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 Norman Millet Thomas  (1915 - 1986)

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Lived/Active: Maine/New York/California / Mexico      Known for: abstract animal, figure and genre painting, portraits, murals, etching, sculpture

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Norman Millet Thomas
An example of work by Norman Millet Thomas
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Norman Millet Thomas was known for modernist animal and abstract figure painting, murals, etching, and sculpture. There are few US artists from the twentieth century whose artistic diversity and breadth of life experience can rival that of Norman Thomas. His accomplishments ranged from Pulitzer Scholarship, to combat artist during World War II, publication in Life magazine, sculptor for the US Coast Guard War Memorial, producer of a 1961 film banned by the Mexican Government, and influential member of Studio 88 in California. His friends and circle included Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and David Siqueiros.

Norman Millet Thomas was drawn to work with murals from early in his life, and in 1938 he was awarded a Pulitzer traveling scholarship of $1,500. for a mural of a lobster fisherman on the back shore of Long Island, Maine.

Thomas graduated from Portland High School in 1933, studied art at the Portland School of Fine Arts, then the National Academy of Design in New York City, and the American Academy in Rome, Italy. He served as a combat artist for the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.

Five wartime paintings by Thomas were published in Life magazine September 6, 1943 under the heading of “Greenland at War”. Thomas also sketched the amphibious assaults at Leyte and Luzon in the Philippines, and Iwo Jima, Japan. His sketches of Luzon and particularly of two Coast Guardsmen supporting between them a wounded soldier became the design for the Coast Guard War Memorial. Thomas designed and sculpted the bronze statue for the War Memorial at Battery Park in New York City. The memorial was dedicated in 1955, and a replica was dedicated in Baltimore in 1959.

Thomas’s murals have embraced a wide range of topics and been put to many uses. He is well known as the artist of the Norbert Capek Mural (http://www.essexuu.org/nmtmural.html ), which was unveiled March 16, 1947. It may have been the use of this media to convey and portray oppression that reinforced Thomas’s association with Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. Thomas’s paintings such as Man of War also share much in common with Siqueiros’s later paintings. While in Cuernavaca, Mexico in the 1960s and early 1970s Siqueiros and Thomas both experimented with modern paint media. Thomas’s paintings also often included a lot of texture.

Thomas's later years were spent mostly in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He was a producer of the 1961 film El Brazo Fuerte by Giovanni Korporaal, which was banned in Mexico because it criticized government corruption.

Thomas spent time living in Mexico intermittently in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. But in the 1950s Thomas shared a studio in Portland, Maine with William T. Wray and Claude Montgomery. Then from about 1965 to 1970 he was in Los Gatos, California, and became part of the group of artists who gathered at the nearby Studio 88 in Campbell. Studio 88 in the late 60's early 70's was also a hangout for artists Duane Armstrong, Steve Sutton, Don Heitkotter and Paul Greenesmith.

Thomas was born in 1915 and grew up in Portland, Maine. He married Maryjane Ripley in 1941, and they had a son named Peter. He then lived with his second wife Rebeca Duff de Salinas in Cuernavaca, and they had a daughter named Leonora. He died at Cuernavaca, Mexico on May 11, 1986 at the age of 70, and in keeping with the diversity of his life his ashes were returned to his birthplace of Portland and as befitted Norman Thomas as the mariner they were scattered over Casco Bay.

Sources
"Greenland At War," Life 15:76-78 (September 6, 1943). Drawings by Ben Wolf, including portrait of Norman Millet Thomas; and five paintings by Thomas, in color.

Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975, ed.-in-chief Peter Hasting Falk. (1999)

"Combat Art of World War II," http://history.acusd.edu/gen/st/~pkaplan/index.html. (Univ.of San Diego) Includes Thomas painting of Coast Guard commando raid in Greenland, http://history.acusd.edu/gen/st/~pkaplan/thomas1.jpg

New York Times Movies, "El Brazo Fuerte," http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=229103

“Norman Millet Thomas” an article for First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County (First posted Feb 22, 2006; last revised March 8, 2006). http://essexuu.org/n_m_thomas.html

Norbert Capek Mural. “Remarks of the Artist”. http://www.essexuu.org/nmtmural.html

Partial transcription of article from Portland Press-Herald, May 3, 1938.

Press release, Dec.8, 1945, by Department of Parks, City of New York, and Public Information Office, U.S. Coast Guard.

