James Thigpen Jr., creator of Eight One Zero brand, brings his art back to Flint

FLINT, Michigan—Flint provided the mix of inspiration and resources James Thigpen Jr. needed to pursue his dream of becoming an artist -- starting at an early age. At Sobey Elementary School, in fact.

“My mother’s a teacher, and in second grade for career day, she dressed me up as an artist for school,” Thigpen said.

That passion for art was perfected throughout his upbringing in the city. Thigpen became interested in graphic design while attending classes at the Genesee Skill Center as a student at Flint Central High School. Then, he studied graphic arts at Mott Community College and the University of Michigan-Flint and worked as a designer at UM-Flint after graduating.

“My childhood was amazing, that’s why I get bitter when people don’t realize what Flint means to us or just think it’s about these tragic situations that occur,” Thigpen said. “I’m like, no, I’ve created art for years based on my childhood. I still run into my teachers from elementary school who continue to show me love to this day. They were the people that groomed me.”

Now 33, Thigpen debuted his first art show in his hometown. “Trust Fall: A Digital Display of Growth and Faith” is open at Mott Community College’s Fine Arts Gallery through Sept. 17. Thigpen will give a public lecture 1 p.m Monday, Sept. 9 at the gallery.

The collection features 20 pieces, none of which have been exhibited in previous shows. Thigpen uses a mix of black and white photography and graphic design to create highly detailed, intricate pieces.

“Each piece when it’s finished, you see it as one piece of art, but it could be like 50 different pictures,” he said. “I just create what I see in my head — sometimes I sit on a piece because there’s something not right about it. It might take a day; it might take a month to find the right images for the idea.”

Thigpen’s work is heavily themed around African-American culture. "Trust Fall" is rooted in the style, faith, and traditions of his experiences in the Black church.

“I grew up Christian, so I was going back and remembering the style of dress and the women I grew up around,” he said. “The women were the pillars and foundations of those traditions. Each piece (in "Trust Fall") takes inspiration from that culture.”

It took Thigpen time to find the right style and voice as an artist. After graduating, he moved to New York City and worked for Jazz at Lincoln Center. He created art in his spare time and exhibited his work, often having to self-fund his shows and deal with the logistics of the New York lifestyle.

“During my time away, I had five shows — three of which I put on just by myself,” he said. “I would be on the train during the busiest times, carrying around a bunch of 3 foot-by-3 foot canvasses during rush hour. Now, with this show, they came to me and wanted me to come in. It shows that my work hasn’t gone unnoticed, and on top of that it’s my hometown, so people who actually taught me will get to see how far I’ve come.”

Earlier in his career, Thigpen experimented with painting, but there was a problem: “I can’t paint,” he said. “The first show I did was all paintings, and I can’t even look at those pieces now. It took me two or three shows of filtering down to create the way I do now. I’m still perfecting my voice so when you see a piece, you’ll know that’s a James Thigpen.”

Thigpen is also a father (his daughter Victory is 1), works as a graphic designer, and created the Eight One Zero clothing company. Eight One Zero, like Thigpen’s artwork, is heavily influenced by and celebratory of his hometown.

“I like to say it (Eight One Zero) disguises as a clothing company, but really it’s to highlight this community and change the brand of this community and bring pride,” he said.

In addition to his current professional and artistic pursuits, Thigpen is planning more exhibits for 2020 and a mural. He hopes to help bring the artistic and creative energy that is growing in Flint now to areas he grew up in. 

“My goal is to help spread it out — bring art to my hood. I’m a northsider,” he said. 

Throughout all of his work, his mission is simple — he wants to create pieces that people connect to or are inspired by.

“I don’t want people to come and see my work just to support me. I want them to actually get something by experiencing art themselves — to have a level of genuineness or interest that intersects with the art,” he said. “On a creative level, I just want to bring pride to a sea of people that love one place.”

Mott Community College Fine Arts Gallery is free and open to the public. It is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The gallery is located inside the Visual Arts and Design Center on Mott Community College’s main campus, 1401 E. Court St. in Flint. 

James Thigpen Jr.'s exhibit "Trust Fall" is showing on the campus of Mott Community College through Sept. 17.
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