Artscape: Mark Thomas

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Like all of the artists represented by Lindsay Gallery, Mark Thomas is self-taught, but talking to him reveals that he's taken his studies seriously.

"I do love educating myself on artists," Thomas said the other day on a visit to the gallery, where installation was underway for his first solo show. "I started looking at impressionists, just started studying because I liked the pictures, then started creating my own."

Thomas said that as a kid growing up in Columbus, he doodled with a dream of becoming "the next Charles Schulz." As he got older his tastes matured, but his interest in creating art held on.

By 18 he was absorbing books on the masters and experimenting on his own with paint, but he was struggling with direction.

Eventually, he found a couple of favorites in European modernists Marc Chagall and Paul Klee, and when Thomas moved back to Columbus after some time living in Delaware, he found his muse: his new neighborhood in Whitehall.

"Once I got into the city, I saw my subject matter around me," he explained. "Black, white, Latino - you name it, it's in Whitehall. The scenes are just there."

Thomas' self-directed studies didn't take him to the 20th-century American regionalists, like Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton, one of gallery owner Duff Lindsay's favorite artists. But when Thomas first brought some work to the gallery in May after being directed there by a church acquaintance, Lindsay saw a strong connection nonetheless.

"Amazingly, he was unaware of the term [American regionalism]," Lindsay recalled. "He absorbed these influences somewhere but he has no idea where. Strangely, we see that in a lot of self-taught artists.

"I look at dozens and dozens of artists' work every year," he said. "While I see a lot of stuff I like, there's not that much that I like and that fits into my mission. The first few pieces I saw by Mark knocked me out. I said to him, 'You have to swear to me you didn't go to art school.'"

Aside from the similarities in subject matter, style and energetic physicality between the work of Thomas and the regionalists, Lindsay was impressed by the artist's facility with different mediums, from acrylic and pastels to less forgiving oils.

Examples of each will be on view at the gallery, with most pieces following Chagall's lead of translating a generally warm view of the place called home to canvas. "He painted his world; I think that's what I do," Thomas said.

The garbage men assigned to his street are commemorated in "The Trash Collectors" and kids playing basketball get their turn in "On the Court."

On the seamier side, in "The Brawl" a mother watches passively on her porch as tempers rage nearby, and "Dance Club" represents a personal history of some time in bars, as Thomas sheepishly admitted.

His favorite piece in the show, also his most recent work, sums up many of Thomas' strengths.

"Family Outing" depicts a family of three at a bus stop, in a landscape of dramatically limited color range, uniquely flattened perspective and muscular painterly texture. The pavement rises precariously in game-board turns, filling the space between the figures and the buildings behind them, their spewing smoke echoed by the patriarch's cigarette.

Thomas' show will hang through August, but to take it all in, be sure to see it in July. Early next month a piece will be cribbed for a survey of Ohio folk art that Lindsay's curating at the Mansfield Art Center and, in mid-August, he'll take another piece to Atlanta to introduce Thomas to Folk Fest, the largest show of folk art in the world.