While looking at a minimalist exhibit at M.C. Ginsberg's Objects of Art in Iowa City, a then 19-year-old Christopher Marion Thomas remarked - loudly enough for gallery owner Marc Ginsberg to overhear - "Man this stuff is crap. How does this move society forward?"
Intrigued by his perspicaciousness, Ginsberg approached Thomas, and a month later M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art had its most successful one-man show ever. The gallery sold all 22 of Thomas's pieces.
That was 13 years ago, and since then Thomas' sensibilities towards art have only grown. "I'm a regular guy who is passionate about art and doing something good with it," he says. His philosophy: "Art should inspire, heal, motivate people, and uplift the world."
"I was the kid who wasn't going to make it," Thomas says. "I came from a broken home. We didn't have any money. All I had was to turn to God and he sustained me."
During these turbulent years, art was an oasis of tranquility and expression for Thomas. He started mixing and applying paints with his fingers, with good and possibly bad results. The good: He created an identifiable style, a "glazed process technique that mixes watercolors with oils," he says. The bad: Six years ago he was diagnosed with scleroderma, a lupus-like disease that causes hardening of the skin and sometimes the internal organs. It's theorized that Thomas may have gotten it from all the oil paint on his bare skin.
"Scleroderma is similiar to multiple sclerosis, except it doesn't damage the nerves. Although I can't run to catch a plane, I will always be able to teach," he says.
Except for using a brush to apply the jesso, Thomas, wearing gloves, still paints only with his fingers.
Thomas' early imprinting manifests itself in his use of a layered narrative style that incorporates visual metaphors as well as proverbial references. "Before 1997 I was working very expressionistically because I was frustrated and had no true voice," he says. "Once I decided to paint the things I was passionate about - ancient Biblical text and African American history, both are full of stories about struggle and triumph - everything else just fell into place."
Recognizing this passion, The Source magazine's designer, Daryl Crook, asked Thomas to illustrate an article entitled "Innocence Lost," about a mentally-challenged Georgian girl who was raped by 25 men, and the uproar within the community at the apathetic response of law enforcement.
As for his varied list of clients, Thomas boasts an impressive resume, more so when you consider he doesn't use a rep. "God is my rep," he says.
Through a six-degrees-of-separation kind of thing, as Thomas explains it, the McDonald's corporation recently commissioned him to create an image for National Black History Month. That image appeared in every McDonald's in the country during February of 2002. "I tried to present the way African Americans, as well as all people for that matter, should celebrate and honor their history all throughout the year instead of just one month," he says. "We should learn from our rich past so that we can claim a bright future. Through faith, all things are possible.
Thomas' other Fortune 500 clients include Kmart, Southwestern Bell, 3M and Coca-Cola. In 1992, at age 21, he became the youngest African-American artist to appear in the Hallmark Cards Corporate Art Collections.
His pieces have also been shown in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chucago, and the African American Museum in Dallas. In conjunction with the opening of the first annual Chicago Black Fine Art Exhibition in 2000, Thomas was interviewed by no less than Oprah Winfrey.
Thomas spoke to Altpick from his studio in Chicago, where he lives with his wife, Carnita.
I don't select a Proverb or Biblical scriptures, they select me.
How does selecting text fit into your process? Do you illustrate first or find the text first?
All of my work starts with written language, whether it's biblical scripture, quotes, proverbs, stories or narratives. I read and research and during this process certain works or phrases present themselves to me. At that point the painting comes into being through me. I try not to it. Whenever I try to control the process, I am unsuccessful. It is something I always feel, and in successful pieces the viewer can feel it as well.
Do you always make a proverbial reference?