Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on our local artists and their experiences in these turbulent times.
The nature of an engineer is to step up to a challenge, says Seattle artist Earnest D. Thomas, and he is a prime example.
An engineer by trade who retired from Boeing in 2003, Thomas is now a painter by passion. He’s also the president of the Seattle-based Onyx Fine Arts Collective, though he’s never taken an art class.
Armed with an engineer’s willingness to persevere, Thomas has accomplished many things; most recently, being an artist during a pandemic. After Pacific Place mall, where Gallery Onyx is located, shut down for four months in 2020, Thomas said the gallery was a month away from permanently closing its doors when things started turning around.
“One might think that the pandemic would kind of give an artist a lot of time to do more creating,” he said. “Well, it didn’t work that way for me because of this nonprofit arts organization that I’m president of. It caused us to hustle a lot more.”
Gallery Onyx, like many small organizations, has spent the last two years on the hunt for grants. In a time where grant acquisition is competitive and hard to come by, “you’re lucky if you can get a little $5,000 grant,” Thomas said.
“The marketplace for art is even more fickle than it was in the past,” he said. “We have to be more financially prepared.”
Keeping an organization afloat — hoping for sales, searching for grants — is time-consuming, and Thomas doesn’t get to paint as much as he used to.
“But that’s an excuse,” he said, encouraging himself to finally make a sculpture out of a box of old trumpet parts he’s been holding on to.
Thomas has been multitalented since he was a boy in Hempstead, Texas. Raised by a pianist mother and a father who worked as chief engineer of a power plant, Thomas was as strong in mathematics as he was in playing the tenor saxophone. He had a decision to make.
“I wanted to make more money, so I went into engineering,” he said.
During Thomas’ 39 successful years with Boeing, he continued to admire the arts. Over the years, he and his wife made a habit of collecting abstract art by Seattle artists, with a particular fondness for African art. Right before Thomas retired, they collected some artwork from a friend. One piece — a painting with wire shaped and fastened onto the front of it — Thomas loved when the light hit it just right to give it dimension, and he strongly encouraged the artist to make more, but she said no.
“She says, ‘Hey, if you feel that way, why don’t you do it?’” he said. “Well, that was enough for the old engineer.”
Since then, Thomas said, he’s been hooked on what he calls “abstract mixed media.” Utilizing his engineer sense, he positions wiring on the painting in such a way that they cast shadows and create a three-dimensional effect.
“I have a piece that’s called ‘Life Forms,’ which I constructed using some old electrical wire that looked like little creepies crawling up a vertical surface,” he said. “That’s in my wheelhouse. That turns me on unbelievably.”
Much of Thomas’ design sense comes from his earlier experience designing jewelry with African beads, which he said were popular and instilled in him confidence in his ability to create well-liked pieces. Thomas even had his jewelry shown by sibling duo Robert Horton and Annie Hudson-McKnight, whose exhibits of artwork by artists of African descent eventually became Onyx.
“[Horton, Hudson-McKnight, myself and others] came to the conclusion that, hey, we need to have a nonprofit, Seattle-based organization to do this, to show the artwork of artists of African descent,” Thomas said. “Kind of haphazardly, because I was the only guy retired full time, I became the president of Onyx Fine Arts Collective.”
Though Thomas’ art production has slowed in recent years, his active imagination has not. He’s driven by a desire to utilize unusual objects in a creative way and the engineering mindset that he can accomplish anything he puts his mind to.
“All I’m doing is satisfying myself. That’s it. It’s a conversation with myself, to take something and create with it,” he said. “I end up with something that sometimes I sit back and just wonder, ‘How in the heck did that happen?’”
This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.