Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Visual Arts

Volume XXVII Number 2
Spring 2005

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Tom Thomas
Tom Thomas with his painting Beyond the Veil
Photo by Susanna Tanner, IU East Office of Communications and Marketing

judge at art exhibition
Michael Johnson, juror for the 2004 Whitewater Valley Annual Art Competition, comments on artists' work in the competition's unique open-judging format.
Photo by Susanna Tanner, IU East Office of Communications and Marketing

Capturing the Energy of Creation

by Lauren J. Bryant

No rules. That's pretty much the motto artist Tom Thomas lives by.

Take, for example, the unusual art event Thomas founded in 1977, the Whitewater Valley Art Competition, held at the Whitewater Gallery at Indiana University East in Richmond. The competition has no rules, literally. No entry rules, except for a size limit of 7 x 7 feet that routinely gets ignored anyway. Its judging format breaks with tradition in a big way, too. For more than two decades, the Whitewater competition has been judged openly, as the competing artists watch and ask questions.

Thomas calls traditional closed-door judging "disorienting" and "unconstructive." "I believe in education over prestige," he says, which helps explain why, just a year or so into his job as a fine arts professor, Thomas asked the late John Canaday to serve as Whitewater's first judge. Canaday, chief art critic for the New York Times from 1958 to 1973, was known as the "hanging judge" of the Times, notorious for his no-holds-barred critiques.

"He was the meanest man in art," Thomas recalls, "but also maybe the world's most famous critic at the time. When I called him, I said, 'I have this idea. I want you to judge in front of the people who submitted the work and let them ask you questions while you judge. Will you do it?'"

Canaday hung up.

But 15 minutes later, the critic called back to say that out of the 65 invitations he'd received since his recent retirement, he was accepting three--from University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University . . . and IU East.

Since then, Whitewater judges have come from major art institutions throughout the United States, including the Whitney, Guggenheim, and Metropolitan museums in New York. The event draws hundreds of entries each year. Thomas--who drives a van all over to pick up entries from artists who can't afford to ship them--calculates the competition has handled more than 6,000 pieces of art since its beginning. "The Whitewater Valley competition has become a compelling annual event," notes David Fulton, chancellor of the IU East campus. "It enables our students and members of the community to engage in the art scene at a very high level, and it has brought IU East to the attention of the region's artistic community."

Whitewater's success is rooted in its founder's maverick spirit, says the 2004 Whitewater juror Michael Johnson, a curatorial associate at the Denver Art Museum. "Tom has set up two kinds of openness in the competition," Johnson says. "The open entry reflects his belief that good art can come from anybody: schooled or unschooled, rich or poor, amateur or professional, working or unemployed. And the unusual open judging process cuts through the unnecessary mystique found in many other competitions. Even after 27 years, Whitewater seems freshly democratic."

Thomas himself attributes much of Whitewater's success to the spirit of IU East. "Each IU campus has a different personality; they're each unique and powerful in their own ways," he says. "At IU East, I've had an enormous amount of opportunity to control my own destiny, to try things that I felt in my heart were best for the school and for my own work."

Spirit is important to Thomas. It is at the center of his work which, he says, concerns "the spiritual flow of life and art." Indeed, the abstract shapes and forms of his large paintings do seem to flow and surge with a powerful energy. Thomas explains that his fascination with the "energy of creation" grew out of two things: his admiration for the early 20th-century surrealist celebration of the subconscious as a source of art and a stint teaching art history.

During the IU East course, Thomas became intrigued by early forms of Christianity, especially Gnosticism. The Gnostics, a heretical group that flourished in the second century, believed the material world was evil, that true knowledge and salvation could be gained only by following a secret spiritual path. "I became very interested in Gnostic descriptions of the origins of the universe and how God came about," says Thomas.

According to the Gnostics, he explains, we are separated from the "real universe of the pure spirit" by "the veil of unacquaintance." That idea led to several works that Thomas has given the same name, Below the Veil. Gnostic ideas are also behind Thomas's largest work to date, a three-story high composition called Contemplation of Luminous Forethought. The title refers to "the flow of thought from God. It's about me thinking about God's first thoughts," Thomas says.

Despite his ethereal, timeless themes, Thomas believes strongly that artists should work in materials of their time. "The materials of a particular era are very telling about that time and the search for spiritual direction," he explains. "By spiritual, I mean the driving force in your life, whatever that may be."

"Driving force" may or may not be a sly pun by Thomas, but it's certainly apt--automotive paint is one "material of his time" Thomas has used often.

"I've been around mechanical things all my life. I have three sports cars, one I built from the ground up," he says. "Industrial paints are just spectacular. I've done a lot of experimenting with them." Thomas also has experimented extensively with metal plating, using pressure and heat to adhere tiny overlapping flakes of thin metal to the artwork's surface. The flakes are applied densely; the end result has the solid metal gleam of shiny car parts. "It looks like steel," says Thomas, "very metallic and plated, just like a chrome bumper."

Of course, the materials of the 21st century are frequently digital and, like many artists, Thomas has been working lately with technological tools. Among the brushes and canvases in his IU East studio, he now has four computers and some inkjet printers. In current works, he scans things such as screens and cellophane, then incorporates their textures and colors into his art.

No traditionalist, Thomas values computers for their ability to "accelerate, expand, and realize a far greater amount of ideas." The power of computers to work out complex projects has "only made art more interesting," he says. But he's quick to add that the human spirit behind the work still matters most, a spirit he sees strongly displayed in his IU East students. "We have many older students who have been hardened by the 'school of life,'" Thomas says. "Their human connection with art is very strongly embedded. When they first come to class, a lot of them are already going in interesting directions. I try to take what I see and magnify it for them."

Thomas says his main message to students is this: "There are no rules in art or life. But remember, you are competing against every great work of art ever made. You have the freedom to do what you want, but also a responsibility: what you produce had better be the very best work you can do."

Thomas fares well by the standard he sets. His work is handled by prominent galleries in New York and Florida, and he has exhibited with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and glass artist Dale Chihuly. The towering Contemplation of Luminous Forethought is installed at Imageware, a large corporation in Detroit. And after nearly 30 years of teaching, Thomas counts many student accomplishments among his successes. One student, India Cruse-Griffin, won the Whitewater competition four times and has had several one-woman shows. Three other recent students are exhibiting at a major Naples, Fla., gallery.

The workload of teaching and running a university art department has made it hard to be a practicing artist as well, Thomas admits--lately, for instance, he's been spending more of his time doing fundraising to support the opening of IU East's new art gallery, which is doubling in size. But driven by what he calls "a convulsive urge to create," Thomas is never too far from his art, which is all about making your own rules.

"Everybody wants to know the answers to life's big questions: Why am I here? Where are we going? Those are things nobody gets to know," he says. "When you can't get answers, what do you do in the meantime? Artists look for their own solutions, make their own paths. They are great question askers."

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.