Episode 29
Building a Monument for Dr. Maya Angelou with Lava Thomas

This episode, co-host Paul Farber speaks to multidisciplinary artist Lava Thomas. They catch up about a major project a long time in the making – a monument honoring Dr. Maya Angelou – prolific poet, Civil Rights activist, and American memoirist. The monument is slated for installation outside of San Francisco’s main public library in the near future. Lava’s monumental journey begins with bike tours with her family in Washington D.C. and makes a sharp turn in when she learned monuments had the power to embody ideology and ignite a movement.


Paul Farber (Co-Host): Lava Thomas, welcome to the Monument Lab podcast.

Lava Thomas: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Farber: It is great to have you here. I want to begin with the question of what is the status of your Dr. Maya Angelou monument?

Thomas: The monument is finally in the beginning stages of fabrication. There have been so many challenges and delays for various reasons, from long drawn out contract negotiations to major delays due to COVID supply chain issues, increased material costs. But now we are finally in the beginning stages of creating the monument.

Farber: A lot of your approach, your design and your intent was not the focus of early press about the project. So, I want to reset for a moment. When did you first encounter Dr. Angelou in your life and how did you approach imagining making a monument to her legacy?

Thomas: Dr. Angelou has been a shero of mine since junior high school when I first read her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She was part of the Black arts movement. So when I began thinking about designing a monument to honor her, it was important that the work be grounded in Black aesthetics, not neoclassical statuary, which informs the aesthetics of Confederate monuments. Maya Angelou was also an art collector, as well as being a celebrated author, poet, activist. She really was a Renaissance woman. So I looked closely at her art collection, particularly the works of Elizabeth Catlett. And I was inspired by Catlett's depiction of Black women in portraiture and sculpture, as well as her monument to Ralph Ellison, which is a rectangular shaped monolith that stands in Harlem.

Thomas: I settled on a book form with a portrait of Dr. Angelou on its cover and a quote by her on the back. The book to me is a symbolic repository of her life and works, and its scale at nine feet tall emphasizes the transformational role of the library and reading on her life. The book form also underscores the importance of reading and writing and education as a means towards Black liberation. Literacy was criminalized for the enslaved, and enslaved people risked severe punishment to learn to read and write. The material bronze is also rooted in Black aesthetics. I was inspired by the Benin bronze plaques of West Africa created by the Edo peoples, whose indigenous metallurgy technologies date back to the 13th century.

Farber: You shared such profound influences. I'm curious, as a multidisciplinary artist, what did you try to bring from your practice into this project?

Thomas: The backbone of my practice is portraiture and honoring Black women who have labored to make this country and the world more equitable. So it was important that I bring in portraiture as a main feature of the monument. But I think that a more important question is what did the project bring to my practice? Throughout this journey, I've had to be an advocate. I've had to be an activist. I've had to actually practice the principles that Dr. Angelou embodied. I was joined by folks not only in the Bay Area, but around the country, and that has had a profound impact on my life and my practice. And I'm incredibly grateful for everyone's support.

Farber: To go off of that, the community that you have built through this project, through its challenges and through its breakthroughs, it seems like that would be incredibly sustaining for you. What has that been like as an artist to incorporate that energy of coalition into your work?

Thomas: It's been incredibly gratifying, but at the same time, it's been somewhat difficult to sustain, primarily because of the pandemic and the ways that communities usually gather in person was impacted by our inability to see each other face to face. Now that we've been able to gather somewhat, it's just been wonderful to be out and about and to see everyone and to appreciate the impact of what our joint activism has accomplished. I think that I'll experience the full import of that when the monument is finally unveiled.

Farber: As you look forward to that, I'm curious whether it's in the finishing of the monument or in its dedication. You and I have talked a bit about this before. Just to hear now where you are –what are some of the ways that you most want to honor Dr. Angelou as the project launches? 

Thomas: I have an expansive dream of how Dr. Angelou can be honored when the monument is unveiled and afterward, with events and programming that takes place across multiple disciplines: poetry, art, literature, film, music, dance, education, activism, spectacular celebrations, and robust programming that extends beyond the unveiling, with events in the larger Bay Area and in key cities where Dr. Angelou lived.

Farber: That's a profound vision for really a living monument. It makes me curious just in your life, what has your relationship been with monuments in the past? I mean, you shed a little bit of light on this in your previous answers. 

Thomas: Not really. I grew up in Los Angeles. LA is a future leaning city, so I didn't think much about monuments growing up, but as an adult, my husband and I would take our family on an annual trip to Washington, DC and we would do a monument tour by bike, specifically to visit the Martin Luther King Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. We'd have our son read the inscriptions and quotes. It wasn't until the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where Neo-Nazis, white nationalists and Klansman gathered and marched to the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee with lit torches that I began to fully understand the power of monuments as embodiments of a specific ideology, and also their use as propaganda tools. We know that Confederate monuments were erected as a part of a larger campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the KKK and Southern politicians to rewrite the narrative of the Civil War and to subjugate and terrorize African Americans during Jim Crow. Monument building was an integral part of white supremacist myth and world making, establishing white supremacist ideology in schools, churches, and public life. So it was really powerful to witness the rejection of these symbols during Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, when monuments to white supremacy were being toppled in cities around the globe.

