Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007

Artist makes his long and winding road matter

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‘‘At just 46 years old, Michael Evan Thomas died of cancer last December,” gallery owner Kate Fraser told me. As soon as she uttered those words, I wished I hadn’t called.

It all started last week while I was trawling for a local arts story and called Fraser about her stable of artists. She enthusiastically began describing the photographer, whose work is part of a group show at her Fraser Gallery in Bethesda through Sept. 8.

Hearing of Thomas’ demise made me pause. Unknown to Fraser, my own husband had died of cancer just five weeks earlier. At first, I thought I couldn’t possibly write about this artist, but just a few minutes later, I felt I must. Although I never met Thomas, I knew this artist was much more than his disease. My own experience had taught me that most individuals with chronic or deadly illnesses don’t want to be defined by, much less remembered for, their disease.

I decided that somehow, this story had to about how, regardless of his pain, making art mattered to this West Virginia native.

Love at first sight

From the moment Fraser first saw Mark Evans Thomas’ landscapes — at a group show at BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown last November — she was ‘‘blown away.”

Such an effusive compliment is rare for Fraser, who admits to spending far too many hours looking at ‘‘terrible and mediocre” landscape photographs. But when the gallery owner sees works ‘‘expressing an artist’s vision,” she is on high alert. A photographer herself, Fraser appreciated Thomas’ composition, which, she believes ‘‘can’t be learned or taught.” Equally impressive, she observed that he was able to photograph subject matter in familiar locations — including Maine, the Southwest and Georgia — yet make them uniquely his own. Although Thomas battled cancer for some 19 years, ‘‘his images of winding roads were always looking forward into the future,” Fraser points out.

In his journal, Thomas wrote that the art of photography means creating a ‘‘trust in myself. Photography gives meaning to life” and is a ‘‘spiritual process and a perfect medium for exploring the world.”

Although Fraser had hoped to represent the artist, who was then living in Hagerstown, the disease had taken its toll and the artist died. She is now working with Thomas’ sister Lynn Hawkins to bring his artwork to the public’s eye.

It still isn’t clear which of his many cameras were used to take the 6- by 6-inch black and white images, but Hawkins is trying to glean this information from his multitude of records.

She remembers her baby brother with great fondness. Growing up in Terra Alta, W.Va., Thomas learned early on to survive his older siblings — three brothers and a sister — even when they ‘‘hung [him] upside down by his heels,” Hawkins recalls.

With plenty of family support, since his father also had studied photography, Thomas left his country home to study commercial photography at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif. Upon graduating in 1981, he moved to Atlanta to start his career. For a time, fine art photography was sidelined while he developed a commercial art business. Business was good, friendships thrived and Thomas married.

But life lost its simplicity when the 29-year-old Thomas learned he had a rare form of gastro-intestinal cancer. Treatments took time, but once he was healthy, he followed his wife to Seattle while she attended school. Thomas continued working and shooting the region’s spectacular scenery. But the cancer returned and in between business trips, he made stops at hospitals throughout the country seeking various treatments. Life having becoming increasing more complicated, Thomas and his wife parted ways.

Throughout his life, Thomas was an outdoorsy kind of guy, Hawkins says, continuing to ski, hike and take solitary drives across country to take pictures.

For two decades, the artist never knew if he would enjoy good health for three or four years or just a few months. To his credit, he was a quick study and could ‘‘speak intelligently about cancer. Doctors were impressed.”

Often Hawkins and the artist joked that together, they would write a book about hospitals across America, offering tips such as ‘‘how to break into the ICU kitchen in the middle of the night.”

After years of going it alone, he moved to the Frederick area to be close to family and doctors as well as our vital arts community.

And with collectors throughout the country embracing the late artist’s work, Fraser believes it is our good fortune to see this artist’s ‘‘quiet” landscapes.

Michael Evan Thomas’ black and white photographs are on view through Sept. 8 as part of the Summer Group Exhibit at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 301-718-9651 or visit