By Hayley Thomas
At the peak of Thomas Hill Farm, surrounded by Asian pears, pomegranate trees and shocks of lavender, Joe Thomas works. Between rows of vineyards heavy with Barbera grapes, the artist sweeps charcoal across a canvas three feet taller than his own head. A few yards away, his farm assistant sits in a wooden chair, a hand over her right eye; mouth curled into the beginnings of a laugh. Behind her, golden hills and blue skies roll on.
Thomas, a new addition to downtown artist’s nonprofit Studios on the Park, creates vast, colorful and engaging portraits that are as gregarious as his own personality.
“Being on the farm, the scope is just so expansive, and how that expanse relates to the figure I find really amazing,” said Thomas. “When I do my large portraits, the portrait becomes a landscape for me.”
Thomas, originally a teacher, first came to Paso Robles from Pasadena a little less than eight years ago. After falling in love with the 10-acre Thomas Hill property located in the hills of Paso’s eastside, he put his naturally green thumb to work.
“I had more experience with art and academia than farming,” Thomas said, admittedly. “But, when I was a little kid, my grandfather and parents taught me if you like to eat, you have to learn how to grow things. We always had gardens and we always grew things.”
Even at his home in Pasadena, Thomas had maxed out about an acre of land with a plethora of figs, persimmons, pluots, citrus and avocados.
“It’s a way of living,” said Thomas. “I’ve always loved food and food always meant being around family. My grandmother always said one of the greatest acts of love is to not only be able to cook for someone, but also to grow the food.”
Thomas Hill Organics, which opened in downtown Paso Robles in 2009, became the natural conduit for Thomas’ exotic bounty (ten different kinds of pomegranates, 15 varieties of figs and at least three varieties of pear, to name a few).
Between daily tasks on the farm, Thomas said he has always made time to work on his art. Now, more than ever, he’s sharing that side of himself with the Paso Robles community.
“I’ve always done my art, but never really released it to the public until now,” said Thomas. “I’m definitely a fish out of water, but it’s wonderful to get a response from the public.”
Some of Thomas’s biggest fans are children, who stand wide-eyed before his bold, towering canvases, which range up to 9-feet-wide by 12-feet-tall.
“I think kids enjoy the sense of scale and the color,” said Thomas. “There’s also a strangeness there.”
With artistic influences like abstract expressionist Philip Guston and avant garde filmmaker David Lynch, it’s no wonder there is a tinge of the bizarre in all Thomas touches.
“My art is a mixture between cartoons and an Alfred Hitchcock movie,” the artist said with a laugh. “There’s a sense of drama, a cinematic scope there.“
Thomas discovered his love of film and photography while studying at Loyola Marymount, where he received his undergraduate degree in philosophy and English literature. Thomas then went on to attend graduate school at Cal State Long Beach and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I had a teacher who told us to have a good run, then paint when you’re exhausted,” said Thomas. “That way, you are painting faster than you can think. I fully do that — I work faster than I can think, and the work really reveals itself.”
Another rule of thumb Thomas lives by is to draw and paint in the moment.
“If I’m going through a tough time in my life, it will show in my work,” he said. “My work is exceptionally personal; it’s raw.”
Thomas often portrays friends and family, finding peaks and valleys amongst the flesh. He said he enjoys getting lost within “the expanse of a face.” When viewers ask about the stories behind his portraits, Thomas often turns the question back around.
“There’s a sense of ambiguity there where you just don’t know; it’s a twilight,” said Thomas.
The artist said the older he gets, the more interested he becomes in other people’s narratives. Those personal stories are written on the faces he paints, yet ultimately left up to the viewer’s imagination.
“I wish, that if my artwork does anything, that it teaches people how to dream,” said Thomas. “That it reveals more questions than answers.”
View Joe Thomas’s work at Studios on the Park, located at 1130 Pine Street in Paso Robles. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.