A Conversation with Lea Thomas

To be published in Loam: Beauty & Being | loamlove.com | @loamlove

As a textile artist and musician from Hawai’i, Lea Thomas braids together her diverse creative praxis to reflect the beauty of her ecological and social communities. Her body of work surfs from original music to hand-dyed weavings. You can sense, in contemplating her lyrics and considering her looming, a deep love for the small graces that make our world wild and wise. Here, Lea shares her artistic inheritance, offers insight into her creative process, and inspires each one of us to find the poetry in presence.


Hawaii, especially in the era of dial-up internet access, was pretty culturally isolated and I didn’t have much access to outside artistic influences in my early years. Thankfully, my family had a rich artistic background and encouraged me to explore diverse mediums and channels of expression.

Though I was born on Maui, my family lived almost full-time in Bali, Indonesia throughout my toddler years. My dad was designing batik and ikat clothing as well as leather goods for his own label, working with local artisans to carry out the production. I was too young to remember much of anything while he was in the midst of those projects but, as I get older, I can see how my aesthetic preference in textiles has been influenced by the exquisite traditional craftsmanship of that region. I have since acquired dozens of the antique, naturally-dyed, handwoven ikat weavings my dad had collected to study over those years in Indonesia and they are some of my most treasured belongings.

My dad also played guitar and was I had been playing piano since I was 5 but my interest in music went into overdrive from the moment I brought home an electric guitar around the age of 13. Not long after this life-changing connection, my world expanded again when a family friend downsized his collection of audio gear and offered me everything I needed to start my own home recording studio. My dad helped me soundproof my older brother’s old room, recently vacant as he had just left for college, and I proceeded to spend the remainder of my high school years in a mess of cables and a growing array of instruments, recording song ideas late into the evenings. I didn’t have many of friends with similar musical taste so it was empowering to be able to form my own ‘band’ by layering my performances. Eventually, this experimentation led to my decision to apply for an audio engineering trade school in New York City, where I’m still hanging out today. 



My process varies depending on the project.  Most of the time, when I pick up a guitar or sit down at one of my looms, I am in my home studio or outside among the elements. I am usually alone. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the relationship of person to place and have found that this starting point has led me down many a varied path of thought. I am inspired by symbolic language and learn a lot from dreams. I consider matters of spirit and contemplate where inspiration even comes from. Is the muse within? Without? Is the project about healing or the process of transition or just a playful exploration?  Sometimes the consideration of what the project can offer to my community is an afterthought, while, other times, an entire workflow is driven by this concept.

 I don’t have many prolonged periods of non-creation because I alternate between two mediums—music and weaving— that stimulate me in very different ways. That said, when I am feeling a bit groundless, I really believe in continuing to show up to do the work. I try not to drive myself crazy chasing an idea if all I really need is a break but I want to be ready and listening so I can catch the spark when it returns.

I used to feel more frustrated with myself when I’d hit a ‘block’ but I’ve come to realize that pause, in some capacity, is unavoidable. Rest is an important part of the cycle of creativity and shifting my perspective to embrace it became a lot easier when I realized that many of the ways I seek inspiration are also exercises in productive passivity: listening to lectures on color or sound or theory, finding new music, digging through historical archives for inspiration, reading artists’ memoirs, looking at art, observing elements of a natural landscape, meditation… and on and on. I can be sure I am being nourished when I find myself in a state of awe or wonder. The shift in perspective always leads to a revelation, however big or small. Curiosity guides me the rest of the way.


 My family ran a custom kimono workshop in a neighborhood of central Tokyo called Konya-cho (which translates to  'district of indigo dye shops'). My great-grandmother, the matriarch of the family and the principal seamstress, lived to be close to 100 and had hand-stitched kimonos until the details of her work were too hard to focus on. Many of my memories of visiting Japan took place in the studio, sitting beside her as she sewed. Her unspoken teachings are foundational to my current processes.

When I am deeply immersed in my weaving practice, I think of how elements of her story are woven into my own. I give thanks to the many hands and the many matriarchs who  devoted their life force to their craft. Of course, for my great-grandmother and many others of an era in Japan recovering from atomic disaster and the damages of war, their creative practices were also integral to their ability to earn a living or gain financial independence and so followed strict guidelines for perfection. As I continue to learn more about these materials and processes, I hope to honor the hard work of those that came before me while continuing on my own path. 

Working with indigo is part of walking this path. Indigo can be extracted from a variety of plant species and has been celebrated by cultures around the world for thousands of years. Japanese indigo in particular is made from a plant called Persicaria tinctoria and was originally used as a practical dye to strengthen natural fibers and imbue workwear with medicinal and anti-bacterial properties.

Dyeing with indigo is like watching a magic trick unfold. The pigment binds to the fibers as the liquid of the vat oxidizes upon exposure to the air and shifts from yellow to turquoise before finally settling into a clear, sky blue over the span of a few minutes. Unlike other natural dyes, indigo requires repeated dipping and oxidation to achieve a deep, saturated hue. The process can take hours or days depending on variations in climate, the vitality of the vat, the technical approach and the desired depth of color. Indigo asks the dyer to be intimately involved and I enjoy the patience required through each stage of development. There is poetry in witnessing the deepening of indigo blue, like watching the sky and sea meet as night falls, heavy and expansive all at once.