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RESILIENCE By Evana flores

A photo series to document the personal life and findings of Austin artist, Rejina Thomas. From September 18th to December 6th 2017.

Resilience

It’s not a word I throw around lightly, or one that I normally associate with people in my daily life. However, this quickly changed with my meeting of Rejina Thomas, a 63 year old artist occupying the unique lot next to my best friend’s brother.

"They open the door to my brain"

These photos document the preparation and the opening of her show "State of Ascension" at the George Washington Carver Museum. They give peek at the people in her life, and give you a taste of her comedic personality. However, more than that, I want people to know her history with Austin: how she poured her heart into the city and its people, and how the city has forsaken her in return.

To all the Austenite’s who participate in the art/music scene without understanding its roots; you and I are indebted to Rejina Thomas. We should all be shaking our fists at Capital Metro and their edacious greed. So, in my best attempt, I will try and put together some of the puzzle pieces I have acquired from Reji’s impressive life to accompany my series, with hope that their poignancy will reach you. And use this to display my gratitude for all that Reji has, and continues to do despite any obstacle placed in her way. Here's to the most resilient woman I have met!

Reji Thomas, free spirit

I'll start from the beginning of our friendship, and the statement that first sparked my curiosity in meeting Rejina Thomas.

"Drew's New Neighbor lives in an Upside Swimming Pool"

My best friend Leslie was describing her brother's neighbor one evening,

"Yeah, he said her house is this big white dome, with all of this art all over the yard. She just invited them all over. And there's like this bathtub . But it's outside."- Leslie Scherger

The way Leslie talked about her made her seem like a mythical being. You hear about Austin being weird all the time, but seldom do you find the weird that refuses to be capitalized. I knew I had to get in contact with her. So, I did.

I arranged to meet with her one Sunday afternoon, just to chat and get to at least meet this legendary neighbor. To my pleasant surprise, this meeting came sooner than I had planned.

Two days before our scheduled meet up, I get a call from Reji. I immediately thought she was going to cancel and began to rack my brain for a plan B. What she told me surprised me in the best way. (Keep in mind, I have never met her at this point.)

"Hey. What are you doing right now?"

"Reji...what's up. I'm on my way to the municipal court to contest two parking tickets."

She laughed, and told me to turn around.

"Well, you need to get your butt over here. The museum curator is here for my show and you need to meet him."

Looking back at this instance, I think of how much this first encounter is a testament to her character. The welcome mat at the gate is essentially there for everyone who wants to come inside. Even without knowing me and what I was doing, she was already wanting to help me and let me in to some very personal parts of her life. I learned that she had done the same for many others back when she owned and operated Pine Street: a warehouse on E. 5th and Waller that served as as her personal studio and gallery, but over the years turned into a community hub for artists of all kinds. Most importantly, it was her home.

Photo provided from her portfolio book
"There was a painting section, ceramic section, glass section, wood work, photography...every trade she had set up there. It was our playground."- Victor Angelico, an artist that Reji housed after he left college

Reji showing Victor the vandalized parts of mural they worked on years ago on E. 11th and Waller. Since it's installment, copper scraps and glass have been ripped from the wall and pawned, leaving the mural in a damaged state.

"Thomas established Graphic Glass Studios at 1101 E. Fifth in 1979. Friends were dubious about the dilapidated warehouse, but the space was perfect for Thomas: unconventional, rough around the edges, but bursting with potential. She has worked in photography, painting, drawing, metal, and stonework, but is best known for her glasswork." -Kate X Messer Nov 7th, 2014: Austin Chronicle
Adding the finishing touch to a glass piece for a fraternal conference held at the Four Seasons.
Reji glass making at Pine Street, provided from her portfolio

In the mid-Nineties, she won the bid to replace all of the intricate, etched glass in the Capitol, creating more than 500 panes; her art has been collected by Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, B.B. King, the Queen of England, and Steven Spielberg.

Reji picking up prints from her capitol project to hand out at her show.

Reji recently wrote to the city, asking fo them to recommission her so she can restore her piece.

In 1987, less than ten years after Reji purchased the property, Capital Metro buys rights to the land underneath from Southern Pacific. Their relationship was cordial for the years after; Reji would just pay the rent to the new land tenants as expected.

In 2009 she established her studio as Pine Street Station, opening its doors to the community where she hosted the east sides first Hope Farmer's Market, Aids Services of Austin by ArtErotica, and the annual Queer Bomb festival. She also brought SXSW to the east side by hosting artists such as Amy Winehouse, Kanye West, Ponty Bones, Lee Edwards, and Claudia Voyles in her warehouse. She called her event Fader Fort and managed the bookings, hired security, and had roads blocked off long before the city had learned how to manage these types of events during South By. They were looking to her for how she handled these free shows while managing to keep everyone safe.

"Yeah so one day I get a call from some management people. They wanted to use some of my warehouse for a concert during SouthBy a while back. They were real upset because the prior venue had dropped them. So, I agreed. Then I get a call back and they want even more of my space. I say, yes–whatever. They keep calling, asking for more space, and eventually my entire warehouse is booked out! Well, it was for Kanye West."- Reji Thomas
Kanye at Fader Fort, Austin360.com
Since then, Fader Fort has become one of the largest invite only events at SXSW. The event (taken from Reji's intellectual property) continues to be capitalized while she gets no credit or benefits.

In 2007, Reji's rent was $400 per month. By 2012 it had increased to $1,088 and would increase to $4,125 by the year 2015– which was ten times more expensive than 2007.

