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Andy Thomas' artful journey
C
arthage artist tells stories with his paintings

by Jim McCarty

“Bad Whiskey,” which is typical of Andy’s dramatic action Westerns, fetched $110,000 at the prestigious Coeur D’Alene Western Art Auction. Like many of his paintings, this one tells a story. He likes to think no one got shot in this scene and blames the outburst on bad whiskey.

Andy Thomas didn’t set out to be a world-class artist. In college, he majored in marketing. When he graduated, he was quite content working as a commercial artist for Leggett and Platt, a furniture component manufacturer in Carthage.

But there comes a point in the lives of most successful people when they are promoted past the opportunity to do what they love. That’s where Andy found himself when he became vice president of marketing services.

Instead of designing new ads, he found himself spending more time on the phone. To keep his creativity flowing, Andy returned to painting in his spare time.

Little did he know his spare-time passion would lead to a new career and status as one of the great contemporary American painters. Since devoting his life full time to art, he’s had three of his works sell for more than $100,000.

Artist Andy Thomas paid attention while his daughter described being fitted for her wedding dress. The result is this remembrance. Family milestones like this one often find their way into Andy’s artwork.

“I had a really great job,” says Andy. “I thought, I have the best job in Carthage. But I got to be a little past 30, and I didn’t think I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. So I thought I would give art a chance.”

Unknown to Andy, his wife, Dina, entered one of his paintings in an art contest. “I came home one day and my wife said, ‘Well, you won.’ I said, ‘Won what?’ She said, ‘You won best of show down in a show in Arkansas.’ I didn’t know she entered it. I would have told her not to.”

Dina talked to the gallery owner, and soon Andy’s work was selling without much effort. “I thought, if we can make a little bit of money like that, what if we did it full time?”

With a little money in savings, Andy turned in his notice in 1991 and committed himself to life as a starving artist. “The worst thing that could have happened was I would have to be looking for a job after a couple of years,” Andy says. “Luckily, it all worked out.”

He says the temptation was there for Dina to take a job to keep the family of eight afloat. The couple talked about it and decided they would either make it on art or not at all. “So we put all our eggs in one basket, which was a pretty good thing. It made you really try to sell paintings. We had to really work.”

Selling in those days involved loading dozens of paintings in a van and heading to an art show where they displayed their wares under a pop-up tent. “I think that’s a real education because you get feedback,” says Andy, now 51. “You begin to hear what people like and dislike. You just get a lot of input. You go to a few art shows where you don’t sell any artwork, and it really makes you want to be a better artist — or find a new line of work.”

Andy works on his latest Western in a comfortable studio in his home in Carthage.

That sort of education was about all the training Andy received before setting out to become an artist. He actually considers his lack of an art school degree a benefit. “I think it is different now, but if I had gone to art school in the late ’70s when I got out of high school, I don’t think I would have been taught how to paint. I definitely wouldn’t have been taught how to make a living at painting, and I definitely would have been told that the things I was interested in painting aren’t worthy of my time.”

Andy is one of those artists who defies categorization. A look through his book of published art, “The Artful Journey,” shows a collection that ranges from Americana reminiscent of Norman Rockwell to impressionistic works worthy of Claude Monet to action westerns that would have made Frederic Remington proud.

Early in his career, Andy was known for his Civil War paintings. An early effort was a mural depicting the Battle of Carthage that hangs in the southwest Missouri town’s museum.

He also painted battle scenes for National Park Service sites, including Wilson’s Creek in Springfield, The Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas and Tennessee’s Stones River and Fort Donelson battlefields.

This Civil War painting shows the charge of Shelby’s Iron Brigade at the Battle of Marshall.

“I probably did a Civil War painting once every other year,” Andy says. “But they are known because we did a lot of advertising of them. In Missouri, if you are into the Civil War, you would know of them.”

Andy says he is one of the first artists to paint the battles fought west of the Mississippi River. One reason for that might be the lack of photographs from these battles. And that fact helped Andy craft the style that eventually put him among the nation’s elite artists.

With no photos to use for reference, Andy instead scoured diaries and books searching for realistic elements to put in his paintings. His brain is a veritable library of Civil War facts. He can tell you that less than half of the Confederate soldiers who fought in the Battle of Carthage had weapons and that Union troops fighting in Missouri received the barest minimum in supplies.

His research — and penchant for painting poignant moments before and after the battle — led to realistic art that people find riveting. For example, one of his Civil War scenes shows a truce that allowed both sides to collect their dead and wounded from the battlefield. A closer look shocks the senses — those are mere boys carrying the stretchers.

“Storyteller” shows what it must have been like when cowboys gathered around the campfire while the West was still wild.

Refusing to be put in a mold, Andy painted anything he found interesting. He did sailing ships, agonizing over the intricate rigging. He painted his memory of childhood football games. He did studies of his daughter’s dance class. He drew fantasy scenes combining people and woodland creatures. He painted nostalgic scenes of a soldier going off to fight in World War II, the Memorial Day Weekend Basket Dinner at Richland’s Elm Grove Baptist Church and a boy singing at a Fourth of July picnic in 1942.

If there’s a common denominator to his body of work, it’s the fact his paintings tell stories. “Even simple paintings, a landscape or something, I end up putting in a story to make it interesting,” he says.

But what really put Andy in the spotlight was his action Westerns.

“There are very few artists today who can paint action that is believable,” says Stuart Johnson, who handles contemporary art for the prestigious Coeur D’Alene Art Auction. “He’s got a real sense of imagination and is able to compose scenes that are believable and historically accurate.”

Andy’s work “Bad Whiskey” brought $110,000 at the Coeur D’Alene auction. A painting he did for the Charles Russell Museum auction topped that, fetching $180,000. That was an auction record for an artwork not done by the legendary Russell himself. And his “Grand Ol Gang,” a gathering of Republican presidents, also brought six figures.

Andy’s colorful interpretation of a country hoedown is titled “Barn Dance.”

“There’s only a handful of artists who will garner that kind of price,” Stuart says. “And when I say a handful, I mean maybe five or six artists who could put a painting in an auction and achieve that kind of price. He’s done it three times now. That’s really saying something.”

And yet Andy takes it all in stride, humbled by his success and as devoted to his family as he was in his starving artist days. He attributes his success to his work ethic. He routinely spends 10 hours a day painting, and he is known for painting figures over and over until he achieves the correct body language.

“My only goal was to get better and better,” Andy says. “And then you think to get better you’ve got to paint a lot of hours. If you are going to paint a lot of hours, you better paint something that is interesting to you.”

More of Andy’s artwork can be seen at www.andythomas.com and www.greenhousegallery.com.

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