Roy Thomas Comes Full Circle

The significance of the circle to indigenous cultures across North America could not be more prevalent than in the paintings of one of Northwestern Ontario’s most important artists, Roy Thomas (1949– 2004). Vision Circle, the title of a major retrospective of the work of Thomas taking place at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery this summer is an appropriate summation of how this Ojibwa artist interacted with, and viewed the world.

The circle of life – birth, life, death, the four seasons, the medicine wheel, and the circling embrace of family and ancestors – are all extremely important elements in Roy Thomas’ work. Influenced by the new visual language developed by Norval Morrisseau, Roy Thomas was a generation younger than Morrisseau and took a far different life path, one that, though marred by tragedy, was measured by consistent artistic excellence, mentorship of artists and young people, and respect for family.

Born in the small regional community of Long Lac, Roy Thomas expressed himself through art from an early age, whether he was drawing in the sand, snow and sky with a branch as a tool or tracing creatures on his grandmother’s back as she told him traditional stories. The influence of the pictographs that he saw as a child are also evident in the symbols in his paintings and his depictions of people and animals – birds, fish, bear, turtle, and creatures from the spirit world – that represent and inhabit the air, land, water, and fire. In works that are full of colour and symbolism, Thomas tells stories, describes relationships between the animal, human and spiritual worlds, and teaches us about his Ojibwa culture.

Early in his career, Roy Thomas participated in the pivotal Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of the Imagemakers. Co-curated by Tom Hill and Elizabeth McLuhan, the show was produced in order to establish a critical framework for the evaluation of artistic activity at the time in the province – the so-called Woodland School.

McLuhan and Hill concentrated their efforts on an examination of Norval Morrisseau’s influence on a group of five of the most promising artists working in the genre –including Roy Thomas – who were chosen from an estimated seventy five practitioners working throughout the province. Over 25 years later Elizabeth McLuhan is working with the Thunder Bay Art Gallery as the guest curator of Vision Circle where she will revisit the vibrant career of Roy Thomas.

One of the most interesting pieces in the retrospective is the painting entitled ‘We’re all in the Same Boat’ which Roy Thomas painted in February 1984, shortly after the opening of Emergence of the Imagemakers. In this documentary piece Roy depicted the participating artists – Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Saul Williams, Carl Ray, Joshim Kakegamic, Blake Debaissage, and himself- and illustrated them in a canoe with their painting tools in a wonderful illustration of the journey they were all experiencing at the time.

The major retrospective at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Vision Circle, brings together over 60 of Roy Thomas’ paintings from public and private collections in Canada in order to show the depth of his artistic achievement. The works range from his earliest drawings to very large and impressive public commissions. Following the exhibition in Thunder Bay (June 8 – September 9, 2012) Vision Circle will travel to other Canadian galleries over the next two years.

Coming full circle to his family, we see that Roy’s influence is strong and clear. His twin sons Roy and Randy continue to follow their father’s passion. Roy Jr. is currently pursuing a career in architecture and assisting his mother Louise in the operation of the Ahnisnabae Gallery in Thunder Bay. Louise founded the Gallery as a tribute to the work of her late husband and has created a successful business where art by over 100 Aboriginal artists from Thunder Bay and beyond is exhibited and sold.

Roy’s second son Randy is an emerging artist who was recently awarded a commission to produce a series of drawings to be part of a new architectural feature, the Celebration Circle in the Spirit Garden at Prince Arthur’s Landing, Thunder Bay’s new waterfront development.

Randy Thomas’ interpretation of the competition theme, which placed emphasis on sharing, peaceful co-existence and regard for the natural world, ultimately won him the award. To honour his father and mentor, Randy chose to include Roy’s work ‘Lifegivers’ as part of this work of art.

The impact of Roy Thomas as an artist, a mentor, and a father is strong and clear. The circle of his influence continues to widen. Be sure to see his exhibition Vision Circle at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.