2008 SCENIC 395 ARTICLE
Carroll Thomas is a delightful, happy man who has lived more lives than most people half his age. At a mere 98 years old, he is actively painting five hours a day, six days a week. He maintains he’s still a little too young to take off more time than one day a week.
At the ripe age of 96, he opened an art gallery in Big Pine featuring his own paintings. The Carroll Thomas Gallery is on the highway at the far north end of town. Step inside and surround yourself with one man’s lifetime of expression, a testament to an artist who has been honing his craft for longer than most of us have been alive.
Just by talking to Thomas for a while, you get the feeling that he is not only one of the most talented painters, but about the smartest person you’ll ever run into. He appears to have found both the secret to happiness and the fountain of youth; he actively works, enjoys it, and is too busy to give age a thought. His positive attitude transcends the years.
A group of children from Big Pine Elementary School recently visited his gallery. They came away fully inspired, as is apparent in their lavish complements and their amazed and renewed perspective of what it is to be elderly and active. You get the feeling from looking through a full notebook at the gallery containing all the thoughts these children had after their visit that they, too, had glimpsed the secret of happiness and life’s possibilities.
“You can learn until you draw your last breath,” said Thomas, who is now planning his 100th birthday celebration for 2010, a small stepping stone in his big life.
What kicked off this lifetime of artistic endeavor? As a child his family moved from Iowa to Manitou, Colorado. The view from their home was 14,107’ Pikes Peak, magnificent in its grandeur, even to a child. He sketched an hour each morning before school and a neighbor taught him the basics in watercolor. By the time he graduated from high school in 1928, Thomas knew that art was his destiny. He attended the School of Fine Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Time would prove his instincts correct, but not without some deviations.
If you think Thomas had an easy stroll through life, you’d better think again; he worked three jobs and literally lived in a closet to get himself through art school. His array of mishaps make you think he should have been gone a long time ago, but they turned out to be only little bumps in the road. At age 4 he was in a Model T accident with his uncle and received a concussion after the car rolled down a 20-foot embankment. At 6 he was knocked out after sledding down a hill and hitting a curb. When only 9, another child hit him in the head with a two-by-four, leaving a dent in his skull that he still has today.
But he didn’t only have accidents as a child. In 1955, just a babe-in-the-woods in his mid-40s, he flipped his Super Cub plane on its back along the Salmon River in Idaho and was knocked out for several minutes. When he came to he was upside down in the plane with gas running in his eyes. He quickly turned off the key fearing an explosion, but realized the door was jammed and he couldn’t get out. He knocked out the window with his elbow and then had to walk a mile, 300 vertical feet down to the Salmon River to his cabin. The Super Cub was his third and last plane.
“After that I sold the plane and bought a camper with a bathroom,” said Thomas. He always learned his lessons and moved forward.
The first 60 years of his painting life were spent out in nature capturing landscapes and wildlife the old-fashioned way, with his eyes and a paintbrush. When you see his art, you see his actual vision at the time of that painting.
“You have to get out there and let the bugs bite you,” laughs Thomas of his many years in the outdoors.
During the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, he painted portraits in San Francisco two nights a week with nine other artists. They each contributed $1 towards the cost of paying a model to pose for three hours for $10. During those years, the Army Surplus stores carried canvas tents shipped from the war zones of World War II. For $15 the group of artists would buy a tent and then cut it up into portrait sizes. With a little help from hot glue and white primer, they had themselves excellent painting surfaces at an affordable price.
In 1968 Thomas was in Las Vegas and decided to go see Tony Bennett perform. He slipped the usher $10 for a good seat and enjoyed the show in a box seat about 30 feet from Bennett. The next morning he was at the marina painting a watercolor of a boat. Thomas was used to people watching him at work, so paid no attention until someone said “Very good.” He looked up to see Tony Bennett admiring his art.
It wasn’t until 1978 and a lifetime of travel, work, and adventure that he opened his first gallery on Highway 50 out of Lake Tahoe. There, he displayed the works of as many as 75 other artists beside his own. Although he enjoyed the setup for seven years, he always felt that eventually he would open a gallery that offered quality paintings that anyone could afford. He hit the road again, living in Oregon, Arizona and Nevada, painting and observing, widening his perspective.
Eventually, he drove over 10,000 miles throughout the West, looking for a place to call home to his ideal gallery. When he saw the “For Sale” sign in his current location in Big Pine, he immediately knew that was it. 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.
Thomas displays his very first painting, done at the age of nine; already the talent is obvious from nearly ninety years ago. His most recent paintings of Rainbow Falls, bristlecone pines, a mountain quail, and a wagon in Big Pine overrun by wild roses shows he is never short of ideas here in the Eastern Sierra. He is currently working on a beautiful painting of a falcon with Yosemite’s Half Dome as the backdrop; only one-third of the way completed, the painting is already breathtaking.
He climbed his last mountain at age 82, but he still reveres them daily as he views Mt. Sill from his window in Big Pine. It reminds him of that childhood vista of Pike’s Peak that started it all.
For more gallery information, call 760-938-3243. The gallery is located at 442 North Main, open 10 to 5, and closed on Wednesdays.
For all those people who read the article on Carroll Thomas in the last issue of Scenic 395, Thomas would like to thank them for coming in to see his work and hopes they come again. His enthusiastic visitors came from all over the world and they told him they felt like they knew him.