by Deborah Fagan Carpenter

 One man’s trash is—well—another man’s haute couture. Paul Thomas makes vogueish fashions from objects that many would consider useless rubbish, an innovative contribution to the art world that simultaneously calls attention to responsible waste disposal.

Repurposing discards of just about anything into astonishing art came about as a result of necessity for Paul, (the name of his business is “art in the dark”) but it has become his trademark. The Memphis Commercial Appeal has named him the “Recycling King.” Often unable to purchase art supplies and fabric, Thomas simply sources his necessary materials from thrift stores, curbsides, yard sales, and yes, occasionally garbage cans. A child’s thrown away stuffed animal becomes a charming handbag; a soaking wet pile of fabric ribbon from a flooded street becomes an exquisite black boa. No discarded item is safe from the creative ingenuity of Paul Thomas.

2.Curbside Couture

Every artist’s work blossoms with the aid of a muse, and so, Paul Thomas conceived Maria Vincenzo to serve as his. Once a bag lady, she too, collected discarded rags from which she constructed beautiful garments. Discovered by the Queen of England, she became the rage of the fashion world, and eventually opened a design house in the style capital, Paris. Commissioned by the French government during World War II as a spy, she created samples into which code was sewn and subsequently shipped all over the world. After the war, the illusive heroine quietly disappeared into the obscurity whence she came, never to be seen again. A worthy muse indeed.

Creation through recycling has not gone unnoticed by organizations around the South. Memphis City Beautiful has hosted a “Trashion” show since 2012, to encourage people to clean up the environment. In Shelby County alone, over a million tons of trash a year goes into landfills, so with stunning exaggeration, artists such as Paul Thomas are demonstrating that much of what is thrown away can be reconceived as something beautiful and/or useful.

At the 2014 Trashion show, Thomas was named Best of Show by presenting a gown made from Christmas ribbon, hospital scrubs and a used, beaded dress, all constructed via his own skillful technique. The supplies used by the artists at the show are collected from within the community, and the money raised at the show is then put back into circulation in the city in the form of community gardens, tree planting and city beautification projects—a cycle of recycling.

3.Best of Show

Paul’s reputation as “Recycling King” has followed him to Little Rock, where he serves as the featured finale at The Clinton Library’s “Curbside Couture” each year. The annual event features the work of 98 to 100 art students, some of whom are awarded scholarships to design school. Paul is passionate about sharing what he has learned, and anxious to encourage the students and to impart any helpful advice which might boost their creative spirit. Coca-Cola was the sponsor of last year’s show, and the product was of course the focus of Paul’s designs. The inventive designs are a combination of cleverly put together bottle caps, cut up card board from packaging, pop tops, cut up cans and Coca-Cola shoe strings.

4.Coca-Cola show

“I follow fabulous taste!” says Thomas, who, inspired early on by his Mother, a fashion model, has deliberately surrounded himself with people who have exquisite taste and knowledge in order to learn from them. Working alongside notable representatives of the fashion, interior design and art worlds, he has devoured their expertise, all the while acquiring his own inspired style. One of those, Memphis and Arkansas fashion icon Babbie Lovett, recently used 30 of Paul’s designs in an extravaganza at the Ken Theatre in McCrory, Arkansas, including shawls, boas, jewelry, hats and scarves.

5.black boa

Conception for Paul Thomas is hardly limited to fashion however. In 2001, he acquired a lovely, but dilapidated home on a prestigious street in Memphis, and in three years was able to turn it into a showplace, using his resourceful method of “find and repurpose.” After completion, the home was featured in a two page spread in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. His talent also extends to home staging and the selling of antiques and used decorative items.

“It’s all about the work,” says Thomas who is in a state of productive bliss most of the time. Financial reward has not come easily to the imaginative prodigy, but the love of the process and the thrill of seeing a finished product has been compensation enough to keep him engaged in his innovative endeavors. Joining forces with friends, Babbie Lovett and John McIntire, Paul is currently participating in the 2nd Terrain Biennial, an international exhibition of site specific art made for front yards, balconies and porches. Paul fashioned eyes out of strobe lights, with eye lashes made from cut up plastic bottles. Various colors of eye balls represent the diversity in his neighborhood, and the point of his display is to help the Neighborhood Watch group say, “We’ve got eyes on you!”

6.I've got eyes on you

Eyes will likely remain on Paul V Thomas too, as he and Maria Vincenzo continue the repurposing of the material world into clever and thought provoking art. He’s lessening the environmental footprint one piece of art at a time.


The photos of the model in the hat, the green ribbon dress, and the Coca-Cola fashions were provided by Paul Thomas

All other photos by Deborah Fagan Carpenter