Influential Native artist Roy Thomas dies

By Stephanie MacLellan - The Chronicle-Journal

November 15, 2004

One of the country’s most influential aboriginal artists, known for his distinctive paintings of vibrantly coloured, totemic animals, died Saturday in Thunder Bay.

Roy Thomas died Saturday morning after an ongoing battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells, that lasted more than four years. He was 54.

Thomas was renowned for his work as a painter in the Ojibwa woodland style, which uses symbolism and imagery inspired by aboriginal legends and pictographs. Along with artists like Norval Morrisseau, he was at the forefront when aboriginal art broke into the mainstream in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“I think for a lot of people, it was very easy to relate to his artwork,” said Jim Stevens, who collaborated with Thomas on his biography, The Spirit of Ahnishnabae Art. “His paintings were very colourful, the lines were very carefully applied.

“He added a lot of colour to our lives.”

Thomas was born on a trap line in Caramat, and grew up in the Longlac reservation. From an early age, he was fascinated with drawing, even tracing pictures on his grandmother’s back as she told him legends.

After working a series of menial jobs as a teenager, he turned to painting and found success almost immediately. Painting became a lifelong passion.

“He was actually doing sketches within five to six days before he died, in the hospital,” Stevens said.

His wife of 19 years, Louise Thomas, remembers the gleeful excitement he showed every time he started to paint, with Rolling Stones or Bob Marley music blaring from his studio.

“He was so overwhelmed and excited,” she said. “It was so nice to see him when he was mixing colours. Colours made him really excited.

“When he started to paint the colours on he was so absorbed with it, you’d have to pull him away.”

Thomas’ work can be seen across Thunder Bay, including murals in the Thunder Bay Charity Casino and Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. It can also be seen in the work of countless younger aboriginal artists.

“Maybe his most important contribution was his mentorship of younger artists and students,” said Sharon Godwin, director of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. “He was really committed to doing that.”

At the same time, he was able to reach all people, regardless of their background.

“I think his contribution really was that his art helped two cultures gain a further understanding of themselves,” Stevens said. “He helped people from Western society understand the values and philosophy on the aboriginal side.”

“Every picture had a story, and if the story wasn’t clear in the painting, Roy was really open to . . . explaining what he painted,” Godwin said. “He was just so committed to communicating to people about anishnawbe culture and legends. I think he felt he had to carry them on.”

Thomas struggled with drug and alcohol addiction in his younger days, but overcame them by committing himself more deeply to his art and his culture. Louise Thomas remembers him as a man who loved his community, profoundly respected the elders, and laughed from his heart.

“He was a happy person, a positive person,” she said. “He was a loving man.”

There will be a memorial service for Roy Thomas on Friday afternoon at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. The time will be confirmed later this week.