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Donald H. Thomas


Posted By: Linda Smith
Date: 8/9/2020 at 14:12:24

Winterset Madisonian
Winterset, Iowa
July 13, 2005
By Carol Ann Norton Selberg- Class of 1962, Winterset High School

Remembering Don Thomas
Don Thomas, a retired Art teacher, one of the founding fathers of the Winterset Art Center, and a survivor of the Battan Death March in the Philippines, died July 8. He was my mentor and friend. Creative people need to have mentors. Every since he walked into my third grade glass in 1952, that is what he was to me. I was not the only person whose life was changed by the steady flow of encouragement, teaching, and common sense he shared. Thirty-three years of teaching art, primarily in the Winterset schools, spread his mentoring over almost three generations.

He gave more to the children of Winterset than the traditional ?culture? of art history and how to make artwork. He helped to create more than a place for children and grownups to make arts and crafts at the Winterset Art Center. This is what I discovered about Don Thomas?s lasting gifts.

Last month my husband Jerry, (who has visited a lot of art museums because of Don) and I went to visit his sister and her husband in Apache Junction, AZ. It is not far to the Phoenix Art Museum. Every large city?s art museum has a major patron. Phoenix is no exception: Henry and Clair Booth Luce were the force and endowment behind this one. The current exhibit was a classic example of art in their lifetime: American Surrealists.

Surrealists, like Salvador Dali, but American: Phillip Evergood, Isannu Naguchi, and Alexander Calder, artists whose imagery came out of the chaos of WWI and WWII. Because Don Thomas arranged a scholarship for me, I had attended art classes in High School on Saturdays, at the Des Moines Art Center. (Endowed courtesy of the Garner Cowles Foundation.) There, what was hanging on the walls? Phillip Evergood, Isannu Naguchi, and Alexander Calder. Artists of the time, who were painting visual, and abstract "stream of conscious" reactions to their life experiences in the two World Wars.

Don Thomas took another approach to leaving a legacy after his experience with World War II in the Pacific. He worked not only to teach culture and creativity but also to remake the community he lived in. He not only exposed his students to the different art forms, he gave them real technical skills, so they could make a living.

He taught how to use the study of lettering to make signs. (I worked part time for a sign shop for two years.) His teaching reached out through the processes of making things. First you make the clay original, then you might develop a drawing from it, and perhaps the next step was making a casting. He persisted in teaching his students an understanding of how art materials are made. He used films from the brush and paint manufacturers, which kept the students from abusing the brushes and tools, and not wasting paints and materials. This understanding kept the supplies in good order, and saved the school budget for field trips.

These field trips gave all of us experience in the wider world.

He focused on the community when he encouraged people to form the Winterset Art Center. Through the Art Fair in the alleys off the Courthouse Square, he fostered a larger effect. His vision allowed the people of Winterset, through their experiences, to enlarge this festival: inventing the Covered Bridge Festival. The Covered Bridge Festival has not only been financially good for the Winterset community: it has given a wider cultural experience for everyone. Even Oprah's TV viewers.

My experiences, as a young teen in helping out in the formation of the Winterset Art Center, allowed me to understand how to organize groups around art and cultural events. This has directly benefited the communities where I have lived. In addition to teaching art, I have helped create arts groups. In the Columbia Gorge: I helped form Larch Mt. Country Artisans, and Friends of Vista House, where local artists sell their work. Here in Corvallis I helped form a landscape painters group ?Vista and Vineyards?, as well as a co-operative gallery.

Vista House gets a half a million visitors a year. I know that his other students have also shared his vision with their communities.

He let us experience HOW to build community through the arts. He enriched peoples lives; in dollar sales of the art works, and through the images. He showed us how to create a sense of place. And he created the opportunities for a lot of people to see art, without ever going to a museum! This is the LIVING LEGACY of Don Thomas.


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