Robert Amos: Art grows from Dumpster to gallery

He might not be someone you’ve heard of, but Rick Thomas has had a long and effective career as an artist in Victoria. Thomas is a sprightly 72 years old, boyish and open-minded, and he’s spending the summer creating murals on the walls of XChanges Gallery.

Years ago, I discovered this artist at the Fran Willis Gallery, where he had a show of his paintings of trees. What caught my attention was that I knew these trees — they were excellent large portraits on canvas of specific firs and arbutus on popular hiking trails around Victoria.

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Despite his obvious skill, Thomas didn’t bother with public acclaim, perhaps because he was employed full time as a cartographic scientific technical officer for the provincial government. He was acclaimed for his leadership in the department, and for his skill as an illustrator of posters and murals, mostly about wildlife.

At the same time, he made contributions to fitness through the YMCA, and for years built sets for musical theatre and Langham Court productions. He retired from his day job about seven years ago, but he’s not going to just sit about.

Thomas graduated from Victoria High School in the early 1960s and then studied at the Vancouver School of Art. In conversation, he noted the inspiration of Raymond Chow, who drew hundreds of old houses and shops in Vancouver before the tsunami of new construction changed that city forever. Back in Victoria, Thomas enjoyed the company of many Victoria artists of the previous generation — he mentioned Flemming Jorgensen (“a master of design”), the late Jim Gordaneer, muralist Frank Lewis and Jimmy Wright, the artist-economist-entrepreneur.

More recently, I caught up with Thomas when I spotted a display case full of his sketchbooks in the Oak Bay Public Library. Thomas, it turns out, is an unstoppable on-the-spot sketch artist. With retirement, he has made a habit of travelling for six months every year, and his books are bursting with notations of places he visited and people he met in the Philippines, Thailand, Belize, Guatemala and all across the European Union.

“When I was in Vietnam a couple of years back, drawing in restaurants,” Thomas told me, “I decided I was going to do a thousand faces. I started doing them, and two years later, I found I’d done 3,000. I’m not counting any more.

“They’re small, but I do 15 every time, sitting on the beach, or in bars in Montmartre in Paris. The people don’t even slow down as they go by. I usually get them by the gesture.” He’s darn good at it.

Last year, he decided to draw forests. So he took the bus to Sidney every day.

“As I rode along I’d see a nice tree, draw it … and I built the forest up one at a time as I went along. By the time I got to Sidney, I’d sit in a coffee shop, have lunch, finish it off and take the bus home. And then I’d post it.” He has a strong online presence.

Thomas doesn’t show any interest in storing, framing and selling his work. In his Victoria apartment, he lined the living room with a mosaic of flattened cardboard boxes pinned to the wall. On them, with charcoal and pastels, he drew a free-form assemblage of subjects taken from his sketchbook. Don’s Food Market in James Bay is just one of the many recognizable scenes, this time drawn in a cubist manner, with the elements of architecture all flying apart.

“It’s generally windy down there,” Thomas noted with a laugh. “I draw the houses in the neighbourhood, but I don’t like to draw them straight on.”

Perhaps working at home didn’t provide enough of the personal engagement that seems to be a feature of all Thomas’s activities. Last spring, he approached XChanges Gallery, which is a long-standing co-operative of about a dozen artists’ studios. Their gallery space was available —– in fact, they invited Thomas to become their “artist in residence” for the summer.

Beginning on the first of July, he covered the first of three walls with salvaged cardboard and got to work. In addition to the murals, the activity is intended to have an outreach and educational purpose. The artist is on site Monday to Friday, basically from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a drawing session on Wednesday morning for artists of any age or skill level.

When I dropped in, Thomas was just finishing the first wall, more than two metres tall and nine metres wide. Densely drawn pages from his sketchbook littered the floor, and he was considering his next move. Not that he’s hesitating.

“Just do it,” he exhorted. “Put it on the canvas. You’ve gotta draw it first — it’s all gotta fit.” The sheer physical nature of his work is engaging. As he worked on that first wall, he found that the tent city asserted itself in the picture, overlooked by the massive towers of Christ Church Cathedral.

“It’s a performance art installation,” he went on, “with some education to it.”

He’s got all the time he needs, a formidable set of skills learned over a lifetime and a pension to pay the rent. So this residency at XChanges is, for Thomas, a pleasure, and a way to engage with the community. When he finishes, on Aug. 31, he will either donate the drawings to some worthy recipient … or just return the boxes to the Dumpster.

 

Rick Thomas — Dumpster Diving, a mural under construction at XChanges Gallery (2333 Government St., suite 6E, upstairs; 250-382-0442, Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until Aug. 31).

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