Honoring an inspiring artist


Tom Thomas

Indiana University East has renamed The Gallery in Whitewater Hall in remembrance of Tom Thomas, artist, associate professor of fine arts and founder of the Whitewater Valley Art Competition (WVAC).
Thomas (1945-2009) taught fine arts to under-graduate students for over 30 years at IU East. He had an immense impact on his students and the campus, helping to develop the fine arts program and the WVAC, an annual art competition that attracts hundreds of artists for the unique experience of being juried by a nationally-known artist or curator who openly critiques all submitted entries before choosing the top works for the exhibit.

Chancellor Emeritus David Fulton worked with Thomas throughout his tenure at IU East. Fulton said Thomas made the campus’ art program into the most well-known and talked about program offered by IU East during the 1980s and 1990s.

“His personal skill as an artist, his drive to make an impact, his fearlessness as he took chances on initiatives that others would never even consider, and his absolute confidence in his ability to succeed, all of these characteristics gave the arts at IU East a remarkably high profile,” Fulton said. “Because of these characteristics, people wanted to be part of his program and to be engaged with the campus. Tom provided the spirit of the program, attracting and inspiring his students, creating remarkable enthusiasm for the program among community leaders, and engaging the attention of the broader university community, including two IU Presidents.”

The Professor
Thomas was born in Auburn, Ind., on November 22, 1945. Located in northern Indiana, Auburn had a population of around 5,400 in 1940. The small town has a rich history in the automobile industry, a passion Thomas would share with his home city as he collected antique cars.

As a teenager, he attended Montpelier High School and graduated in 1963 before going on to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, on a cross country scholarship. After graduating from Miami in 1968, Thomas taught art to junior high and high school students at Union County High School in Liberty, Ind. He coached cross country and track.

Thomas returned to Miami University for graduate courses to earn his M.A.T. in education and student-taught at Eaton High School in Ohio. He received a graduate assistantship and earned his Master in Fine Arts degree.

In August 1975, Thomas moved to Richmond and began teaching at IU East.

His son, Tom Thomas Jr., and daughter, Sarah Gifford, remember spending time with their dad in the class-room and art studio.

“My dad had a small town heart with big city ambitions. He grew up on a farm in northwestern Ohio and was antsy to escape as an adolescent,” Tom Thomas Jr. said. “He loved to express himself, communicate, and take action. He felt success was validated via ‘big city’ credentials. Yet he had a deep empathy and nostalgia for the people and places in the Midwest.

“He was always very attuned to his surroundings and their meaning. He had a genuine interest in personal stories, individual perspectives, and human inspiration. He was most excited when an artist’s personal creation provided insight to the broader cosmos in an unconscious way. Therefore he took the time and care to recognize hidden talent where most would least expect it…in the small towns,” Thomas Jr. said.

As a professor, Thomas earned several faculty teaching awards including the Chancellor’s Faculty Award for outstanding all-around achievement by an IU East faculty member. He received the Indiana University faculty awards including the W. George Pinnell Award for Outstanding Service in 1998 and the Amoco Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching. He was selected as a member of the Faculty Colloquium on Excellence in Teaching (FACET).

Thomas’ biomorphic and lyrical abstracts hung in galleries in California, New York, Indiana and Florida. Today, a few of his paintings remain on display throughout the IU East campus. His works were included in the first and second editions of Contemporary American Painting and magazines including Golf Shores, End, Foyer, Naples Illustrated, and Florida Design.

Gifford said there are many interesting, funny, memorable stories that she could share about her dad.

“When I think about him and his life at IU East in particular, I remember several weekends spent in his studio growing up. He would set my brother John and I up with whatever art supplies were laying around that we thought were ‘cool’. He’d play Enya or a ‘Bob and Tom’ tape and we would all start working on our separate pieces,” Gifford said. “Dad would oftentimes have a huge canvas going on the large table in the middle of the room and from week to week I would watch it change colors, shapes and overall feel. Sometimes it would be over a year of watching him meticulously manipulate the same painting. The commitment he had to a work was unprecedented. You would think this unbelievably talented man painting these wild, wicked, sharp shapes and deep colors over and over again until it was just right would constantly be in a brooding, dark mood. But I like to remember the many occasions laughing with him, being inspired by him and always being so proud of him.”

Gifford added that many of Thomas’ students would occasionally drop in over the weekend and he loved introducing his students to his family. “They would talk about the movie 1984 or Blade Runner (dad’s favorite). He would always give them some words of encouragement. Everyone seemed so excited to see him as much as we were,” Gifford said.

