deeply as I can in to a particular theme or form. As an artist I rely on information. That can be from reading poetry, visiting the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, or writing about what I think of the world around me.
During the beginning stages of a new project I also experiment with materials and subject matter to help visually convey the ideas I have going on in my head. This act of play and allowing myself to fail and mess up in the process is healthy and often provides solution in unforeseen ways. I want to always stretch myself in my understanding of how I can convey a message in an interesting way and sometimes the best results aren’t accomplished with oil paint or graphite.
Once I get an understanding as to what I want to make and how I want to make it I start making small work and then, over time, move towards larger pieces. To get to a point of where I have a nice, thorough, body of work, say twenty pieces, I will make well over one hundred smaller paintings and drawings.
6. What projects are you working on now and are you seeking or presently involved in any collaborations?
I just finished assisting an artist on a wall drawing in the atrium of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Ethan Murrow’s wall drawings are unique in that he likes to collaborate with other visual artists in the communities that he makes them. I was asked by the museum if I would be interested in collaborating with Ethan. I though it was an amazing opportunity not to pass up. Collaboration is a great way to connect with other artists and create something bigger than what a singular person can accomplish on their own. I will be seeking out more of these opportunities in the future.
With my own studio practice I am at the beginning stages of something new. My plan is to spend the rest of the year reading, writing and drawing. Next year I will begin a new body of work, but I’m not sure exactly what that looks like right now. I will continue to integrate themes pertinent to my experiences in living in Northeast Florida and the Southeast.
7. Describe a past failure and how you used the experience to lead to a future success.
One of my best failures happened in grad school. As I was working on my thesis project, including a paper that described my work and influences, I was confronted by a professor that showed me that the work that I was making did not line up with the work that I was writing about. I came to realize that I was making paintings of the southern experience from a singular, even sterile, point of view, from the perspective of someone who has privilege. Nearly every painting was of a white male. I saw that as a problem, as a failure. Once I noticed this blindspot in my work, and subsequently in my life, I was able to expand the scope of my paintings and come at them with the intention of providing multiple points of view by incorporating into my figurative scenes people who do not look or think the way that I do.
8. Why is art and culture important?
Art and culture is important because it tells the collective story of a community and helps to shape future progress. Without cultural enrichment in its various forms we would not have the tools necessary to communicate greater truths about who we are and aspire to be. Without the arts we would find ourselves unable to empathetically engage disparities, unable to weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh.
9. What artist, gallery, or work do you think more people should know about?
I find that the Ritz Theatre and Museum is one of the most overlooked museums in the city. It’s a stellar venue for both visual and performing arts. It’s an institution that has a long history in Jacksonville and should be more appreciated for its many contributions to the city.
10. What do you feel is your greatest contribution to the arts and your community? Additionally, what resources or programs do you think would best equip artists in their efforts to serve their community?
Wow. I’ll spin it like this: If I have done nothing else for the city of Jacksonville in the next 20 years than educate people about the value of the arts in our city; encourage blossoming artists coming out of college to stick around town for the long haul; and provide a platform for dialog about the hard issues our city faces through the use of the arts as a catalyst for those discussions, that right there will be my greatest contribution.
To serve their community at their full potential and capacity, artists need continued access to professional development opportunities as they relate to finances, time management, and grant writing. I received a great deal of information, support, and motivation through my time doing the Creative Capital Professional Development Program. We need more of this. I think artists hunger for a vibrant community where collaboration between artists and other professionals inspires and pushes the entire city to the next level we seem so eager to reach. Some of this is done in one-to-one situations through organic relationships, but there has to be a way to gather diverse disciplines who value cultural vibrancy to talk about the role artists play in their organizations and then implement actionable steps towards building an amazing living experience for our children and our children’s children.