The Sage Brush from Montana
A memoir of a boyhood spent with
Bernard Preston Thomas - western muralist
By Peter Erik Wessen - eastern student
Copyright © 2008 – todo los derechos reservado 2008
The first time I saw Bernard Thomas he was sitting in front of the Grand Canyon with paint palette in one hand and paint brush in the other. He was putting the finishing touches on the canyon portion of a mural depicting the history of America. A roadside billboard proclaimed “America the Beautiful” as the world’s largest 3-D mural. James Melton, famous opera singer and collector of antique cars, commissioned the mural as an addition to his Autorama; one of many Florida roadside attractions attempting to detour the tourist dollar before it reached Miami. The summer I visited was the same summer that President Eisenhower announced the need for an Interstate Highway system, a system that would eventually cause the
disappearance of that gauntlet of alligator farms and other tourist attractions that extended from Jacksonville to Miami. The Autorama, parked on manicured acreage fronting the intracoastal waterway about eight miles south of Palm Beach and some fifty miles north of Miami, was one of many educational outings on which my mother took me that summer of ‘55. The outing to the Autorama would become, to use the cowboy idiom of Bernard Thomas, the beginning of “happy trails” for me.
My mother and I had recently arrived in Lake Worth, Florida; a mom and pop town located half way between Palm Beach and the Autorama. My father was tying up loose ends in Vermont while mom secured an apartment and enrolled me in school. Meanwhile my older brother traveled around Dixie hanging tubes of toothpaste on doorknobs. (You can thank him for introducing Gleem to the south). While the family busied themselves with daily tasks I looked forward to the adventure of becoming a ninth grader and a teenager.
Like any boy about to turn thirteen, I had the usual fascination with things, especially things with motors. I walked about the Melton exhibit of cars and daydreamed of riding in each one of them. But that fascination came to an abrupt stop when I entered the mural room. I didn’t know then but a year later I would be riding in Thomas’ own antique (but uncollectible) auto.
The mural had its own room and was empty of distractions save for the mural and the busy artist. As you entered the bowl shaped room, scenes from the history of the United States were presented from east to west. The other two points of the compass were defined by cutouts and other tricks of carpentry. The mural also hinted at the European immigrant experience making it more than a condensed history lesson. Crossing the threshold at the mural’s east you followed the panorama westward. Finally exiting by the Grand Canyon leaving behind the familiar voice of radio broadcaster Lowell Thomas, whose recorded narration told the story of “America the Beautiful”.
I was impressed that one man could paint so large, and not only that… there he sat to my left! By the exit! Sitting on the floor defining the great canyon’s shadows and highlights. I was completely absorbed in what he was doing. As interested as I was in antique autos, I found myself more fascinated with the artist as he drew cool highlights, twisting his brush for thick and thin, and varying the thickness and thinness of the paint.
As kindling is to fire I had one of those ‘so that’s how it’s done’ experiences. Looking back I imagine I experienced the same awe that young Thomas the boy must have experienced as he hung around the studio of cowboy artist Bill Gollings. It was Gollings who sparked young Thomas to become an artist of western themes, just as Fredrick Remington and Charlie Russell sparked Gollings.
As I gawked my mother asked him, I imagine not out of curiosity but to make the experience enriching for me, “How much longer before you are finished?” Without missing a stroke he replied, the tone slightly folksy, “That depends on if I ever get out of this darn canyon.” He laid his brush beside the pallet; stood up and answered all of our unasked questions as if he were a paid guide. “Yes, I had to be part carpenter” “No, Lowell Thomas is not related.” “Melton asked me who I would like for the narration. If Lowell hadn’t been available I don’t know who… Lowell was the perfect choice… I was glad to finally meet him and shake his hand.” Half a century later I still hear echoes from that painted canyon.
A few months later the family, together now, moved to an area not far from the Autorama. The word ‘area’ gives the wrong impression. It was more of a section of a sector, an unincorporated, un-mapped spot where a dog could laze in the middle of its dusty street and worry a bone without some auto worrying the dog.
Not only did it lack police and fire departments but it lacked the other exasperations of government. It’s only defenses were the bayonet palms and its isolation. Boring for a kid but an agreeable trade off for those who preferred their lazing about to be uninterrupted.
Besides a few dozen modest houses, mostly winter homes for ‘snowbirds’ living on rocking chair money, there was one business; a small mom and pop grocery just big enough for the mom. It was located on the edge of this area known as Ridge Grove. There was a ‘ridge’, but in my mind it lacked the requisite number of trees to be called a ‘grove’.
Ridge Grove was however, perfectly scaled to the 4’8” Mrs. Jodoin who ran the tiny grocery and also identically proportioned to the going on fourteen kid who drew a lot.
It was in Ridge Grove, riding with my father one day, that I noticed Thomas at his easel in his carport painting a portrait of his baby daughter. I said to my father, “Hey look! It’s that artist that did the mural at the Autorama! He’s our neighbor!” My father replied, “No no, that’s not him. He wouldn’t live in this neighborhood. Must be someone else.” But it wasn’t. There was no mistake. You only had to meet Thomas once to be sure.
Summer vacation ended and I was enrolled in Lake Worth High School. My mother suggesting I take the art course. At the moment art was not on my mind and I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. I was too busy with my first thoughts: dreams of baseball glory. [As an aside: That summer a recent grad of LWHS, Herb Score, was having a phenomenal rookie season with the Cleveland Indians. The town was alive with proud excitement about his pitching record. I was too much of a newcomer to let it change my allegiance to the Yankees but it was soul struggling.] I did sign up for art classes, for a mother’s suggestion does carry the weight of an edict. Happily I found Miss Otto’s freshman art class as much fun as Algebra class was cheerless.