Farber: You are an accomplished artist. You have work in numerous museums. I also would imagine there's a learning curve to this work, practically and conceptually. What was the experience or what have you found that you are learning through this project?

Thomas: Every step of this journey has been a learning process, and each part of it has offered its own unique set of challenges. Right now, fortunately I'm in the fun part since we're in the fabrication process. I'm working with a foundry in Washington that does incredible work, and right now working with their digital team to transform my two dimensional portrait into a three dimensional monument.

Farber: Have you visited the foundry?

Thomas: Not yet. We're doing everything right now via email, Zoom and lots of images.

Farber: If you don't mind me asking, what is your relationship with the city of San Francisco and its administration now?

Thomas: Well in early 2020, Mayor Breed hired Ralph Remington as the new Director of Cultural Affairs for the city of San Francisco. When he first came on board, one of the things that he did was to invite me to lunch. So, we have a great rapport, a good working relationship, and the arts commission staff has always been great to work with.

Farber: I want to ask you a question about, you have a show currently up at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Homecoming, and it's also a portrait project. It includes drawings of women from the Montgomery Bus Boycott. What's your approach to making portraits, whether you are designing a monument or utilizing drawing as a means to highlight someone's likeness?

Thomas: So the show in Montgomery features the project of mugshot portraits, women of the Montgomery bus boycott, as well as two other projects that are based on my own family archives. It is almost entirely a show that's made up of portraiture. I'm very specific about the materials that I choose, even though drawing is the core of my practice. For the Montgomery bus boycott portraits, it was important for me to convey this idea of history's erase-ability. So I chose to draw the portraits. It's pencil on paper, it's a material. It's also a material that's accessible. I mean, most everyone has used a pencil on paper and done some form of mark making. I wanted to use a material that was both erasable, but also required several forms of protection. A drawing requires a frame. It requires a controlled temperature and light controlled room so that the portraits don't fade. So that's a metaphor for this history that I'm bringing forward through portraiture, but that can also be lost to history if that history isn't protected.

Farber: That's very powerful. We're going to close in a few moments, but in thinking about that endurance of history and the need for protection, you've shared a bit of your visions for the launch of the Dr. Angelou monument. What are your hopes and your intentions that you want to put out there for us to know about the project?

Thomas: The Maya Angelou monument to me is really an embodiment of two of the foremost principles that she stood for, courage and justice. I'm paraphrasing. Maya Angelou says that courage is one of the most important virtues of all virtues, because it's the one virtue that allows all the other virtues to be expressed. In the case of the Maya Angelou monument for the city of San Francisco, I really had to enact that virtue in order for my monument to be built in the first place. The overturning of the initial rejection of my selection was an act of justice. So, those are the two principles that I really want the monument to embody, as well as Dr. Angelou's comment about libraries and reading being the way that we understand each other's humanity, because we realize that we all share similar emotions. We have similar struggles. She says that, and I'm paraphrasing again. She writes about the Black experience, but she's always talking about the human condition. So that is another philosophy of Dr. Angelou that I want this monument to express and embody.

Farber: What is ahead for you? What are you working on? What are you looking forward to in your work?

Thomas: I've been super busy. The show at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is traveling to the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in August, and it will be on view until December. That show is curated by Dr. Bridget Cooks. I'm super excited to go to Spelman [College] this fall. My curatorial project at the Berkeley Art Museum runs until mid-July, and I'm also in group shows at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and both of those run through next year. This fall, I have work in the photo focused biennial in the exhibition Free As They Want to Be, curated by Dr. Deborah Willis and Dr. Cheryl Finley, and that's going to be exhibited at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. My first priority right now is to get the monument completed and projects that I have in the works around the monument finished. And after that, I'm really looking forward to some creative downtime to reflect and replenish. I've had to say no to a lot of projects. These past few years have just been, and I'm grateful, the past few years have been extremely busy and looking forward to creating new work and having the time to do research around that.

Farber: That's beautiful. Lava Thomas, thank you so much for joining the Monument Lab podcast and for all of your work.

Thomas: Thank you so much, Paul. It's been wonderful to be here.

More about Lava Thomas

Lava Thomas is a visual artist whose multidisciplinary practice tackles issues of race, gender, and representation. Among her awards are the 2021 Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Prize, the 2020 San Francisco Artadia Award, and the Joan Mitchell Grant for Painters and Sculptors.  Her work is held in the permanent collections of the United States Consulate General in Johannesburg, South Africa; the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA; the M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA and the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, CA. Thomas's work has been written about in Artforum, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Hyperallergic, The Art Newspaper, and LA Weekly.

Episode Credits:
Co-Hosts: Paul Farber and Li Sumpter
Monument Lab Production Team: Paul Farber, Justin Geller, Nico Rodriguez, Aubree Penney, and Li Sumpter
Monument Lab Design and Communications: Jen Cleary, William Hodgson, Mira Hart, Dina Paola Rodriguez, and Raina Wellman
Production Partner: Radio Kismet
This season of the Monument Lab podcast is made with support from the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design.