By Dakota Parks for Inweekly
If you’ve been to a Pensacola Arts Market or Gallery Night, chances are you’ve seen Tyler Thomas slinging his wares. For the local trans artist, homesteader, foster parent and self-proclaimed wook, making art in the woods is his happy place.
As the owner of ShugaWooks, an upcycled boutique, Thomas spends his days carving and burning decorations into wood with pyrography tools and patching together recycled leather scraps to make his bricolage art pieces. In honor of Transgender Awareness Week, observed each year between Nov. 13–19 to bring visibility to the trans community, we spoke with Thomas about his journey creating art and carving out his identity.
Like many artists, Thomas’ journey began by leaving home. He moved from the Pensacola Bay Area to New Orleans, where he grew as an artist and began his transition. Enamored by the travel bug, he began traveling in the festival circuit, working in harm reduction and creating art in his van to peddle for spare gas money. After six years living as a nomad out of his van, the pandemic brought him back to his childhood home, where he has spent the last two years building out an art studio and homestead with his family.
“I just turned 37, and I first came out as transgender at 24, so things were a lot different back then,” Thomas said. “I had a big queer friend base, and we would all go to the gay clubs together, but I still didn’t fit in with the lesbian crowd. Nearly all of my friends stopped talking to me after I transitioned, which is something no one talks about—how exclusionary the queer community can be toward trans people. It can also be really nerve wracking being trans in the South, feeling like you have to be constantly looking over your shoulder. So that really made me want to find new people who accepted me, so I left home.”
Along the way, Thomas met his partner, Echo, at a music festival, and the two began traveling and creating art together. Here, ShugaWooks was born.
“A wook is usually a derogatory term for a dirty hippie that lives in the woods—no shoes, no shirt, no job. They might borrow your spoon and never bring it back,” Thomas jokingly explained. “So, one day, Echo and I were making pendants with acorns and crystals, and they said to me, ‘You’re such a wook.’ But I add sugar to everything because I’m from the South—like a true diabetic Southern kid raised on sugarcane. So I said, ‘You got to add a little sugar to it.’ From that day on, we started selling art as ShugaWooks—trying to redeem the word and add a little sweetness to it.”
Like a true wook, Thomas creates art out of trash and recycled materials—wood fallen from hurricanes, window shutters discarded in the trash, leather repurposed from thrift stores or assembled from scraps. One innovation of Thomas’ are his repurposed window shutter art pieces, which change scenes as the shutters are opened and closed. Working primarily with wood and leather, many of his leather creations are utilitarian, such as wallets, bottle holders, lighter and knife holders—and even spoon holders.
“I create a lot of pieces that I also utilize. I’m one of those people that loves being out in the wild. Drop me off in the woods with a bottle of water and a knife, and I’ll be alright,” he said. “Using upcycled material also means I have a lot of random shapes and sizes of leather scraps, so I use these weird shapes for lighter holders and silverware holders so I don’t produce any trash and can use all of the material I have. Plus, I get to say, ‘Look I’m a dirty wook with my own spoon and fork right here.’”
Creating and selling sustainable art has helped Thomas grow as a person, build community and explore his identity. Although he creates specific pride-themed pendants, jewelry and leather bracelets during Pride month, he explained that his art is rooted in nature and trying to put forth joy into the world.
“I try to be as authentic as possible, but I don’t try to base my life or art around being trans,” he said. “It’s not easy to wake up and say, ‘I am in the wrong body.’ It was such a struggle and battle for so many years with depression and everything that goes in hand with it, so I try not to let it be the main focal point. I put out art that makes me happy in hopes that it makes whoever nearest to me happy too.”
Thomas explained that Pensacola has grown into a more accepting city since he left, and he is proud to sell his work at events like Pensacola Art Market’s annual PensaPride event, which allows him to connect with young queer people and be the mentor and representation he didn’t have when he needed it most.
“I’m really proud of our community for growing and changing so much. It has made me happy to be home,” Thomas explained. “I’ve gotten to meet so many young trans kids that I’m so proud of and thankful to meet at family-friendly events like PensaPride. I’m even more thankful to their parents for being willing to bring them to these spaces. Some have come up and told me they follow me on Instagram and just want to talk to me. It warms my heart to the max because that’s what we needed down here. I didn’t even have the language for this when I was their age. I just want to help them feel proud to be in their own skin and let them know that they’re in a safe space.”
You can find ShugaWooks selling their art at nearly any local market. To peruse their work, visit @theshugawooks on Instagram and Facebook.