Later in the year another opportunity for art class presented itself. My mother asked if I would be interested in art lessons being held in town. I doubt if she really asked; most likely she was nudging me in those mysterious but nurturing ways known only to mothers. Obviously a mother knows where a child’s interest lies before the child does. After all, she knew to have me sign up for the high school art class. This new class was to be taught by a practicing artist. Another art class sounded ok to me. I indicated my yes with a simple shrug and a verbal ‘sure, why not.’
I was pleased to learn that the lessons would be held in Mr. Jennings Art Shop on Lucerne Ave. in Lake Worth. I had previously met Jennings when he had had a little shop above Greens Drug Store on Lake Ave. Jennings was always kind enough to answer my questions and allow me to test his patience and always generous with his time. He even said yes the time I asked if he would display one of my paintings in his shop. And he went one better! He included it, unknown to me, in an exhibit. For the first time I saw my name in the newspapers as ‘among participating artists’. That was pretty heady stuff for a ninth grader.
For art lessons, Jennings had shrewdly given over the back of his small shop. That was where I showed up one evening promptly at six o’clock with the fifty cent fee in hand.
Having been raised in Vermont I was naturally on time. I say ‘naturally’ because promptness is a trait that we Vermonters always leave home with. To lack punctuality ranks only slightly above a cow thief.
I walked into the Art Shop and there he stood. Bernard Preston Thomas that mural guy.
For a moment I doubted the wisdom of Vermont punctuality. At least being late would have delayed the feelings I was feeling. A feeling of ‘what am I doing here?’ He appeared larger than his reputation. I looked up. He looked down. I still had half a foot more of growing left in me. (Definitely no basketball career for me. Even baseball was a little challenging. I suspected being assigned ‘short stop’ might be the coach’s private joke.) Not that I stood there like a sweating cow thief, but I definitely felt intimidated.
‘This guy is too good for me.’
‘I’m not ready for this.’
‘I am out of my league here.’
None of these thoughts could I have articulated but I felt them clean through to the bone. His eyes gave me the once over. He must have thought I was a 10 year old. (I was going on fifteen.) Not only was I short but with a face that still got me into the movies at the 12 and under kid rate. I can only imagine what he was thinking.
He finally spoke, “I assume you can draw.”
I thought hard about it. I wanted to get the answer just right.
“At least a little?” he pressed.
After a couple of stopped heart beats I answered, as honestly as I have ever answered any question,
“I’d say I draw fair.”
He nodded and I took that to mean my answer was acceptable. Then he asked why I wanted to take lessons. I pointed to the paintings on Jennings shop walls, “I’d like to learn how to do that.” Thomas answered with a wry smile, “I am sure we can do that.” I realize now I had given him a personal amusement. He must have been thinking there was no challenge in teaching a 10 year old to rise to mediocrity.
I was not the only student that evening. There was also a lady whose gift for keeping a conversation going suited me very well. I was not only a taciturn Vermonter; I was also a bit shy. She may have been in her thirties or maybe even twenties. Or who knows… maybe she was eighteen. All I remember is she wore a tight sweater. At least that distracted me from the mediocrities on Jennings wall.
Thomas asked us if we had anything to write with. I had come to class unprepared.
“Mr. Jennings will give you credit. Won’t you Jennings?” They bantered a little at my expense, but it was a fee I gladly paid. I liked the idea of getting credit. Credit was something that went beyond trust. Young and old alike must practice trust. But credit! Credit was for adults only. Credit! Son-a-gun! An adult was going to trust me with adult stuff. I felt like I skipped a couple of grades and was now going on sixteen.
Jennings handed me a steno tablet and one of those new pens that had been developed for WWII pilots: a ball point. He whispered, “Don’t worry about paying for it.”
We sat down at the table and began. Thomas drew some papers from his pocket and unfolded them. He explained that they were notes that had been given to him by his teacher. As he explained, I sensed the specialness of the place they occupied in his memory. He read them to us. We copied. “Painting is an intellectual effort, not physical.” Then he made a joke about “unless you paint hanging from a trapeze”. A kid’s joke to relax the kid. Some of the notes were short and aphoristic, for example: “Painting is drawing with color”. Other notes were a paragraph or two. When done we had filled four pages.
After that he outlined what we could expect during the coming few lessons. I was feeling good and couldn’t wait for the next lesson. I was thinking to myself, ‘He is ok’. ‘I can do this’. I belong here’.
That Saturday when the movie cashier gave me change for my quarter I pushed the change back through the half circle in the glass. “I’m going on fifteen. I have to pay the full quarter.” I tried to sound politely exasperated as if I was tired of saying it. Not getting change cost me a box of Wax Lips but it felt so good. I had credit!
At our next meeting sweater girl and I learned about charcoal and large newsprint pads. Newsprint was used mostly for sketches that aren’t meant to be preserved because the paper yellows easily and soon becomes brittle. An inexpensive, but practical, medium for the learner. The lesson that second night consisted in something very basic but something that had not occurred to me: shading. All my previous efforts consisted in drawing outlines. He drew a circle and then with a few strokes and a little smearing with his fingers showed us how it gave depth and now looked like a ball. He pointed out how reflected light worked. I intuited immediately as he moved from one et cetera to another. Then he demonstrated how an eye “like a fish shape” could be thought of as a ball and be drawn the same way. Then the nose; something “like a banjo case”, again the ball. At the end of the lesson the assignment was go home and practice shading. “Try copying a face from a magazine photo. Then bring it in. I want to see how you understand what I showed you.”
