Roy Thomas, "New Year," 2002
Roy Thomas, New Year, 2002, acrylic on canvas, 28” x 30”
Ahnisnabae artist Roy Thomas’ painting, New Year, has the typical elements found in the Woodland School of Art, including black formlines and pictograph-style creatures. But the vibrant red background was what first caught the eye of Jackie Bugera, owner of the Bearclaw Gallery in Edmonton. “I’m a really big fan of red,” says Bugera, whose mother, Agnes, opened the gallery, one of the earliest to represent native artists, 40 years ago. “Emotionally that colour really resonates.”
What Bugera finds most fascinating, though, is the painting’s bold and powerful imagery. It is presented in totemic style with fish, bears and loons stacked vertically, each representing a different Ahnisnabae clan. The thunderbird, mythical ruler of the sky, towers at the top. The idea that everything is interconnected is represented in the ways various creatures touch one another. Smaller animals within larger ones suggest generational transition. “The sun is the power image,” says Bugera. “It has a division circle that represents balance in life.”
New Year is one of 12 calendar works in the Time and Life series, which Thomas based on the four seasons, the four directions, the four stages of life and the four colours of the medicine wheel. It represents the month of April, the start of the Ahnisnabae calendar. At the time, Thomas was in remission from leukemia, and the project was intended to promote healing and a new beginning. Sadly, his disease recurred, eventually proving fatal. The series was sold through Bearclaw in 2002, and some pieces were later included in Vision Circle: The Art of Roy Thomas, a retrospective organized by the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.
Thomas’ early life echoes that of Norval Morrisseau, the originator of the Woodland style, which is also practiced by artists like Daphne Odjig and Carl Ray. Thomas, who was born near Longlac, Ont., northeast of Thunder Bay, learned traditional stories from his grandmother, and grew up drawing them in the sand with a stick before he began painting. He proudly acknowledged that cultural heritage: “When I use my paintbrush, I understand that I am not the only one doing the painting even though my name goes on the finished work.”
– Portia Priegert