Converse Professor Wins South Carolina’s Premier Prize for Young Visual Artists
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Converse Professor Wins South Carolina’s Premier Prize for Young Visual Artists

Jena Thomas with her artwork at the 701 CCA exhibition

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The 701 Center for Contemporary Art awarded Converse professor Jena Thomas the 701 CCA Prize 2018 for South Carolina artists 40 years and younger. Thomas was announced as the winner during the annual prize celebration on November 28 at Columbia’s 701 Center for Contemporary Art. She was also a finalist for the award in 2016.

“Thomas is an outstanding winner of this year’s Prize,” 701 CCA board chair Wim Roefs said. “She won in a highly competitive field of contestants that included two other excellent finalists, Carey Morton and Alexander Thierry.”

“Thomas is an outstanding winner of this year’s Prize…”

The 701 CCA Prize’s purpose is to identify and recognize young South Carolina artists whose work is exemplary in its originality, shows awareness of artistic developments and is of high artistic merit. Thomas is a painter. Morton, who creates mixed media sculptures, is an adjunct faculty member at the College of Charleston and artist in residence at the Gibbes Museum. Thierry, a ceramicist, teaches at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.

Jena Thomas at the CCA prize exhibition
Jena Thomas at the CCA prize exhibition

“This is a huge honor, especially since I was showing alongside such amazingly talented artists like Carey and Alex,” Thomas said. “Also, this was my second time being a finalist for this prize. I want my students to know that they should never be discouraged if they don’t reach their goals on their first try…just keep at it, work hard, stay positive and eventually you will succeed!”

This is the fourth time the prize has been awarded since its inception in 2014. “With the 701 CCA Prize, 701 Center for Contemporary Art has added a crucial component to the eco-system for artists and the visual arts in South Carolina,” Roefs said. “Prior to this 701 CCA initiative, the state did not have a prominent event to highlight the best young talent in South Carolina.”

“I want my students to know that they should never be discouraged if they don’t reach their goals on their first try…just keep at it, work hard, stay positive and eventually you will succeed!”

As the winner, Thomas will receive a six-week, paid residency at 701 CCA; a solo exhibition at 701 CCA; and an ad in a national art magazine. The finalists and winner were selected by an independent jury consisting of Osamu Kobayashi, Brooklyn, N.Y., painter and Columbia, S.C., native; Jessica Moss, curator, artist, writer and founder of The Roll Up CLT in Charlotte, N.C.; and Catherine Walworth, curator of the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, S.C.

The 701 CCA Prize 2018 exhibition will remain on view through December 23, 2018.

Thomas says her work engages in a contemporary dialogue with concerns about land development. “I am interested in how human beings ‘idealize’ what nature is and then use this basis to create artificial environments for ourselves to exist within. At times, these fabricated environments can devolve into chaos. It is no longer just an issue of domesticating the land to make it livable, we have reached a point where we are constantly transforming our world into a suburban theme park.”

Thomas uses a combination of synthetic colors and naturalistic landscapes in her effort to capture the unnatural oddities of spaces such as swimming pools, miniature golf courses and highway medians.

Other works in the series examine how we as a contemporary society view landscapes. “Whether that be through a computer screen, camera or a windowpane as we are moving past it, we always seem to have an obstructed view,” she says. “These devices flatten our landscapes and even our experience and memory of a place. In these paintings, distance becomes a form of abstraction. By working with an aerial perspective it allows me to explore a less traditional approach to landscape and forces a technologized view – or a minimalist approach – putting the subject in stark relief. As I continue to work with this subject I strive to maintain a consistent vein between man-made objects, otherworldly colors, and a disorienting portrayal of how humans have managed to make the natural more sublime in our quest to invent an artificial oasis.”


Thomas was a finalist for the 701 CCA Prize 2016. She received her MFA from the University of Miami in Florida and joined the Converse Department of Art & Design in 2016. She has exhibited extensively in the past decade in Florida and New England. Among her recent solo and two-person exhibitions are those at Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery in Stamford, Con.; Contemporary Art Space in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; and Green Monkey in Miami. Thomas has been represented at Art Hamptons, Art Palm Beach and the Miami International Art Fair. She has exhibited at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the Coral Gables Museum, and the South Florida Cultural Center, all in Florida. Her work was selected for New American Painting’s 2014 MFA Edition.

“Once again, the number of good, exciting young artists in South Carolina allowed the jury panel to select three outstanding artists as finalists for the 701 CCA Prize 2018,” Roefs said. “The competition was fierce.”