Like many of his students, Thomas was at home at IU East. He had found his place as an artist and as a teacher.

“My husband Matt and I went to see him after he was recovering from heart surgery. He was feeling much better at the time and we were permitted to take him out on a ‘field trip’ which thrilled him.  All he wanted to do was go to IU East and check on the studio, see some of his colleagues and students, and show us what he had ‘going on over there,’” Gifford said. “He told me he absolutely loved teaching and never wanted to stop. I am extremely appreciative to IU East as well as all of his students and friends for wanting to remember him with the gallery naming. I take comfort in the fact that there are so many of us that miss him and don’t ever want to forget him and how much he cared about art, teaching, and making you laugh.”

The Advocate
Thomas found a way to bring his love of art and teaching together by establishing the WVAC. Thomas’ idea for the competition was for artists to hear the judge openly critique the pieces in front of the artists, a unique twist that made the competition an interactive learning experience for entrants.

“He started to believe there was raw and significant art to discover among the regional colleges, branch campuses, and universities in the Tri-state area. He also felt the world should experience the art and ideas of those who lacked exhibition experience, gallery relationships, or a convenient venue. His passion for the artist is what drove the first Whitewater Competition,” Thomas Jr. said.

For more than 30 years, the competition has continued to bring hundreds of artists together from a 300-mile radius of Richmond. The competition has featured nationally recognized jurors and brought the focus on regional artists and their work by including top pieces in the annual exhibit.

Ed Thornburg, art director at IU East said Thomas came up with the idea for the open juror competition with John Canaday, then Contributing Art Critic for the New York Times.

“The idea of open jurying of art entries into an exhibit was relatively unknown, and certainly untried in the Midwest. Largely because of the Canaday connection, the following years saw curators, artists, critics, and educators of national acclaim come to the IU East campus to choose the inclusions for the Whitewater exhibit,” Thornburg said. “To me, as an art educator, the open jurying is the most significant element of the event.  With students, artists and onlookers able to actually interact with an intellectual in the field, the benefits are obvious and enormous,” Thornburg said. “This year’s selection of Dr. James Elkins from the University of Chicago, should continue the unparalleled and extraordinary tradition of the Whitewater.”

Thomas’ longtime friend, Rick Boston, said Thomas en-visioned the WVAC as a vehicle that would both expose his students, as well as the community, to what was occurring in the visual arts in the major art centers and museums throughout the country and internationally and at the same time allow their own work, and that of fellow artists, to be publicly critiqued as a method of teaching.

“To do this Tom brought to the IU East campus nation-ally recognized art critics, museum directors and curators and artists to jury the entrees in the Whitewater. None of these jurors, even with their wide ranging experiences, had ever had to stand before the artist and directly critique his or her work. This turned out to be a significant learning experience both for the artists and the juror,” Boston said. “In addition, the juror would be required to give a public lecture on the campus, usually with visual aids, dealing with a particular artist, movement or period in which he or she had significant knowledge. The students were required to attend these lectures as part of their class work.”

In recognition of Thomas’ dedication to the arts and to teaching, the enclosed art gallery, located in Whitewater Hall, was named for Thomas on October 9 during the 37th annual WVAC juror reception. It’s a fitting tribute to the man who started the endeavor.

“Tom was a brilliant thinker with a larger than life personality. No dream was too large that it could not be brought to fruition with thought and perseverance. Consequently, with the Whitewater, Tom established a juried competition unlike any other. Each year the number of entrees increased, the quality of the work got better and better and more money was contributed for artists’ awards. But the thing that Tom took the most pride in was to look over the works that were accepted by the juror each year and be able to say ‘this year I had ‘X’ number of my students’ work accepted in the show, and each year he witnessed that number grow. Tom took extreme pride in this,” Boston said.

The Legacy
Over the past year, several family members, friends and colleagues contributed to a campaign that would help preserve Tom’s legacy on campus and further advance IU East’s fine arts program.
“Naming the gallery after him recognizes his unique talents and contributions, but, more importantly, it will ensure that the ever growing IU East constituencies will know of the enduring impact of his work on the quality of the campus today and into the future,” Fulton said.

Thomas’ family agrees.

“Nothing makes me happier than to see his legacy live on in his own art on the walls of homes, businesses, and IU campus buildings. But nothing makes me more proud than to see his passion live on in the students who enter the Whitewater Valley Competition year after year,” Thomas Jr. said