For twenty-five years Marcus Thomas, 52, has been making paintings one deliberate stroke of paint at a time, using a brush he grasps with his teeth. For Thomas, art is everything. “It is my voice and my method of messaging,” he says. “Just the act of painting is critical and important to me. Everything else has become secondary.”
The irony is that before the accident that left him nearly completely paralyzed Thomas never thought about art. “I would never have even attempted it,” he says. At the time he was freshly out of college and heading towards a career in recreation management. “I think we’re pushed away from such things at a very young age and we do things that are more expected of us.”
On March 3rd, 1986 at the age of 23, Thomas was skiing with friends in Western North Carolina when he slipped and collided headfirst into a tree, breaking his 3rd and 4th vertebrae. As a result, he lost all ability to move his arms and legs. The accident was devastating and he spent months recovering physically and emotionally. One day his girlfriend, Anne, and his sister, Amanda, bought him a set of watercolors — “a real casual tray of Crayolas” and he made his first painting, which he describes as a “third grade doodle.”
Anne, who later became Thomas’ wife, recalls, “It was just a fluke. We thought we’d just give him something to mess around with. We didn’t expect him to do anything with it.”
But from that point on Thomas was hooked and painted every chance he had. He has never taken a formal class in drawing or painting, and has managed to teach himself how to render birds, flowers, and foliage to extreme perfection. “Anything you do long enough you can master,” he says. “You just have to stay focused.”
While he loves the sordid stories of painters like Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, Thomas most appreciates the work of the old master painters like Hans Holbein and Johannes Vermeer. “I like any painter — any artist,” Thomas exclaims. “Whether its sculpture, music or the written word, I just love it all. I think anybody who is an artist can appreciate that.”
Thomas’ earliest paintings are simpler in composition, and over the years he has evolved so that he “can message more deeply” through his work. Though he learned to paint using watercolors, Thomas switched into oil painting twelve years ago. Achieving detail with the watercolors became too laborious he says. “I like the permanence of oil and that you don’t have to frame it behind glass.”
Thomas divides his time between North Carolina and Florida where he spends the winters promoting his work at art fairs. The studio in his Weaverville home is spacious; a large TV plays his favorite art videos and a wall of windows reveal the expansive woods behind his home. His dog, Bella, keeps him company while Anne checks in occasionally to bring him coffee, squeeze out his paints, and make adjustments to his canvas as he needs them. She also heads up the business end of the whole operation, working on promoting and selling his work. “It’s something I’ve just learned how to do, through trial and error as I’ve gone along,” she says.
A variety of taxidermy creatures peer from the corners of Thomas’ studio — they have made their way into Thomas’ work — like the bobcat a friend gave him, which shows up in a painting surrounded by a flurry of cedar waxwings. I’ve always been comfortable with realism and wild life,” says Thomas. “It fits my personality before the accident when I was always outside, camping and hiking.”
His most recent painting, “The Watch,” shows a raven flying from lightness into darkness. A stopwatch is clenched in his beak — bits of it fall apart in flight. A reflection of Thomas’ eye appears in the watch, while a paintbrush, a tube of paint, and a scrap of paper with a scrawled poem, trail behind the broken watch. “It’s about my frustration with the passage of time,” says Thomas. “Time moves so quickly and it continues to speed up as we near the end. Time is the most valuable commodity and it doesn’t stop.”
In another painting of a blue heron, a lush background of Thomas’ most beloved pigment, Payne’s grey, is mixed with raw umber. Up close, the feathered circular strokes of the brush are apparent and lend richness to the deep licorice hue. The velvety background pushes up against more calculated details of feathers and claws. “Because of my physical limitations, the circular motion with the brush is comfortable for me,” says Thomas.
Currently, the Thomases are putting the finishing touches on a retrospective coffee table book they will be releasing independently in spring of 2012 with the help of writer Leslee Johnson. The book chronicles all the stages of Thomas’ painting career, his accident and his life before the accident. We’ve had to delve into everything from my childhood to adulthood,” says Thomas. ” It’s been eye-opening and inspirational for me.”
Visit www.marcusthomasart.com for details.