Richard C. Thomas
Richard C. Thomas is an internationally-acclaimed New Orleans artist, muralist, educator, and mentor who birthed a distinct style of locally-inspired, Afrocentric artwork appropriately named "visual jazz".
This signature styles exemplifies the culture and history made in Louisiana.
For decades, Thomas has dispensed this influence by means of advocating for the recognition of African American artists locally and throughout the nation, creating murals and official artwork, curating at local museums, advising and leading several art-driven organizations and programs, and mentoring and educating young artists at numerous schools in the Orleans Parish. He continues to instruct and mentor youth at Benjamin Franklin Elementary and Middle School.
New Orleans artist, Richard C. Thomas was born in Bogalusa Louisiana 1953 and moved to New Orleans at the age of two. He recognized that he was to be an artist at a very early age of 4. His uncle Nathaniel Thomas (known to many as Raybadonna the magician) sat him on his knee one day to teach him his ABC's. He began to delight in the letter forms and started drawing and creating characters from the letters of the alphabet. By the time he entered first grade, he discovered finger painting. A shy child, he witnessed the excitement and reaction of his parents to his older brother's artwork that was hanging on his 3rd grade teacher's bulletin board. Thomas thought to himself, "Boy, I would love that type of adoration from my parents, too."
All throughout grade school, he began to see recognition for his art, where teachers were using his work for seasonal bulletin boards in and out of the classroom, program brochures and booklets. Though Richard's talent was increasing, he repeated the 3rd and 4th grade due to a debilitating bout with asthma. By the time he made it to middle school, his father ordered him never to draw again because he thought that it would be a waste of his time and was the cause of his failures in school.
Richard tried to obey his father's commands, but he made drawings of his teachers and their desks for every subject tablet he owned. While traveling home on the bus one day, he met architect Ron Henry, a sympathetic stranger who worked as an architect at the Pan-American Life building on Canal St. Mr. Henry asked to see his drawings, and developed a student-mentor relationship. Richard would go to work with this man on his artwork. By the eighth grade he began sneaking into art classes and sharpened his skills in drawing and painting. It was at this time, because he caught the public service busses from uptown to downtown, he would often walk to the French quarters to visit with the artists in and around Jackson square. Richard would ask questions of all the pastel portrait artists to gain insight to drawing portraits in full color. He began to draw portraits of his classmates from their ID cards, and he discovered that he could profit from his hard-earned gift. Many of his friends would pay him to draw pictures of their girlfriends. He'd sell pastel portraits to teachers, and by the time he reached high school he was selling his pastel portraits at an ever-growing rate.
Walter Louis Cohen High School was the school his parents had chosen for him. Until this point, he hadn't been allowed to attend art class, and his undercover visits were not proving sufficient. Finally in his eleventh grade year, he was allowed to officially enroll in art class with Ms. Kathleen Lyons who saw and understood his passion by supplying him with space in the closet and art supplies. By the beginning of Richard's 12th grade year, the school received an artist in residence who was a muralist. Patricia Jessie. She would become Thomas' third mentor. Jessie would expose him to working in a studio and painting murals on walls. Thomas designed his first mural in 1972 in the stairwells of Walter Louis Cohen.
Later that year, Thomas was offered a scholarship to study in the basement of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Unbeknownst to him, Patricia Jessie was also the instructor of that class. She was the first to really give him a sense of color. Another blessing presented itself to Richard as a result of maintaining a paper route. He would go on to meet and work with several mentors living along his route including Karen Benbeyer Walker , Roland Golden and the German woman known as the dog lady who lived within a block of his - none of the other kids dared to interact with her. She would go on to buy his first painting, which he completed with brushes that Roland Golden had given him.
Thomas became exposed to Xavier through the Upward bound program. This was all happenstance, as he met the director of the Upward bound program and convinced the director to let him apply. From merely viewing Thomas' portfolio, the director would go on to allow him to attend Xavier through the Upward bound program. When the program came to a close, Thomas decided he wanted to attend Xavier for college, but his grades were very poor. Once again, a mentor - a counselor at Xavier - would assist him in attaining his dream. The counselor took Thomas and his portfolio, which contained some 200 artworks of Thomas', to Numa Rousseve and was accepted on special circumstances because he was "just so talented." To support his education, Thomas continued to work his paper route, worked at Pascal’s Manale Restaurant, and worked at work study in Xavier's Art Department. He ended up transferring to the Library, and a nun, Sister Staniclaus, would commission him to fix a portrait another artist had messed up on. She gave him a space on the ground floor to work and was later relocated to the 4th floor near the stacks. There were racks and racks of films about artists that Thomas would soak in, and he retained an understanding of artists acting as community organizers.