The following week I returned with two drawings in my pad. I now possessed the knowledge that sweater lady had three different colors in her sweater collection. Thomas looked at her drawings first. As I remember they were quite crude. I recall clearly how he slid my pad toward him on the table. Not picking the pad up he lifted the corner of the newsprint pad and opened it to the first drawing; the face of a man copied from a Marlboro ad. He stared for a moment. Looked at the next one; a drawing of Agustus Johns copied from a magazine photo by Yousef Karsh. Then flipping back and forth between the two drawings. I watched his face for a clue. Did he think they were alright? Even though I knew my drawings were better than sweater girls I could not be sure if they were good enough. I could see no clue in his face. He glanced at Jennings, gave a slight nod that signaled ‘come look’. Jennings looked at my drawings. He looked back at Thomas. He looked over the top of his glasses at me. Then turned away so I wouldn’t see the expression he was controlling. Sweater girl broke the silence, “After two weeks you can do that!!! Jesus!!” There was a conference with my mother. She had waited around after dropping me off. I suspect she knew there would be questions or maybe she wanted to see Thomas’ expression. I could only catch that she was assuring Thomas that she had watched me as I drew. That it was my work. Even expressing amazement at how quickly I had improved. And, only as a mother can do, commenting on what a good teacher he must be. He was assured and never questioned me. It is often difficult for adults to let kids tell the truth. Most adults need to see the dark side and would have insisted that I had had help, that another hand touched it. Then the next step would be to pressure the child into lying so they can be free of the adults constant doubting. Thomas was to smart for that. Most likely his eye was that practiced; that he was one of those artists that could look at a drawing and tell if a fella knew which side of a horse to mount.
Even half a century later when I look at the drawings, as yellowed as they are, I find it hard to believe not only that I could do that but that I was going on fifteen. Part of it was natural talent and the other part was the freshness of something new coupled with the desire to get on to the next drawing. That desire to get on with the next piece, or worse, the next something else, is not a good trait. Especially for a young artist who always rushed his age by being anxious for the next.
As time and classes accumulated, Thomas watched out of the corner of his eye as I copied from various models; pointing out what to look for and what could be ignored. I soaked it up like a sponge. I was for some time now the only student. Sweater girl dropped out after a few classes. Did she feel over challenged? Was she expecting something else? Did she want to dash off a painting in fifteen minutes like that lady on TV did? I don’t know. However her absence greatly improved my ability to concentrate on drawing.
Like a student of the old days my first lessons were copying from the masters. Some of these masters might be contemporary illustrators or one of the better art instruction books. One excellent book was called “Creative Illustration” by Andre Loomis. Thomas recommended all of Loomis’ books highly. Soon I was copying out some of the illustrations in oil. But in the beginning I was not allowed to use color. Not yet. First came learning how to control tones of gray. That might sound easy to one who hasn’t done it. But it was not a matter of making a drawing and then filling in the outline. It was a matter of drawing with shades of gray. Keeping in mind one of the notes I had copied was: ‘painting is drawing with color’. Drawing in charcoal or pencil had its special technique and drawing in oil had its own.
Finally the day came when he said, “Let’s add a little red to the pallet.” My palette now consisted of black and white with the addition of a Cadmium Red Light. The effects were similar to what a printer would call a duo tone. I copied again the same illustrations, now with an added color. It added warmth to the painting. I could hardly wait for yellow and blue to be added to my palette. Then I would have every color in the universe at my command.
From those three colors I finally went to copying landscapes in full color. And not merely copying but following him as he painted. Step by step as he explained, for example, his reasons for painting a sky a certain way.
As I approach my anecdotage I find age has a curious way of rearranging the chronology of my memory. As hard as I try my numerical sense is overridden by the impish desire for the colorful. I have heard of an important brain study that concluded (well… in my words): ‘don’t waste time trying to teach artists algebra’. I hope they didn’t spend a lot of money on that study. I could have given them the twenty cent answer and been right at half the price. Fortunately that gives me a scientific excuse not to remember precisely when Thomas came to the house to talk to my parents. But it is nested somewhere in those very early days of lessons. Most likely in the first few weeks. The message was that if I was interested he would take me on as a student. No charge, spend the fifty cents on art supplies. Was I interested? To put it in the western idiom: That horse wasn’t out of the barn before I had the saddle bags packed. Being a student meant not only formal classes but the right to hang around the studio and work by his side on weekends. That is how it turned out. There was no contract nor did I have to make a commitment. There was only the question, “Do you want to learn how to paint?” My answer was, to put it in my idiom, “Is Phil Ruzitto the greatest short stop ever.” I know he read my commitment in my eyes. I eventually spent most of my free time with him. Especially weekends and summers. Not to mention those evenings he thought wouldn’t interrupt my school work. If he had a special class or event on a school night he always asked my parents before asking me. There was no point in asking a boy if he wanted to go out on a school night. My yes could be counted on 100 percent. My parents were more than generous to give me sixty percent. They must have assumed my zeal for studying art spilled over to other subjects. I also assume they never looked hard at my report card.
Much of what Thomas taught went beyond simple instruction in technique. He also laid the foundations for an outlook that could serve any budding professional. One particular lesson came as I was copying a charcoal drawing of one of his Indian portraits. I was doing rather well except I couldn’t get the braid and feather right. My overworking it was terribly obvious. What a critic would call a tight and crabbed hand.
“It’s just not coming out right.” He watched me for a bit.
“Ah I see the problem. You are trying to copy what I did.”
I gave him a quizzical look which meant ‘Wasn’t that the assignment?’
