George Thomas -Spring 2009

by: Joshua B. Gray

James Joyce once wrote, “The artist… standing in the position of mediator between the world of his experience and the world of his dreams… To equate these faculties was the secret of artistic success.”

George Thomas approaches his art as if it were the dream.

“If I can get away from reality where I get into a world of paint or a dream world, I find great satisfaction in this work,” he said.

From the time he was very young, Thomas has drawn and painted. Now 75, his career has been as diverse as his art, encompassing many mediums from prints to oils to watercolors.

Nantucket, however, has been a constant. His gallery and studio on Candle Street, which he has occupied for years, is where he paints in the off-season (he and his wife spend summers in Nova Scotia) and where much of the evidence of his artistic journey can be found.

An oil of Brant Point lighthouse painted in 1946 when he was 12 hangs in one corner facing the artist as he paints. Vivid colors and the lines of a burgeoning talent shape the portrait that is surrounded by many other reminders of where he has come from.

Lining one wall is a series of etchings based on Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” Crafted in the early 1960s, these too are an example of his artistic process, combining the elements of light, motion and structure into a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing idea.

The son of a preacher born in Baltimore, Maryland, Thomas moved frequently as his father was stationed throughout the eastern United States. He went on to attend Princeton University, then served as an officer in the Navy leading a special unit that painted portraits of admirals and commissions of buildings, as well as planning large social events.

After leaving the Navy he headed off to school again, this time at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He began with painting, eventually spreading his artistic wings to encompass printmaking and etchings.

Working as a photographer-in-residence at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts provided Thomas with an opportunity at a professorship in the same subject at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During this time Thomas met his future wife, Lynn Zimmerman.

Looking for a change and a simpler way of life, the couple soon made their way to Nova Scotia. Here they worked the land and began to raise their two sons, Nathaniel and Jonathan. Eventually, they began returning to Nantucket during the winters, educating their sons in island schools.

The family became a part of the 1970s agrarian culture in the Margaree Valley of Nova Scotia where they lived. While working his farm, Thomas also returned to photography, shooting weddings and portraits to provide extra income for his family.

As he examined the community around him, he began to see the dichotomy of a changing place, where one way of life was quickly being lost to a new one.

“The documentarian in me saw this happening and I wanted to do something about it,” said Thomas. He went on to bring together a book of images called “Margaree: Photographs of Cape Breton.”

The book examines the gentrification of the place. Filling some pages of the book are the dilapidated homes of elders whose progeny have left home for greener pastures and a fully automated world. Other times his images were composed of these people’s rugged faces, wrinkled and hardened from a lifetime of working with their hands completely independent of the luxury of machinery. He befriended many of these people, on whose generation and way of life the sun was setting, never to be seen again.

He is protective of this place that has become as much a home as Nantucket. With his children now grown with families of their own, Thomas and his wife continue to spend a portion of the year on their farm in Cape Breton, in a small town in the valley, where a new generation lives and acts out a new way of life.

Seemingly going against the grain of most seasonal residents, each spring Thomas and his wife head north for the summer to enjoy the warm weather, fishing and peace and quiet. An avid fly fisherman, Thomas and his sons have spent years angling in the babbling rivers of the region. At home on the water, he has also owned and sailed his own schooner since the early 1980s, taking fishermen and tourists out on the water at times to make extra money.

He said he felt fortunate, however, to have been able to support his family through his art.

“I am so lucky that I am this age and I have been able to paint my whole life,” he said. “It has not always been a great way to make a living, but it has worked.”

From that first time he saw Brant Point in the 1940s, Nantucket has been a major part of Thomas’ life. He holds the distinction of being the longest-running member of the Nantucket Artists Association and has shown his work in island galleries since he was a teenager.

“I think of him very highly and I have known him for many years,” said Reggie Levine, Nantucket arts patron and one-time owner of Main Street Gallery where Thomas showed some of his early paintings. “His commitment to the Artists Association and the art community is astounding. His talent and this commitment is an invaluable resource to Nantucket.”

His images of the island have spanned many subjects within the many mediums he has explored. Whether it has been a watercolor, oil, acrylic or a pastel painting (his focus for the past 15 years), light has always been a commonality to his work.

As an artist who primarily begins each painting by sketching his subjects, Thomas sees his work as a delicate balance of light.

“Light has been my muse in a way,” said Thomas. “That is what Nantucket has meant to me. The light here is amazing and I have painted so many pieces looking into the light. It creates almost an optical effect in my eyes, an impressionist vision similar to what Monet and others saw.”

This impressionistic vision is something he finds himself painting more and more as he gets older and perfects his love affair with pastels, a medium he said he’s attracted to because of its softness and texture.

Another aspect of his maturity as an artist is expressed through a form of automatic response to stimuli around him.

“I just let my hand get ahead of my mind,” he said. “I have become very interested in simply letting my trained hand operate without thinking.” This style has brought to his catalog of work paintings that sometimes include several mediums, styles and subjects on one canvas.

For now, he is content to continue his exploration of pastels, but will not limit himself by any means. In reference to his age, his said there is somewhat of a tendency to slow down or at least narrow his focus, but through this he gains valuable experience and insight.

“There is a slowing down. It doesn’t happen in everyone, but I don’t feel as free as I once was. When I was young, much of my work was very free, especially my watercolors, but getting older I allow myself to work in a certain way and get better at it as I go,” he said.

He takes these changes as they come. One will occur when he leaves his Candle Street gallery this spring for Nova Scotia. Upon his return, he won’t be back downtown. Instead, he’s setting up a studio out of his Monomoy home where he plans to paint each day and hopes to show his work in other galleries. He said this is partly due to the fact that he believes he will enjoy working from home, but also due to the recent economy which he said has been hard on artists in general.

Thomas was recently celebrated by the Artists Association with a 60-year retrospective. This exhibition was the result of the AAN’s gallery curator, Robert Frazier, coming across some of Thomas’ early paintings in the AAN’s permanent collection.

“This seemed like an opportunity to celebrate an artist who has been on Nantucket for a long time and got himself involved in the arts way back,” said Frazier.

In addition to six decades worth of artwork, the exhibit featured a gam with the artist where he related some of his many stories of both Nantucket and Nova Scotia collected over the years.

A Canadian documentary made about Thomas and his work on the “Margaree” book was also shown.

Joshua B. Gray covers arts for The Inquirer and Mirror and is a contributor to Nantucket Today.

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