It’s often said that all art is subjective. This couldn’t be more true for Evansville residents J. Cory Mills and his wife, Annelle, who commissioned Henderson, Ky., artist Chris Thomas to paint For Annelle, the jewel of their home and the centerpiece of their dining room. Completed in 2009 as a present from Cory to his wife, the rich, colorful work depicts items personally chosen by Annelle to represent her family and represent “things that come to life for her, from her own life,” Cory says. The artwork honors Annelle by honoring her past, and the painting itself will become an heirloom to be passed down to the Mills’ own children and grandchildren.
Preserving a family member’s legacy also was the reason Greg Gibson, a Henderson resident and producer, commissioned a painting from Thomas in 2008. “I had this idea to give a painting that represented my grandmother’s life to my mother for Christmas,” he says. His maternal grandmother, Ernestine Seitz, still was living when the painting was undertaken, and Gibson brought a number of her personal belongings and accessories to Thomas. The artist chose the items he felt would make the most compelling composition and consulted with Gibson to make sure the arrangement met with his approval. After the painting was completed, Gibson described the included items and what they represent in a letter to the 10 family members who received a limited edition reproduction print of the original artwork:
“Each object has significant meaning: the Carnival glass bowl of fruit her mother, Virgie Hoover, served ambrosia from during the holidays; the leather gloves and topaz necklace and bracelet are symbols of Ernestine’s keen eye for fashion; the tape measure represents her 50-plus year career in the fashion textiles industry, with the majority of those years at C.B.S. Dress Factory in Henderson; the pumpkin paisley Saro scarf was one of the last fashion gifts I gave her; the abundance of fruit symbolizes God’s gift of family and the importance of both to her.”
Today, the original painting, titled Ernestine’s Accessories, hangs in Gibson’s mother’s home, and Gibson gratefully recalls that his grandmother, who passed away in 2012 at age 97, was able to enjoy and appreciate the painting in the last years of her life. “It meant something to her, and that was important,” Gibson says. “It was just an incredible opportunity to take these mementos from a family member and create an original work of art.”
Because Thomas’ style typically marries symbolic objects with realistic still-life compositions, reminiscent of the Old Masters in their richness and depth, he finds that commissions such as those from Gibson and the Mills lend themselves well to his way of painting. However, working with others’ personal objects and input challenge him in a positive way. “These types of paintings give me a problem to solve, an assignment, and I know I have to make them work. Maybe there are colors I wouldn’t have used, or maybe there are elements I wouldn’t have used in a composition myself. But without them, I may not have ended up making these paintings, which I now love as much as any I’ve created on my own.”
For each commission, Thomas encourages the buyers to work with him through the process, from discussing possible places for a painting in their space, to the size, colors, and mood of the work. For the Mills’ painting, Thomas made a visit to the couple’s home before beginning the commission, to take measurements and “get a feel for the room and an idea, color-wise, of what might be in harmony with it.” Thomas also consulted closely with the couple about the composition and the painting’s progress as first the sketch, and then the final work itself, began to take shape. The cost of any commission is influenced by its physical size and also by its complexity, Thomas explains. Agreeing on elements and expectations ahead of time helps ensure the buyer understands the value of the finished product.
However, both Mills and Gibson also wanted to give Thomas as much creative freedom as possible, to allow the specific characteristics of his painting style to come through. Says Gibson, “Many times, buyers can put too many constraints on an artist, but being an artist myself, I understood the need to give Chris total creative liberties to do what he wanted.” The Mills, too, trusted Thomas to bring his signature style to the work. Says Cory, “It was amazing to watch the progress, until suddenly, at the end, it came to life.” But Thomas’ involvement didn’t end with the last brushstroke: He likes to accompany his finished commissions to their new homes, bringing along a variety of frame samples for the homeowners to consider in the space where the work is to hang.
In the end, working with Thomas proved almost as meaningful for the Mills as the finished painting itself. “We were a part of the creative decision-making process from the beginning,” says Cory. “For us, we don’t only see it for what it is — a beautiful work of art representing our family — but we will always share that experience of being part of its creation.”
Evansville Living previously featured Chris Thomas in its July/August 2008 issue. For more information about Chris Thomas, visit christhomasfineart.com. He is represented locally by Nance Galleries in Evansville and nationally by John Pence Gallery, San Francisco; Horizon Fine Art Gallery, Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Miller Gallery, Cincinnati; and Whistle Pike Gallery, Fredericksburg, Texas.