“Copy the way I did it, not what I did”. He put a pad of newsprint on an easel. He sketched the braid. Next to it he sketched it again.
“See how I did that?” He emphasized the word how. “Each braid is different, but either one does the trick. So try it again and make your own stroke. You were trying to copy my stroke. Imitate ‘how’ I do it not ‘what’ I did. ” I didn’t realize it then but this lesson is one every artist must learn in order to find their own style. This lesson was echoed years later by a magician friend. I was wondering how another magician had done a trick. “The trick is,” he replied, “don’t ask how he does it. Ask yourself how you would do it.” He went on to explain that figuring out how the other guy did it made him think too much about the gimmick. That usually led nowhere. Focusing on the result often meant inventing a new approach. And that could even lead to inventing a new trick. Thomas with a ‘motion to imitate’ rather than counterfeiting the stroke, gave me the understanding that art is not imitating nature but imitating natures way of going about herself. ‘Be yourself’ and the magic will take care of itself.
Saturday mornings at the sound of Thomas’ jalopy, I would rush out of the house full of anticipation for that day’s adventure. Climbing into the car the first words out of my mouth would be, “What are we doing today, Mr. Thomas?” I could always expect something new in his reply, “Today you are going to stretch the biggest canvas you ever saw.” And he would leave it at that. He was not given to wasting words any more than he would waste time. His silences calculated to allow my imagination free range. And my imagination was never disappointed. Every canvas seemed to get larger. Almost as large as the old bank building in Boynton Beach he was currently using as a studio. Eight feet by twenty? Twelve feet by the whole building. I am only guessing at the numbers but there were a number of projects of immense size. Only an old abandoned bank was large enough for his talent. Some times the bank/studio wasn’t large enough and the mural would be done on location; such as the dining room of the ‘Golden Falcon’, a hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. He set me to work doing trees and bushes silhouetted against a desert horizon while he worked on an Arab with a falcon on its wrist. After lunch he handed me a piece of charcoal. He pointed to the camels silhouetted against the horizon. “We need one more right here”. He indicated the size and placement. “Sketch one in.” I copied one he had already done. When I was finished he gave it the once over and changed the position of one leg. “Nice camel, but we don’t want them all to be exactly alike”. Then he told me I could paint it in. I felt like I had been handed the keys to the family car.
I was also in charge of toning down the large canvases with washes of tinted mineral spirits. I became quite expert at squeezing just the right amount of burnt umber into the mixture. “That bright white will tire your eyes while laying in your sketch. And it will also bring out any flaws in the canvas.” Now and then some patching and repair was necessary. Learning these small details of the trade provided me not only with a sense of accomplishment, but also the appropriateness of doing something well.
Other Saturdays, when I climbed into his car, he might answer “no studio today. Today we are going to paint a billboard.” The art of sign painting being one more necessary part of my now expanding curriculum. “An artist has to learn it all. You never know what people will ask for.”
The first billboard I worked on depicted the ‘Barefoot Mailman’ on a “Welcome to Hypoluxo’ sign. The ‘Barefoot Mailman’ was an important part of local history made famous by Theodore Pratt’s novel of the same name.
My favorite billboard experience was one high a top a building. What young boy doesn’t like to climb? I learned that strokes didn’t have to be perfect. The stroke on a foot wide letter could be off by half an inch and from the ground the line would look absolutely straight.
"Learn it all and do it all. And don’t be surprised at weird requests." Such as the request from the man who owned a shoe store. Thomas told me the shoe man wanted a portrait of a woman with long blond hair. Cartoon-ish-ly long, with shoes wrapped in the curls. Thomas gave his head that can-you-believe-it shake.
“It was a dumb idea, but he was the client. That’s what this art business is about.” He said he hated the painting. I wish I had asked him if he signed it. Later in my own career I found it easy to forget to sign a work that I had no pride in.
“Learn all you can. Eventually you will find it useful.” That was one of his sly hints about the business side of art. Once again he would remind me, “Most artists don’t know beans about the business side of painting.”
I first heard him express his business philosophy at a root beer stand in Lake Worth. It wasn’t really a stand but a narrow alley between two buildings that had been roofed over and prettied up. We had stopped for a soda and a hot dog treat after finishing a touch-up job. Always with a comment that he was buying because it was my payment for being a good helper. For reasons I never learned there was a very well executed mural on the wall. I recognized the name of the artist from other works I had seen around town. He was quite versatile in technique and style. I asked Thomas about him. “Yes I knew him. Poor fellow. No business sense. And he had other problems.” He raised his thumb up to his lips and made the tippling gesture. “Most artist don’t know beans about . . .”
I heard the other side of the coin one day in the bank/studio. I was measuring out a grid on a mural sized canvas while Thomas talked to a potential client. The grid was used to scale up the proportions of the detailed sketch. Even before the canvas is sketched a lot of preparation is necessary. Sketches and ideas considered and rejected; many rejections if the subject is historical. After the idea is realized in a detailed sketch “there is a lot of chit chat” with the client. I loved to eavesdrop on them. As I have said, Thomas often mentioned that most artists have no business sense. Those eavesdrops revealed the other side of the coin; most business men have no art sense.
But not all business men were like that. Walter Dutch was a good example. He gave Thomas free reign to do a mural in his office. (As long as it was historical Boynton Beach.) I don’t remember if it was insurance or real estate, but the office was next to the abandoned bank Thomas used as a studio. It could have been a trade off. Thomas did seem to have a knack for finding a variety of sites to use as a studio.
