2007 SCENIC 395 ARTICLE
Carroll Thomas is a man living a full life. At the ripe old age of 96, he made the decision to open an art gallery in Big Pine featuring his very own paintings. When you enter his gallery on Main Street (Hwy 395) you will be pleasantly surprised at a lifetime of talent on display, from an artist who has been honing his craft for longer than most of us have been alive.
“I’m so busy every day, I don’t give age a thought,” said Thomas, who turned 97 in April.
As a child he moved from Iowa to Manitou, Colorado with his family. The view from their home was the 14,107’ Pikes Peak, an early inspiration. He sketched an hour each morning before school and a neighbor down the street taught him the basics in watercolor and an artist was born. In 1928, when Thomas graduated from high school, he made it clear that art was his destiny and attended the School of Fine Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For part of that time, he actually lived in a closet he rented in a woman’s house across the street from the school and worked three different jobs.
When the Depression hit it was a lean time for an artist. Thomas spent much of that time hopping boxcars, which sometimes had 30 to 40 people in them. He eventually wound up in Tracy, California, with 50 cents in his pocket and a briefcase with all his belongings. Upon his arrival he was walking down a street right by a speakeasy when a man stepped out and offered him a job at the nearby sugar refinery with the agreement that he would bring people over to drink at the bar. Thomas was told that it was a reputable bar and owned by Al Capone. His good upbringing got the best of him and he hopped another boxcar, leaving the offer behind.
He next landed in Oakland, where he cut kindling for a man who worked for a volunteer group associated with the Salvation Army. The man saw a lot of potential in Thomas and bought him a nice suit and gave him car fare to go to Piedmonte and talk to people about the good that the Salvation Army was doing. He was able to save up some money and then spent two and a half years in a cabin up near Trinity in Northern California, fishing and hunting. His next spot was Mariposa where he spent much of that time hiking in Yosemite, including the Muir Trail, and in 1941 he bought half interest in the Gold Coin Cocktail Lounge. Somewhere along the way Thomas managed to get married and have two sons.
Throughout this time art was never far away from Thomas’s mind and by 1942 he began drafting at a shipyard for Henry Kaiser, working as a builder of model ships for 85 cents an hour during World War II.
“You are worth more to your country with a pencil in your hand than a gun,” Kaiser told Thomas early on.
Thomas was involved in building scale models of such lustrous projects as the “Hiller Copter” and the Kaiser Fraser auto. After the model building gig ended in 1945, Thomas went into business with a friend and together they owned Thomas-Swan Sign Company in San Francisco, which is now owned and operated by his son Allen Thomas and family.
He opened his first gallery on Highway 50 out of Lake Tahoe in 1978 and had the works of as many as 75 other artists in the gallery besides his own. He enjoyed the setup for seven years, but always felt that he wanted to someday open a gallery that offered affordable art. In 1985 and up until the opening of the current gallery in Big Pine he lived in Oregon, Arizona and Nevada – not exactly an idle man.
In April, 2006, he opened the Carroll Thomas Gallery in Big Pine, offering hundreds of paintings at an affordable price, just as he had hoped to do. His very first painting at the age of nine is displayed in the gallery, obvious talent from over 88 years ago. Thomas still paints five hours a day, six days a week with his favorite subjects being wildlife, landscapes and seascapes. His most recent painting proves his longtime love of mountains, featuring Mt. Whitney, which rises just 40 miles away from his studio. For more information call 760-938-3243. The gallery is located at 442 North Main, open 10 to 5 and closed on Wednesday.