Capital Metro's plans were to relocate the train lines, to preserve their historic value, so they could create room to develop high-rise condominiums.

The city held a Historic Land Commission on behalf of Pine Street Station, with over fifty people in attendance to plea for this center to be preserved. The evidence that this building was historic, and worth being preserved was undeniable.

Pine Street vs Capital Metro
Pine Street vs Capital Matro
"And the wood. Man, I can't believe they tore it down, that was fucking beautiful, thick wood. The trees must have been from before the 1900s."- Victor
Pine Street vs Capital Metro

However, it was not enough, and capital greed obtained her property, with promises to relocate parts of her building. They did not keep their word.

The judge gave Reji five days to move all of her art and belongings out of her home and in 2014, Capital Metro owned everything.
Reji Thomas, a military veteran and someone who battles Lupus daily, is no stranger to perseverance. She did not let Capital Metro destroy what she made without a fight. She continues to be a leader in the artistic community and is cherished by so many people world-wide and locally.

Post Pine Street:

Now located South of Austin, Reji continues to make art and be happy.

Behind the Scenes

This is where I meet Reji, three years after the entire fiasco with Capital Metro. One of the first things I noticed about her was that she always had people over.

Her neighbors (my friends from school), often come over for a few beers, to listen to her crazy stories, and to play music really loud if someone in their house goes to bed early.

Aside from art, music is another big passion of hers. Now that Drew and all his bandmates live next door, Reji always has someone near to jam with.

Above: Reji encouraging Drew to let go, and sing, "Lost Without U" by Robin Thicke || Below: Drew and friends discussing his performance.

I came to learn that it didn't matter the age, Reji was a child at heart.

And a real goof to be frank

Most of my time spent at Reji's house was pretty consistent. I would get there, we would catch up, watch TV, and she would paint.

Today, she mainly focuses on large scale oil paintings using different material as canvas, such as denim and wood.
Sometimes we ran errands

At her favorite tool store.

"Ooh! This toolbox is so pretty. Gives me CHILLS."

I want to stress that I met someone new almost each time I went.

If I didn't meet this person physically, it was over the phone, which she seemed to be on the phone at all times. It was usually just catching up with friends or delving into drama for the show. I am fairly positive that they never knew I was there, but I guess this made for a pretty genuine impression of the people that called her on my part.

An animated phone call

The Friends

One thing I didn't really understand in the beginning was the depth of a lot of these friendships, and why these people volunteered their time and labor to help her organize her life for the show. But with the hindsight I have now, it makes sense that people will do anything to see her prevail.

I met Alicia the first day I came to meet Reji. She is an aspiring developer and works at Home Depot. She was at Reji's side the whole way leading up to the show.
Alicia told me that she didn't know Reji very well when she had Pine Street, but that she used to ride her bike by it a lot and thought Reji was "super cool" from afar.
And there was TJ, who always brought over 'kitty'.
Reji working on the shadow box arrangement for her piece on domestic violence

.

Meanwhile...

Another one of her good friends was the curator of the Carver Museum, Cary Adams. He was also one of the first friends I met.
His trusty friend Vanessa was also a good pal of Reji's, and an artist herself.
While Reji worked on the last touches at home, Cary and Vanessa planned the layout of the exhibit the week prior.

The Day Before Opening

It's go time
It was all hands on deck that day.
Everything had to be loaded in trucks
And since a lot of pieces were glass, it was high stakes
Reji brought more friends to help her move, like Reyes
Reji the explorer
Last minute things....
Reji doesn't let the pains of Lupus stop her from heavy lifting the 'male stump' of one piece.
Reji observing the most recent color additions she made on this painting, which hangs in the museum, still unfinished.
Once everything was unloaded at the Carver, it was cleaned and shined before it was brought to the show rooms.
Getting everything squeaky clean before

Show Night

"From the forgotten people of New Orleans to the blessings and challenges of black love, Thomas implores us to look at the complexity of our lives. Her provocative depictions of historic cosmic female warriors, patron saints, and maternal figures are...each a vessel and pathway to a higher consciousness."
Reji gives a beautiful speech regarding the importance of having her exhibit in a museum like the Carver, which was transitioning from an African American Genealogy center, to a museum of art.
A devoted fan can finally tell Reji how much she appreciates her work after six years of trying to meet her.
A full house
A big fan
Reji and Reyes
TJ makes an appearance, sin Kitty
So does her mother, Ms. Thomas, and other family members. They traveled from California (where Reji grew up) to surprise her at the opening.
It was a very happy show, full of lots of hugs
Cary & Alicia goofin around
This night made the magnitude of how many people she has effected obvious.
So, many children looked up to her and wanted a print signed.
Ms. Thomas held my hand when she talked to me, and told me about how Reji was always very smart, and how she could draw well at such a young age.
She was so proud of her daughter.
As was her sister.

Post Show

Reji is still bringing people to see her work in the Carver, and just to help raise awareness for the small museum.
She gives her own guided tours.
And really feels at home by now.
She plans on offering free painting classes all January to those interested at the Carver to bring more people as well.
My new friend and hero.

Special thanks to Regina Thomas, the Carver Museum, Dennis Darling & Kyser Lough.

Be sure to check out her exhibit, which will remain in the Carver till February. 1165 Angelina St, Austin, TX 78702

To contact Reji Thomas for any art inquiries or collaborations, she can be reached at : 512-496-3269

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