The bank/studio often had visitors from the arts. I met Clinton Shepard, another Florida artist and muralist. His works still survives in the Clewiston Hotel and other places. Steven Dohanos, the cover artist for Saturday Evening Post also dropped by one day. He also painted the mural sized paintings of the ‘Barefoot Mailman’ for the West Palm Beach (FL) Post Office. Thomas and Dohanos chatted about Norman Rockwell. Thomas expressing his admiration for Rockwell, and relating the time he went to an exhibit of Rockwell’s ‘Four Freedoms’. “I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.” “I stared and studied those paintings for hours. They had to throw me out at closing time.”
The bank/studio was demolished long ago but it is long lasting in my memory, along with Jack’s Camera’s and Lou and Marty’s Lunch, and the post office and few other businesses. They were the comfortable little that downtown Boynton had to show for itself, yet it was more than enough. Eventually this seaside town spread out and merged into a concrete oneness from Jacksonville to Miami. I hardly noticed that the town had no center. The bank/studio/jalopy was the center of my world. The bank building was eventually demolished for something called “development”. That’s what I am told, but I know better. I know for a fact the old bank, no longer able to contain its wealth of good memories, burst at the seams.
His car was my class room. And not just for field trips. While riding along a conversation might turn to Da Vinci. Thomas recommended I get Leo’s notebooks. “Lot of good stuff about dimensions and proportions of the human figure. You might get something from it.” Then he would give examples of how one part of the anatomy was proportioned to another. Not long afterward I discovered an edition for cheap in a thrift shop. I had a knack for coming across wanted titles. A knack that helped me put together my own small art library of paperbacks. Thomas was always mentioning some book that I ‘might be interested in”. And somehow the books would turn up. Was he salting the Salvation Army thrift shops? The Goodwill? No, of course not. But I wouldn’t have put it past him.
It was in one of those rides back from the bank studio that I had a glimpse of his politics. He was going to give a talk to a group and the title was, ‘All the Red you see in painting isn’t pigment.’ I’m not sure what his politics were or what he was for, but I found it agreeable to know what he was against.
Maybe that was also the time the car radio was full of static about Elvis. Should he or shouldn’t he go in the army? Thomas thought that would be ‘the smartest thing he (Elvis) could do.”
Most of his comments were matter of fact and kind, BUT…
…once he let slip his frustration at a certain caste of ladies who took his painting classes. Those who pictured classes as ‘something to do’ while socializing about anything and everything but painting. Their interest in painting equal to the inability of a boy artist in algebra class. “They just can’t get it.” Thomas once said, “I just as soon paint the damn things for them.” Which is what he often did. It’s possible to come across one of these ‘paintings’ today. One might visit a south Florida home and listen as the host points out grandma’s painting prominently displayed in the living room. Then the host might lament the fact that grandma never pursued her talent. “Such a shame,” they will sigh wistfully. Dare I tell them that what they have is a ‘nearly almost but not quite original Thomas’? (As a confidential aside: Fear not ladies; your secret is safe with me.)
If you are of a certain age you probably didn’t notice the use of the word ‘damn’ in this memoir. Let me explain. In the fifties a word like ‘damn’ wasn’t part of public vocabulary. It was only a few years earlier that movie audiences was shocked to hear Clark Gable tell Scarlet that he didn’t give a ‘damn’. That one word provoked a lot of national conversation. If Thomas was a swearing man I can’t remember him doing any of it. But if I recall him using that ‘word’ it only highlights the rareness of its use. But in my heart I know that during a round up he must have used blister raising words if that was what it took to retain the respect of cattle and comrades; always mindful of the cowboy code of respect around women and children. I do remember him saying that a cowboy “never misses a good chance to shut up.” As always he put into his life the same sense of proportion that went into his canvases.
And when it came to philosophy, it was only implied, for specificity was not something to trouble a boy about. My memory can’t put a label on his philosophy, but I am sure he had no truck with the ‘art for arts sake’ crowd. Why! That sort of thinking would lead to “vulgarity for vulgarities sake”.
Weekends would be divided between early morning classes at the beach, or a project such as painting the back wall of the stage at the woman’s club. “Can you imagine,” he commented,” these women sitting on their duffs all these years staring at a blank wall.” I especially liked that project for I was assigned the problem of rendering a tree in a corner. And I was not confronted with an ordinary corner; they were rounded and curved. Trying to make the tree look natural on the distorted perspective was one more enriching lesson. Other parts of the mural were assigned to other students. A glimpse of it can be seen in a movie called “Boynton Beach Bereavement Club”. Be advised this was student work, not Thomas’ work.
He was not one to think talking about himself was interesting. If he did talk about himself it was about life and experience, he did not, as the rest of us do, make himself the hero of his stories. That absence of intrusive ego made you want to hang on every word. But a little prompting and a biographical fragment might be forthcoming to satisfy his young sidekick’s curiosity. He might mention General Patton helping him get a scholarship to the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris so he could further his studies. If only I had known about Patton and had asked more questions.
Or he might mention how as a young cowboy he slept under the stars and listened to the stories of old timers, of the artist that he had met, even that he attended a one room school house. I learned indirectly about authenticity in his comments about ‘Eastern’ artists who tried to paint western scenes. They always got it wrong, 'cause they didn’t know ‘straight up’ about the west. They never got “it” right.
There was a lady, in her mid-seventies at that time, known as the ‘Deaconess’. Her dedication to the Seminole Indian cause is now a permanent part of Florida history. Thomas did a series of paintings illustrating her missionary work. A lot of research went into these including meeting with her. He got “it” right. No one could say that he didn’t know ‘straight up’ about painting Florida scenes.
