In the recent spate of articles about Bushwick’s innovative DIY arts projects and spaces, artists almost invariably cite Austin Thomas as a key early influence. Thomas opened Pocket Utopia—her groundbreaking salon, international residency program, and exhibition space in the neighborhood—in 2007, while the art market was still safely and unadventurously ensconced in the airtight studio/gallery bubble. She conceived of Pocket Utopia not as a commercial gallery, but rather as an extension of her own social sculpture. She had spent several years building large-scale “perches,” driving cross-country in a vintage 1973 El Camino and assembling portable social spaces of constructed tables, chairs, and sanctuaries as she went. Thomas wanted to push her projects beyond what had become increasingly comfortable terrain.
She saw Pocket Utopia as a transitional, two-year experiment, and in one sense it was: Thomas closed the space in July 2009, as originally planned. But after reading about the artists’ community Donald Judd developed in Marfa, Texas, Thomas realized that Bushwick was her Marfa. Like Judd, Thomas discovered synergy between community and personal engagement. With Pocket Utopia she helped unearth and cultivate what has become a burgeoning artists’ community in Bushwick and beyond. Several Pocket Utopia alumni, who all share Thomas’s altruistic vision, have opened galleries, including Deborah Brown and Jason Andrew’s STOREFRONT and Kevin Regan and Ellen Letcher’s Famous Accountants in Bushwick itself, Kris Graves’s Kris Graves Project in Dumbo, and Molly Larkin’s Statler Waldorf 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles.
Despite Pocket Utopia’s overwhelming success and the wonderful moments it produced, Thomas doesn’t miss hanging the shows, mopping the floors, and cleaning the bathroom. And she has continued to develop projects with the rich community that emerged from the Pocket Utopia project. At Lesley Heller’s new gallery on the Lower East Side, she curated a remarkable—and critically appreciated—exhibition called Ocketopia which brought many Pocket Utopia artists to the attention of the commercial art world. “Curating Ocketopia was a transitional activity that helped me articulate my interests,” Thomas told me. “But I realized that traditional curating at a commercial gallery is too narrow a focus. I want to do something more wide-ranging, and I need the freedom to do things in my own Austinized way.”
For the past six months, Thomas has been working with Jason Andrew—co-founder, with Deborah Brown, of STOREFRONT Gallery and founding director of the nonprofit arts organization Norte Maar—to organize Camp Pocket U, which will take place in Rouses Point, New York, at the end of July. Inspired by the legendary community that evolved at Black Mountain College in the 1950s, Thomas is planning exhibitions, artists’ residencies, art making, and salon discussions in a communal environment, while Andrew will organize a camp for local kids. Many of the artists that Thomas met through Pocket Utopia—Deborah Brown, Rico Gatson, Brece Honeycutt, Matthew Miller, and Adam Simon—will be in residence.
Camp Pocket U requires funds, of course, and Thomas is duly raising them. On June 22 at 7pm, she is presenting One Image, One Minute: Significant People Present Significant Images at the Hyperallergic headquarters in Williamsburg. Non-artists have been invited to present a single photographic image each and speak about its meaning for one minute. Although each guest selects the image independently, Thomas suspects—and certainly hopes—that some larger cohesive resonance will arise through the process.
In addition to undertaking these projects, Thomas has finally returned to studio practice. For years she considered herself an itinerant artist who kept her supplies portable and worked wherever she could find a spare table. Now, in two studio spaces at the Elizabeth Foundation—one for drawing and one for construction—she has begun work on diminutive wooden models of three-dimensional paper collages that she made over the past several years. “The new work isn’t as literal as my earlier perches and social sculpture,” Thomas explained. “I’m thinking about issues of space and scale, and studying craft techniques from old furniture making books.” In September, she will present the new work at a solo show at STOREFRONT. In addition, Thomas has recently agreed to become the new executive director of Norte Maar, which creates, promotes, and presents collaborations within the disciplines of visual, literary, and performing arts. She will spearhead new collaborative projects in the community, while Jason Andrew will now concentrate primarily on fundraising as the director of the board of trustees.
Thomas started Pocket Utopia with the intuitive notion that it might push her art practice forward. She was perhaps more visionary than she knew. If the warm and open community that her venture helped engender in Bushwick was a serendipitous by-product of a personal endeavor, it has also permanently changed the way she thinks about her art practice and her career. “Jason Andrew once told me that artists should stop thinking of gallery representation as the salient indicator of success, and he’s right,” Thomas has concluded. “Artists who don’t have gallery representation are the ones who have the power—they have the freedom to do whatever they want.” The idea is to expand the space in which they can exercise that freedom, and that idea lives on.