Playful and powerful, drenched in dramatic colors and embodying spiritual portals and storytelling charms, the paintings of artist Roy Thomas bring vividly to the canvas the spirits he felt in the natural elements and from the touchstones of his Anishinaabe heritage.
Inspiration for the 50-year-old Woodland Art style that Thomas helped to define and refine comes from literal “touchstones” left by the ancestors in the ancient pictographs found on the cliffs along the shores of the vast Lake Superior.
“My mind and my vision go back to my grandmothers and grandfathers going along the shores in birchbark canoes and leaving images for the grandchildren—which is us—to see and to be taught and as a result, we have developed our style,” he said in a 2001 interview with Lake Superior Magazine. “Woodland artists today capture the life and excitement that are in the rocks, making them come alive and speak, but still maintaining their purpose and teachings.”
Thomas, who lived in Thunder Bay, Ontario, died in 2004 at age 54 from multiplemyeloma, a plasma-cell cancer. This summer until September 9, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery has mounted “Vision Circle: The Art of Roy Thomas—A Retrospective” to remember and celebrate the artist and his art. On September 7 his wife, Louise Thomas, will speak there about some of his last works. The scope of the retrospective, which features both Roy’s paintings and his writings, surprised even Louise, who had never before seen some of her husband’s earliest work.
“I’ve seen a couple of pieces, and they’re just amazing,” she said. “He was just as good back then. This man was just … we were just so blessed with his talent.”
Roy Thomas was born in December 29, 1949, near Pagwachuan Lake and grew up on the Longlac Reserve about 160 miles northeast of Thunder Bay. As a child he listened to his grandmother’s stories and sometimes would gently trace with his finger on her back the images that they brought to his mind. His grandparents named him Gahgahgeh (Crow) after he rescued and cared for an orphaned crow when he was a small boy. The crow monogram accompanies his signature.
“Roy was a very spiritual man. Being raised by grandparents and raised mainly in the bush, he had these wonderful teachings … how to look at things differently,” Louise Thomas said. “He certainly did look at things differently. Roy loved life; he never ever forgot where he came from. Never forgot his roots.”
Thomas was among the most influential and prolific of the second generation of artists in the Woodland Art style. Norval Morrisseau, another Thunder Bay–region artist, is considered the founder of the style, which emerged in the 1960s and ’70s mainly among Ahnishinaabe artists in northwestern Ontario. Roy brought a unique vision to his work.
“He never had a false note in anything that he touched,” Elizabeth McLuhan, guest curator for the Thunder Bay Art Gallery retrospective, said in an interview for “Voyage North” on CBC radio. “Personally he was his own man. He had his own particular vision of what he felt as a second-generation Anishinaabe artist, what he could bring to the mix.”
Thomas began drawing at age 6. He attended a residential school and was 13 when his parents and grandparents were killed in a car accident. He traveled and worked odd jobs after leaving school at 15. In his youth he struggled with alcohol addiction, which he overcame. He was 16 when he met Morrisseau; both were in jail in Geraldton. Thomas watched Morrisseau, almost 20 years his senior, painting on birchbark. Thomas said he too was a painter. Morrisseau encouraged him to continue his painting; it was advice the teenager would follow. Thomas took on manual work but also focused on his art.
By 1966, Thomas had his first solo exhibit at the Nightingale Gallery in Toronto. By 1977, the Pollock Gallery, also in Toronto, mounted a solo exhibit of Thomas’s work. He had annual exhibitions in that gallery until 1980.
Louise Thomas met her future husband in 1985 in Alberta, where she was working for an organization that gave business assistance to provincial artists. At a dance, her friend who worked for an Edmonton rehabilitation and treatment center introduced her to Roy. Both the friend and Roy were from Longlac.
“Because Harold was working at the center, I thought Roy was his client,” Louise remembered with some chagrin. That wasn’t a bad thing necessarily, she added, but she didn’t want to risk a relationship. “We kind of talked and that was it for the weekend … and Monday morning, who comes walking into my office? It was Roy.”