When he came to Florida to paint the Melton mural he took a quick look around and thought he would return to Montana when the project was finished. “I didn’t think there was anything to paint here. Boy was I wrong.”
While he worked on the Deaconess series I was painting a portrait of an elderly Seminole lady. The dozens of multi colored beads around her neck challenged my patience. After it was done Thomas placed it in a gift shop with the idea that it might ‘put a jingle’ in my pocket. He said, “I didn’t tell them it was done by a young kid.” I understand the check is in the mail.
Art was not the only topic in his mobile classroom. Once he pointed out to me the village lout, cautioning me because, “The only good thing on his mind is his hat”. That guy must have been very bad; for he was the only jerk in the neighborhood that appeared worth the effort of a dishonorable mention.
Here is an experiment you can try next time you are sitting around a fire with agreeable company. Steer the conversation to trees. Everyone has a favorite tree and a story to prop it up. My brother’s tree story involves borrowing apples from the tree of the man who was the first secretary general of the United Nations. If only history had recorded that lecture!
There was a time, and a wonderful time it was, when a young boy's first graffiti were initials carved in a tree. Our current graffiti, for want of a good tree, lacks the same symbolism of awakening biology. In these later times our grandchildren must settle for abstract gestures that aren’t even painted but sprayed. I’ll take a tree as the central symbol of my religion over a bunch of drips any day. My tree story is simpler and concerns a painting of a tree. Not any old tree but a Banyan tree. A Banyan tree’s main feature is its’ extraordinary size and branches that not only extend outward but also downward. It’s a tree that pretty nearly succeeds at being a whole forest.
This tree painting I did on one of those outings with Thomas’ students. Most of them I had never seen before. But that was not unusual. Most quote students unquote seemed to be around for two or three lessons never to be seen again. Since I was always around and couldn’t think of wanting to be somewhere else I found this turnover rather strange. I have since realized that they are of the class of people that didn’t want to learn how to paint. They wanted to learn the ‘tricks’. That explains why there are so many bad paintings in the world. People don’t want to turn out paintings. They want to turn tricks.
On this outing I was happily doing what I usual did. Trying to copy what was before me. Thomas looked at it. Gave me a humm. “Do you remember what you did last week?” I remembered alright. There were two other boys about my age and we got a little silly pretending to be van Gogh and were assaulting the canvas with thick gobs of paint. When Thomas came over to check on us I felt a little sheepish that I was wasting time and paint. He simply said, “That’s the best I’ve seen you do.” One of many moments he caused me to go ‘humm.’
He pointed to a section of my Banyan tree. I thought I was about finished. “That cool blue you use on portraits you can use here.” He gestured how the stroke should be made.
“Let’s get some texture in there. Load your brush up with your cool blue and some of the sienna you got there.”
“You mean both on the same brush.”
“Yup… and draw with it. If you get it right one stroke will do it.”
“Now that back ground. You’re trying too hard to paint what you see in front of you.”
I ventured that I should lighten it up so it would contrast with the tree.
“Go for broke. Load up some yellow. Something bright. Forget you are painting.” Then he pitched me a metaphor I could relate to. “When you are playing shortstop you don’t think of throwing the ball to first base. You just do it. Try to paint the same way.”
I painted freely, boldly, and with a new found energy and permission. Bright lemon yellow brush strokes that defined a bush. For the first time I saw that indefinable something called “it”. I had gone from making a picture to making a painting. It was a long road but I had finally done “it”.
The summer Thomas went to Montana for a project he asked me to take care of his lawn and to see that it was watered every day and to keep it green. It turned out to be a harder task than normal. That summer was unusually dry. But I managed. Now and then a brown spot would appear where I had missed giving it enough water. Sprinkler systems were not common then so watering was done with a hand-held hose. I was doing ok until the time he was expected to return. The dreaded chinch bug, scourge of Florida, attacked the back lawn. I sprayed chemicals and had some success but there were large brown patches here and there. A little Burnt Siena here and a little Burnt Umber there; and worst of all a touch of RAW Umber. I was advised that the best thing would be to root out the dead grass and replace it with sod. I did not want him to return and see that I had failed him. I didn’t care about the grass. I cared about what he would think. So I ordered some sod. It was a little before evening and I was in the back yard clearing out the patches, when Thomas and family pulled onto the driveway. I was glad I was there and could be seen working. God forbid he should show up and have one of those “what the H…” moments. As I was explaining the flatbed sod truck pulled up. Once again in life ‘timing is everything’. The truck had enough squares of sod to cover a football field. My first thought was; what would I do with the leftover. Sod the whole neighborhood? Thomas asked what this was about and I told him it was to replace the dead spots. “No no, we don’t need to do that.” He told the driver the order was canceled; the driver shrugged and drove off. “Nice of you to take responsibility but the grass will grow back soon enough. No need to throw money away on something like that.” I nodded ok, rather relieved and he said. “Just leave it the way it is.” He told me to come back tomorrow after school. “I have something for you.”
I showed up and he brought out a carton and took out its contents. “This is your payment for taking care of the lawn.” He pulled out a French Easel. Exactly like the one he used for field work. A French easel has legs like any other easel but it is not like any other easel. It conveniently folds up and is easy to carry, even transporting a wet canvas. When it is open for use there is a drawer that pulls out to hold your paints. It was even designed so that a pallet full of wet paint could be packed out of harm’s way. A great feature was you could extend the legs if you wanted to paint standing up. Or the legs could be lowered for when you wanted to sit. It was more than payment for a job medium well done. It was a gift, a gift nearly equal to the Christmas Santa left my first two wheeler under the tree.
