Richard C. Thomas has been spreading the wonders of visual art for decades.
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Thomas and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival have a long relationship dating back to 1977 when Thomas was an art student at Xavier University. At that time, Thomas’s professor selected him and some of his peers to exhibit their work in the Louisiana Craft area of the festival. In 1978, Thomas graduated from Xavier University, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work as a community-based artist by painting murals throughout the city in partnership with the City of New Orleans for New Orleans Recreational Department. Thomas was then hired in 1979 by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to utilize his talents to create murals in the Children’s Tent. For nine years, he would provide unforgettable experiences for children and accompanying fair goers through his work.
In 1988, Thomas shot to local and national fame when he was asked to create the 20th Anniversary poster for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Thomas selected Antoine “Fats” Domino as his subject. This was important for two reasons: it gave birth to the “Jazz Fest Portrait Series” featuring musical luminaries from New Orleans and the poster would become the highest grossing print at that time. It broke sales records when 500 prints were dual signed by Thomas and Domino himself. That poster sold out in under 25 minutes.
Thomas was the first artist to create portraits in the ancestry village. He created totems that were stationed throughout the fair grounds. He was also commissioned to create large scale, themed murals utilizing his youth organization, Pieces of Power, and students from McDonough 35. Thomas was also the first to design the stage back drop when the Congo Square area was introduced to Jazz Fest. He was then invited to exhibit and sell his work in the Contemporary Crafts area for the first time. At the next festival, he was featured in the Made in Louisiana exhibit. Three years later, he and three other were invited to share a tent near his hero, Bruce Brice.
For 26 consecutive years, Thomas has exhibited and sold his artwork in the Artist Tent Area (AA). Thomas’s visual jazz has sustained a perennial influence on the art culture in southern Louisiana. Hundreds of students were given the opportunity to have their first major selling experience while exhibiting with Thomas. Now many of those students are now exhibiting as professional artists. To name a few, his students included Kenneth Scott, Fred Johnston, Jerome Ford, and Terrance Osborne— who has been commissioned for the fifth time to do this year’s Jazz Fest poster which features none other than Antoine “Fats” Domino. Thomas’s branding through visual jazz has sustained a perennial influence on the art culture in southern 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. Thomas says, “Jazz Fest has not only given me the perfect platform to reach hundreds of thousands of people over the years to sell my work, but it has allowed me to open the door for other artists to use this platform in that same way and to acquire the same success that I had.”