Roy was there to discuss some art proposals. By the end of that morning, Louise had made a decision: “This is the man I’m going to marry. He was so professional, had a lot of confidence, and he knew what he was doing.”
After Roy and Louise married, they lived in Alberta but returned to Roy’s home area after the birth of their twin boys, Roy Jr. and Randy, in 1988.
“He really wanted to come back to Thunder Bay and set our roots here. This is the happiest place I’ve ever lived,” Louise said.
It was a happy homecoming for Roy too, according to McLuhan, a former curator of the Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre and Centre for Indian Art.
“He felt that there was an Anishinaabe perspective that needed to be heard,” McLuhan said in the CBC radio interview. “So I think that he came back so that he could be a part of the community here, what he called the return to ‘Ahnisnabaeland.’ ”
In 1997 Thomas opened his own studio, and soon Louise joined to do the business work that his art created. “We would treat it like a business,” she said. “We would drop the boys off (at school) and come here.”
While Thomas was dedicated to his work, he was also devoted to his sons, she added. “He cherished the ground that they walked on. He was a wonderful father.”
She is gratified that Randy has taken up painting. “It’s nice to see when I wake up in the morning, to see my son painting. It’s a nice feeling.”
Roy was also mentored other children. He had a strong influence on his sons’ friend, Andrew Machendagoos, now an artist in the Woodland Art style.
“I didn’t have a dad, I didn’t have a father figure in my life. He was like the first stable parent, loving parent that I knew,” Machendagoos said of Roy. “I wanted to be like him. And then he painted, and I’ve always liked art.
“It was really inviting when you sit with him, you don’t feel nervous or out of place. That’s the kind of person he was. He was funny, too,” Machendagoos recalled.
Thomas’s rascally nature came out in his art. His animal figures have a whimsical grace, and he sometimes mocked himself with paintings like “Better Than Myself from Yesterday.”
One painting in the current retrospective truly reflects his impish impulse. After a 1984 exhibit called “Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of The Image Makers” at the Ontario Gallery, Thomas painted all of the artists whose work was displayed, depicted each in his or her particular style, and put all of them in a canoe in a painting titled “We’re All in the Same Boat.”
For its Thomas retrospective, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery sought his paintings from private and public collections.
“The gallery has had a really long and positive relation with Roy,” said Nadia Kurd, the gallery curator. Thomas had done a lot of traveling, to Europe and Asia, and his works have been sold worldwide. “We’ve received work from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Royal Ontario Museum, private collectors in Edmonton, Bearclaw Gallery, works from Thunder Bay and works in our permanent collection.”
In 2001, Thomas was first diagnosed with cancer. Their sons were 13, Louise said. “Roy always helped them to believe, I’m going to beat this. Never to give up on anything.” That upbeat attitude helped during the long illness but made Roy’s passing particularly hard on his sons, she said.
Through treatments, he continued painting at the studio. “Roy was just like a little kid loose in a candy store. That’s how Roy was at the studio,” Louise said. “Sometimes he would tell me, " Lovely, I feel my paintings hugging me.’”
Since Roy’s passing, Louise has turned the studio into the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery to promote the work of mainly aboriginal artists, like her son Randy and Andrew Machendagoos.
“I’ve learned a lot from the business, but I think a lot of my learning was from Roy," she said. "He had a lot of experience from galleries. He’d say, ‘You take care of the artwork and it will take care of you.’ I think of that all the time because I deal with a lot of artwork here.”
The art takes care of helping her heal, too. “I’m surrounded by not only the spirit of Roy’s art and him, but I’m also surrounded by a lot of wonderful art in the gallery," she said. “Thank goodness for this gallery. It’s helped me just to move on. Without this—I’m not sure.”
Under Louise’s efforts, the gallery has become a fitting live memorial for the artist Roy Thomas, whose painting was his tribute to generations of the past and his contribution to generations of the future.
“The spirit of art and his legacy, it lives,” Louise said. “It’s one of the reasons I have the gallery to honor this man, in my way, but also to help our First Nation people, too.”