The easel traveled with me everywhere after the apprentice became a journeyman. It was my prized possession for decades. My Irish grandmother use to say that “three moves are as good as a fire.” My easel survived ten times that but finally succumbed when my moves reached the hundreds.
Earlier that year I did some baby sitting for the Thomas’s and I was paid with a copy of Andrew Loomis book ‘Creative Illustration’. I was thrilled to have it. So many wonderful books always coming my way. Part of my training was copying and doing its exercises. It still holds up and after looking at hundreds of other books that promise to deliver the goods. This is one of the few that does. I had my own copy of the perfect book and now I had the perfect easel.
I was at my French easel working on a landscape when the lady from the local paper came to interview Thomas at the bank/studio. She was well known in the community and I felt I was in the presence of celebrity. I did the usual listening in. The interview concluded with the usual exchange of thanks and then she said, “Now I would like to interview the boy”. Wow! Did that catch this shortstop out in left field? For sure. She took some photos and asked me a few questions and I thought that was it. The story she did on Thomas was how I heard him tell it. When my article appeared I learned that she had also talked to my parents and even the fire chief. There was no harm in that; it was just one of those things that adolescents wish adults wouldn’t do. I felt good about it. A little recognition quickens a boy’s step. But there was one typo in the story that was troublesome, I was quoted as saying, “I even get up at sunrise to catch the sunset”. Which of course I didn’t really say. I had to endure a lot of ribbing from my friends who were intent on teaching me the truth that ‘no man is a hero to his valet’. I might have relinquished that fifteen minutes of fame but for the agreeable pleasure of cutting out the article and pasting it in my newly begun scrapbook.
Thomas had his own scrap book of drawings and watercolor sketches. It was composed of combat sketches he made while he served in WWII. I remember the drawings as being exquisite and surrounded by a sadness reflected in the dedication “to my comrades who rest under the sod of the old country and to those whose sacrifice and hardships are now silent memories.” He mentioned he had to keep a sharp eye on his sketch pad for his drawings had a way of disappearing. Most vivid is my memory of his admiration for the medical corpsmen who constantly put themselves in harm’s way to attend the wounded. These sketches were the ones that caught General Patton’s eye and led to Thomas’ scholarship to study mural painting in Paris. One remark perhaps says all that need be said about his time in Paris. “Painting out in the open I always drew a crowd. I didn’t speak French but I knew the word for ‘garbage’ when I heard it”. He kept those difficult times to himself.
There is one image in the Google of my mind that illustrates Thomas’ sense of community. I had only a glimpse but it was a picture worth the thousand words of any philosopher explaining the artist’s role in society. Driving through Ridge Grove with my father I saw Thomas sitting on the dusty street repainting the faded lettering on the corner sign post. We were in a hurry, no time to stop and chat. A glimpse, a flash, but solidly in mind. A striking image. It also struck me that he probably didn’t have permission. I assumed there was no place to obtain it anyway. I imagine anyone else would have assumed he had been hired. But the truth is he was taking care of something because it needed to be done and he could do it. In my adult years of reading I came upon this definition of art: “Art is the making well of what needs to be made.” Those words made the image of Thomas pop up. But that was only half of what I came to sense as a youth and then understand as an adult. That is only one half of a man. The other half of man is: to do well that which needs to be done. In my life that moment, that glimpse, defines the physical and metaphysical, combines the functional and the significant, blends the practical and the speculative, wherein a man can be more than an individual; a man’s individual skin can be the flesh of humanity. All this memory to cherish because one Saturday afternoon he chose to touch up the vertical lettering on a faded guidepost, because maybe someone would need directions. Absorbed in his work he didn’t notice the ‘young Plato’ whizzing by.
One of the girls in my high school art class had seen some of my work and asked me to paint a portrait of her deceased mother. She offered me ten dollars. That was a lot of money in those days. Especially for one who’s pocket never had more than the 25 cents my mother left every day for my lunch. Not only was the girl an older senior, condescending to talk to an underclassman, but I thought she was prettier than her Liz Taylor look-a-like. She gave me a black and white photo to work from. I did a pretty good job of it but ended up having trouble with the color. I mentioned this to Thomas and he said that he would come by my house that evening to look at it.
He sat down gave the painting a glance and said, “Are you getting paid for this? I want to be sure you aren’t giving it away.”
“Yes sir, ten dollars”.
“OK then. By the way… I saw the sign you did for Mrs. Jodin’s grocery store”. The sign was almost as big as she was small.
Thomas picked up my brush and remixed a few of the colors on my palette.
“Nice job.” His economy of praise was as rich as the Naples yellow he mixed into the Cadmium Red Light.
“How much did you charge her?”
I was a little hesitant to say. I thought I had seen her flinch a little at the price but she didn’t quibble. “Five dollars.”
“Not a bad price.”
“My father thinks I overcharged her.”
He thought a beat. Probably not wanting to challenge parental prerogatives.
“If that is what she was willing to pay, it is the right amount.”
Another stroke and another thought, “a fair price for a fair amount of work.”
I found that comforting.
“See what I am doing here?” He mixed another shade; made another stroke.
“See how that color defines what you want. You got the drawing and all ok. We just needed the right tones. Now she looks healthy.” His five strokes on top of my gazillion strokes and it was done. I came to learn that his pallet of umbers and siennas with Naples yellow and Cadmium Red Light was the key to creating healthy flesh tones. I made his pallet my pallet.