Rousseve wanted to encourage Thomas academically, but by midterm of his sophomore year, he ended up on academic probation. Thomas ran into Dr. Norman Francis one day, and they discussed his trouble. Dr. Francis helped Thomas to manage his life better. He would receive assistance from counselors, his mentor John Scott and would go on to graduate with a 3.6 GPA. Upon graduation, Thomas received an opportunity to exhibit his socially conscious paintings at the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library catered free of charge by Leah Chase of Dookey Chase Restaurant. The title of his show was "The Last Supper for Watermelon-Colored People." There were over 500 guests in attendance at the opening event. This was Thomas's first solo exhibition.
All these experiences culminated in Thomas declaring himself an artist of the community. Thomas was hired by the City of New Orleans to create murals underneath the Claiborne bridge to help bring awareness to and encourage the celebration of Mardi Gras on Claiborne Avenue. After that, Thomas was hired to create 14 murals around the city, and completed this with children - not unlike himself - in an attempt to encourage those who had dropped out to continue and persevere. Thomas toured schools and other educational facilities and would push to influence young artists and their school boards to establish an arts program for the Greater New Orleans area. This is a model Thomas would continue to incorporate in his practices.
Thomas married shortly after this and purchased his first home where he established his first studio and a storefront. Many residents and business owners, organizations and social clubs would come to Richard for their logo designs, portraits, banners or whatever their artistic need may be.
Concerned about the lack of African-American participation in the mainstream art scene in New Orleans, Richard Thomas began to organize. He would go on the road in Louisiana and develop a list of some 200 African-American artist and would share this list with the New Orleans Museum of Art, the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center ,the Arts Council of Greater New Orleans, and many more societies and centers. Thomas achieved many of his dreams for his community including curating an exhibition for the Contemporary Art Center two years in a row where he would feature the first works to hang there by African American artists local to New Orleans. The second show would include artists from the Southern Region of the United States. Both years, they broke attendance records. He would go on to curate a similar show for the New Orleans Museum of Art and become the first African American artist in residence at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and Couvent Elementary school.
Thomas became a teacher in the Talented in Visual Arts Program at McDonough 35, where he organized his students and developed a program through his gallery called Pieces of Power. Through Pieces of Power Thomas mentored high school-aged students for 15 years until his program was disrupted by Hurricane Katrina. They were known for painting trash cans, and students would get hired through Pieces of Power to paint murals throughout the city and provide instruction for several camps from the East Bank to the West Bank. Through Pieces of Power, Richard Thomas developed a special relationship with Xavier University which would allow his students to attend classes early to study many different artistic processes. These classes would go toward credit for attending the university. Pieces of Power was funded mostly from Thomas's own pocket. They would go on field trips that emphasized professional development, and one year Thomas took his students to New York City, NY to visit schools, galleries and museums. The Blue Cross Blue Shield Angel Award honored Richard Thomas and the work that was done through Pieces of Power. It was around this time that the City of New Orleans began to turn its attention to Thomas, and he was commissioned to create three murals at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. Thomas hired 10 of his students to assist him on the murals, some of whom were Terrence Osborne, Kenneth Scott, Gerome Ford, and Kiel Scott - all of whom are practicing professionals. His goal was to prove that there was no need to turn to crime or violence to support one’s self or family. He wanted to prove that they could make money while also contributing to a greater good.
Working with the Jazz and Heritage Festival, Richard Thomas organized a mural painting program where his students would contribute. The program extended 9 years. This would eventually lead to Thomas creating his first Jazz Fest poster featuring Fats Domino. Thomas was also selected to host the National Conference of Black Artists international conference in which over 400 artists of African descent exhibited throughout the city of New Orleans.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Thomas's art began to change. He began to create works about the environment through landscapes. He found himself in South Lafourche Parish where he met Tab Benoit of the Voice of the Wetlands, a social organization aimed toward creating awareness of our vanishing wetlands. Thomas would create 5 posters for them. Thomas was also commissioned by then-mayor, Ray Nagin, to create two posters that commemorated the disastrous event of Hurricane Katrina. Also during this time, Thomas was invited to the city of Waterloo, Iowa where he designed a 90 foot, wall mural titled "We the People" featuring immigrants traveling to the city to make it their home. After completing this work, Thomas returned to the New Orleans Community to roll up his sleeves and get to work on the restoration of all that he had built prior, Richard Thomas continues to teach through the Talented in the Arts Program at Benjamin Franklin Elementary, focuses on raising his daughter, and continues to reach out to deserving young artists through his summer art initiatives. Look for Thomas's Visual Jazz Art Gallery to be open after his retirement in 2017.