Emily Genauer, "This week in Art: Coast Guard War Memorial Has Good ground to Stand On," New York World-Telegram, Sept. 21, 1946. Includes photo of Thomas with statue.

New York Herald Tribune, Feb. 7(byline dates Feb.6), 1947, photo of completed clay model for the World War II Memorial, with N.M. Thomas standing in front.

Lt. Cmdr. R.F. Barber, "U.S. Coast Guard World War II Memorial," U.S. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association Bulletin, April 1950, p.3-6.

U.S. Coast Guard War Memorial Dedication Program, May 30, 1955.

U.S.Coast Guard official photo, Coast Guard Yard, Curtis Bay, Baltimore, MD. (May 29,1959

"German Weather Station Personel taken as Prisoner of War in Northeast Greenland," http://home6.inet.tele.dk/ron/greenland/Germanpow.htm, Includes image of Norman Thomas drawing of capture of Rudolf Senssem Hansa Bay, Sabine Island (July 1943).

Obituary, Portland Press Herald, May 12, 1986, p.33.

Written and submitted by R. Peter Whittaker, Director, Center for Environmental Excellence, University of Texas, Arlington


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following are comments by Norman Millet Thomas at the dedication of the Norbert Capek Mural, which Thomas painted.  The mural was unveiled March 16, 1947 at the Orange, New Jersey First Unitarian Church, which had been founded by Norbert Capek who had died in World War II.

Remarks of the Artist:

It has been a privilege to paint this mural in memory of Dr. Norbert Capek. No painter of liberal and humanistic conviction could wish for a more inspired theme than that given by the life and philosophy of Dr. Capek.

This mural attempts pictorially to interpret the profound truth for which he lived and for which he surrendered his life. The mural also depicts symbolically those menacing evils against which he fought so valiantly.

While the features of Dr. Capek himself do not appear in this painting, he is yet there. He is there in the pierced hand of Jesus. He is there in the burning body of Michael Servetus, the first Unitarian martyr, who died at the stake three hundred and ninety years almost to the day before Dr. Capek. He is there in the symbol of the spirit of progressive man pursuing his unending struggle toward that which does not yet appear.

Dr. Capek is there in the seal of the church he founded, a symbol which gave enheartenment and courage to his people during the tensest days of the Nazi occupation. . . .

The shield contains the sunflowers of hope rising from the nourishing earth towards the sun's bright rays. These sunflowers of hope are rooted ... in the spiritual soil of Unitarianism indicated by the letter U which encompasses them. The Latin words within the seal VERITAS VINCIT mean simply that truth conquers. Prior to the Nazi invasion the motto appeared on the seal in the Czech language PRAVDA VITEZI but "truth conquers" was a forbidden phrase under the Hitler blackout. Although Prague Unitarians knew that the Latinizing of the motto did not in the remotest degree change its meaning, the Nazis never discovered that "truth conquers" in Czech is still "truth conquers" when it is said in Latin.

The figures surrounding Servetus symbolize those things over which truth ultimately makes the conquest.  In the immediate foreground the brutal arm with fist gripping the whip is the obvious symbol of unmasked oppression.  It finds its personalization in the militaristic figure whose hand is drenched in blood. Although, from the artistic standpoint, crimson is an aesthetically pleasing color, we should yet remember that when used in association with reactionary militarism it is, and it is meant to be, a reminder of unprecedented bestiality and horror.  Let us never forget Lidice!

Directly behind the personification of militarism is the dark and superstitious personalization of clerical reaction currently known as clerical fascism. It is from the relentless stranglehold of this callous ecclesiasticism that liberal religion under the leadership of men like Dr. Capek seeks to set men free.

Immediately behind the symbol for clerical fascism is a white-hooded figure who might in our own country represent Klanism, but who is truly representative of racial prejudice and religious bigotry in any part of the world.

The symbolization of despotism in this section of the mural would not be complete without the grim, pious, praying ecclesiastic below Servetus whose hypocrisy countenances the burning of the body under the guise of saving the soul.

Should this realistic symbolism make us as fully aware as we, as Unitarians should be, of the dread spectres which continue to haunt humanity, let us, in the spirit of Norbert Capek, weave courage with pain.  As his valiant spirit was so resilient with hope and faith while in the midst of adversity, let us work for and hold to his invincible conviction: TRUTH CONQUERS.

Source:
First Unitarian Church of Essex County, Orange, New Jersey: http://www.essexuu.org/nmtmural.html (Accessed 5/11/2013)


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