The girl (whose name I do remember but keep ‘in petto’ because she has a nearly original Thomas/Wessen) was thrilled; her eyes moisten when she saw her mother now in full color. She gave me a hug. A full body hug. I was thrilled. Ten bucks and a bonus. Sweater girl times ten. This was a rewarding side of the business Thomas hadn’t mentioned.
The next portrait of consequence was of Mr. Frump, my high school history teacher. He was known as ‘The Babe’ to everyone. A name he earned when he played football for the Chicago Bears. Although he taught American History, I think the History of the Chicago Bears would have been a better course description. His was a most interesting approach to history but unfortunately my focus was baseball and my grades weren’t scoring well. Somehow a great photo of The Babe, taken by a yearbook staffer, had fallen into my paint box. Working from this photo I painted his portrait using all the tricks of Thomas’ pallet. Although I was breaking the ‘don’t give talent away’ rule, this painting was to be a gift. I had no other motive than to paint a face that was full of character. I was very pleased with the results. I was beginning to master the Thomas pallet. When done I wrapped the canvas up in newspaper and presented it to Mr. Frump at the beginning of class. His smile was all the payment I had hoped for. He held it up to show the class and they applauded. To this day it still strikes me odd that people will applaud a painting.
That painting led to a second commission. From the ‘Babe’ himself. “Can you paint my wife and how much?” I told him my set price. Ten dollars. Recently set but none the less set. I was beginning to absorb the Thomas economic. Within a week it was painted and dry enough to deliver. ‘The Babe’ was very delighted with his wife’s portrait. I was delighted he didn’t give me a bear hug.
My grade jumped from D to B on my next report card. I guess his set price was one letter grade for each portrait.
I often wonder how those early paintings have gotten along in life just as I wonder about my classmates. If there was a fifty year reunion of my high school art, it would likely be the same as with my old friends. Some would not have survived to make it to the party, others would be simply missing, whereabouts unknown. And those that made it to the reunion would likely embarrass me by reminding me of my youthful indiscretions.
If I miss the party perhaps they will kindly lift a glass to the awkward kid who always wore dungarees sporting the regulation four inch turned up cuffs. Who, with a certain adolescent flippancy, carried in the back pocket a flat whisky bottle filled with mineral spirits.
In the olden days when an apprentice was deemed ready he was sent beyond the boundaries of his city, and was expected to support himself by his craft as he journeyed from place to place. After a year he was to return and execute a work (his masterpiece) to prove his competence as a master and his worthiness to be admitted to a guild. I am grateful to have experienced the 20th century version of this ancient tradition and that Thomas prepared me so well to be a ‘journeyman’. Not only did apprenticeship serve me well, but it filled my time with interest and activity. I shudder to think of the alternative: a delinquent choosing the thrill of destruction over creation. Every canvas completed gave me a belief in my possibilities; put me in contact with productive society. And that society was composed of the people around me whose nods of approval gave me not only encouragement but status. Such as Lou & Marty whose lunch counter was next to Harvey Oyer Jr.’s Insurance office just across from Jack’s Camera store. My school buddies and I made all the usual disparaging remarks about the home town. That was part of our ritual; to speak of getting out of “this god-forsaken place.” Of course, we didn’t really believe it was god-forsaken. We were merely speaking in a code that said our dependent stage of life would soon end and a scary independence would soon begin. To disparage the old was the painless way of letting go and accepting what must come next.
I have come to learn that a good town is one with a proper proportion of old and young. Back in the day Boynton Beach’s good mix of ages served me well. Like Thomas before Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, it was closing time and I had to leave.
I can only guess at Thomas’s reading habits. But judging from the accuracy of his historical paintings I can safely guess he read a lot of history. I do know he laughed well, so I can picture him reading Mark Twain. I can picture him reading with enjoyment the works of Charles Dudley Warner and Robert Louis Stevenson. Two very sane writers for one very sane reader; two gentlemen with whom Thomas would have been genial company if only they had shared the same epoch. When Charles Dudley Warner died in 1900 the Brooklyn Eagle summed up Warner’s life in words that also defined the life Bernard Preston Thomas would begin eighteen years later.
“He must have been a great man, for everyone said he was. But none who came into contact with him thought him either great or small. They thought him good, sunny, benign, judicious, cultivated, kind, uplifting, charming. He talked about people who were undeniably great with appreciation, but he never arrogated to talk himself into their company or up to their plane. He received strangers as if they were friends, and friends as if they were confidants, companions and good fellows. He was temperate without asperity, witty without malice, humorous without clownery, cultivated without weakness, earnest without intolerance, genial without loss of dignity and natural, sincere and wisely simple always. …He did good, and not evil, all the days of his life. …as he lived for others, the others for whom he lived can be trusted to care for his fame.”
What more can be said or said better, of a common man who had an uncommon talent.
At a time in my midlife while traveling about the country I came upon a roadside attraction somewhere in the west. I stopped for refreshment. A young girl in a tri-colored sweater sketching profiles caught my eye. I ‘moseyed on over’, handed her the two dollars and sat down to be sketched. I was decked out in my traveling denims and sporting a western hat. She was obviously native to ‘them thar hills’, for she immediately saw the easterner beneath my masquerade. “Have you always wanted to be a cowboy?” She asked. It was an innocent piece of chit chat but the question made me want to seek refuge in the nearest dude ranch. Without saying so she was tumbleweeding an old saying to make it read, ‘You can take the boy out of the city but you can’t put the country in the boy’. I had to lie. I said yes. She wouldn’t have understood the truth. She wouldn’t have understood that I didn’t want to be a cowboy but I wanted to be that cowboy called Thomas.
Since 1995 the author has lived in Costa Rica where he is known as Pedro de la Montaña.
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