T Lavois Thiebaud, a nonbinary Houston-based multimedia artist who uses both they/their and she/her pronouns, has always felt the need to create. As a kid, they made parodies of books, replaced the main protagonists’ names with the names of family members, and gave the artfully plagiarized knock-offs as carefully bound gifts to relatives. They also performed musical parodies at family functions and handed out the lyrics so everyone could join in on the fun.
“I was this little person who was always making something or planning some kind of spectacle,” Thiebaud recalls. “It’s essential to my truth and my sanity. I needed to build a world where I could create art.”
Art has always been Thiebaud’s lifeline. The 31-year-old pansexual, polyamorous queer performer adds that their sexual and gender identity shaped both their love life and their approach to art. “My romantic life features multiple partners, and so does my art. I believe you learn more about yourself and how to move through this reality by sharing the work with others. I just think it’s more fun to invite people into the magic. I seek connectivity.”
Born in Nacogdoches, Thiebaud lived in small towns for most of their childhood, before settling closer to Houston during their junior year of high school. They attended the University of Houston in 2007 and graduated three years later with honors and a degree in theater performance.
Then in 2011, Thiebaud moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and writing. However, after participating in the Upright Citizens Brigade Improvisational and Sketch Comedy Training Center (“the only accredited improv and sketch comedy school in the country,” according to the center’s website), their goals changed.
“I attribute every good thing in my life to improv training,” Thiebaud says. “I think it’s one of the most useful tools I have.”
Inspired by the program, they began busking poetry on the streets of L.A. for pay, produce, small treasures, and trades. For seven years, they wrote poems on a vintage typewriter based on one-word prompts from onlookers.
Poetry busking pushed Thiebaud as a writer, and they appreciate the opportunities for connection and community their improvised writing sessions have offered. Thiebaud was once even invited to write poems at the wedding of a couple whom they had met and wrote a poem for years earlier when the couple was out on a date.
The improvised solo performances inspired Thiebaud to move away from the stage and toward the multimedia performance-art realm.
Thiebaud has always supported independent artists, and multimedia has given them the tools to provide both themselves and fellow creatives the space to invent and connect with others. “I think people desperately need community—especially artists who are queer or on the fringe. They need that support, and my art is an extension of that need.”
Multimedia has also given Thiebaud the freedom to explore meaningful, often abstract themes. Cell Lust | a body, their largest work with nonbinary interdiciplinary artist and curator Emilý Æyer, featured projections, performers, music, and poetry about nonbinary entities “as told through celestial bodies of the universe.” The 2018 Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) performance piece explored and normalized the nonbinary identity and highlighted Thiebaud’s conservative religious upbringing.
“I grew up in a really conservative religious household, so the idea of being a good citizen of the Earth is important to me,” Thiebaud says. “A lot of my work is an exploration of morality and meaning outside of a dogmatic structure, which is something that I really enjoyed during my work at CAMH.”
Watch Endgame, a video created by Thiebaud for National Pleasure, below:
Thiebaud’s performances seek to challenge societal norms and explore themes of “otherness” and nonconformity, introducing audiences to a kinder interpretation of humanity. “My performances challenge [the notion that being queer is not natural] when, in fact, we’re very ‘of this universe.’ There are examples of nonconformity all around us. I think the natural world is more inclusive than we’ve been taught to believe. I want to expose that truth.”
Their recent projects tackle similar themes. Thiebaud is currently the residency associate for the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, which supports artists by covering rent and grocery costs and providing uninterrupted time to create in a beautiful mountain setting. Thiebaud has been researching Northern California’s local flora and fauna to create an audio album called Mountain Clown. They are especially interested in the yellow-bellied newt, which is lethal to humans if ingested. Although the term “yellow belly” can mean “cowardly,” the newt’s yellow skin (its most vulnerable quality) is also where it is most toxic, an irony that Thiebaud relates to as a queer person.
“I love this idea that our tenderness—what is perceived as our weakness—is, in actuality, our greatest strength,” they say. “Our tenderness is rendered toxic to those who want to swallow us, to keep us down. We can fight oppression with radical tenderness and great care for ourselves and others.”
As the Djerassi Resident Artists Program residency associate, Thiebaud is writing poetry inspired by various Northern California creatures, and connecting the literature to humanity. They wrote the following poem based on the yellow newt:
We can be an army
Of soft skin
And exposed bellies
Because exposing our belly
Means also exposing our heart
And tenderness is radical enough
To kill what can’t digest it as a viable nutrient
As the most essential nutrient
Mountain Clown will feature recorded poems and songs that play over a soundscape Thiebaud captured on the diverse Djerassi Program acreage, creating a multimedia experience.
They are also producing videos for several tracks on the album, and have developed or are in the process of producing a few music videos featuring Houston musicians that will kick off later this year.
One of the upcoming music videos includes stop-motion animation starring Swimwear Department, a Houston surf rock band. Thiebaud is also creating a two-part music video featuring Merel and Tony, a group formed by Merel van Dijk, a Dutch musician living in Rome, and Anthony Barilla, a Houston-based writer and composer.
Thiebaud says that they feel extremely privileged to be where they are now, in a safe place with a job and the ability to work and reach out to friends. During these trying times, they hope audiences will support Black artists, activists, and budding multimedia artists.
When asked what new artists should keep in mind as they create, Thiebaud says, “Don’t be bogged down in labeling what you do—just do it. Don’t ever label yourself. Find your family, build your community, and seek out your cohorts—the people who are excited about you and your work. Find people who want to tell stories with you.”
See more of Thiebaud’s work at tracilavoisthiebaud.com.
This article appears in the August 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.