In the opening scene, a large imposing man in an overcoat bends down over a bank of red clay in the Oconee River valley in the winter of 1964. Carefully he scoops up a sample of the soil, and then returns to what we recognize as an artist’s studio. He grinds the earth in a mortar and pestle, and prepares a strange concoction: gum arabic, water, honey and a little benzoate of soda. Finally, the red powder goes in: It’s pigment in an old paint recipe. Howard Thomas is about to use it in a painting he’s working on.
We watch, as one of the South’s most important 20th-century modernist painters begins to circumnavigate a piece of watercolor paper on the floor, in moves reminiscent of t’ai chi. As he makes even, deliberate marks over the surface, his voice-over succinctly declares, “I believe that a painting should exist as a beautiful thing in itself without having to resemble objects in the outer world.”
It’s a perfect expression of the modernist credo: art for art’s sake. But with Thomas, such a claim is complicated. He’s obviously more than interested in nature. You can see it, no matter how abstract the rendering, in the place titles of many of his works, like “Cherry Cove.”
Then there’s the red clay–and the pigments carefully derived from other terrains. Landscape, quite literally, is part of his work, implicit in almost all we see from him. Significantly, his reflection of nature in these works in never visually literal. Rather, it’s improvisational, intuitive and idiosyncratic, ignoring–on purpose–the grandiose statements of the American abstract impressionists.
The implicit tensions in the film “Earth Red” make a fitting introduction to a retrospective of his work at Raleigh’s Lee Hansley Gallery. Howard Thomas: A Survey of His Paintings, the fourth in a series of shows Hansley’s dedicated to the painter, focuses on the output of his last two decades, 1951-1970, while including enough earlier examples to illuminate his artistic path.
The show illustrates Thomas’ growth from the dark and moody expressionist landscapes of the early-to-mid ’40s to his later non-objective style. We can see his move from examples like “Keenan’s House” and “Island Remains,” in which powerful linear elements and a preoccupation with architectural structure prefigure later developments.
“Oconee,” from 1954, shows bolder moves as houses and rooftops abstract into Cezanne-like interlocking blocks and triangles, as does 1955’s “Bulldozer,” where black circular lines weaving through a jumble of strokes at the base of the picture plane limn the last vestiges of the machine. Such explorations culminate in his purer, non-objective mature style, exemplified by many of the paintings here, most dramatically “Red and Blue Contrapuntal” and “Red Dispersal,” arguably the finest paintings in the show.
Thomas taught at the University of Georgia from 1945 until his retirement in 1965, when he and his wife moved to Carrboro. Hansley’s selection here of 36 Thomas works, co-curated with the artist’s wife, Anne Wall Thomas, gives us an opportunity to study his paintings in an intimate setting.
If Pollock used dramatic drips and symphonic swirls over monumental canvases, Thomas’s measured strokes on easel-sized surfaces recall the measured rhythms of chamber music. Thomas was more influenced by the European abstraction of Cezanne and Mondrian, and profoundly affected by his travels in Japan.
As in haiku, seasonal allusions are intimated. The elongated format of 1962’s “Cherry Festival” recalls Asian scrolls; its delicate pinks against a gray ground echo the wind-swept fall of petals in earliest spring. “Red Dispersal”‘s fiery red calligraphic interweavings conjure a blazing summer’s heat, while in “Untitled 582,” the wintry field of micaceous gray paint, visibly made of earth itself, reveals buried flecks of orange, ochre and lilac.
Thomas references the passage of time and geological formations in these works: the slow way in which they are built up, layer by layer, until a satisying visual ensemble is achieved.
The relationship of music to these paintings was vital to Thomas. In his studio, he always painted to music. In the film, he says that music helps him “continue the uninterrupted rhythmic search for long visual paths through the painting.” If you imagine each color as a musical phrase which travels throughout the work–a dominant tone as the theme with complementary hues serving as counterpoint–you will see colors rise and fall like notes, and breathe like musical rests in spaces where the eye pauses.
These carefully crafted paintings are the result of rigorous self-discipline and unswerving devotion to a well-defined personal aesthetic. They are of their time, yet they’ve stood the test of time. Despite their ostensible whirl of activity, they emanate a serenity which seems part of Thomas’s own taciturn nature, deeply rooted in the Quaker faith into which he was born. They are quiet meditations on what was true in his experience: places for the mind to seek refuge.
Here’s a list of things you don’t usually see in an art museum: Feed sacks, hand-dyed sheeting and cotton from the fields; old clothes, misprinted mill-ends, and scraps of drapery fabric, tied up with cotton twine left over from tobacco curing.
In the hands of Rella Thompson, a daughter of freed slaves, these humble ingredients underwent an alchemical change. It’s why the fifteen quilts made from those elements are currently on view in Rural Legacy: The Quilts of Rella Thompson and Her Daughters, in Meredith College’s Frankie G. Weems Gallery.
The quilts were discovered in rural Franklin County by great-grandson Percy Cooke in 1994, in a trunk belonging to a recently deceased great-aunt. Their survival through decades of hard farm life is nearly miraculous. They also survived a close call from Hurricane Floyd.
The quilts live–not neatly, but spilling over edges and surprising us with unexpected combinations. “Queen Anne Strip” is a delightful harmony of aged ivory, pale blue, faded rose, and florals, a peer to any color field painting from the “art world.” Its name comes from the printed pattern on one of its mill-end fabric strips. Familiar patterns gain vitality, like the pastel “Courthouse Steps” or “Drunkard’s Path” executed in bold saffron against black, or the “String Quilt” of 1925, which uses the same saffron cloth, combined with deeper orange set off against royal violet in a diamond pattern.
Necessity bestows expressive power on these quilts. Whenever a fabric strip was too short to run the length of a quilt, another tag of fabric was simply sewn on to complete it. In one work, a long tan strip ends in a short deep indigo scrap. There are few straight lines in the piecing, and no complex dallying in the quilting–just straightforward diagonal lines made with the strong, visible stitches cotton twine allowed.
These quilts become more of an achievement considering the circumstances in which they were made. They are art against all odds (although Rella likely wouldn’t have thought of them that way), created by a remarkable woman, one of 16 children in her own family, who raised five children while performing all the duties of a rural farm wife.
While you’re at Meredith, take the time to visit the Rotunda Gallery, where In the Footsteps: Continuing the Legacy, an excellent group exhibition by the African American Quilt Circle, is on view. These modern quilts, full of strong personal narratives and spiritual journeys, are truly inspired interpretations of the form.