- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) - He’s not just Morris Thomas: He’s Morris Taft Thomas.

“My name encompasses the essence of my being,” one of his poems begins. “It represents ancestral connections that are woven into the fibers of my existence.”

He is the son of Taft Young Thomas, the first grandson of William Henry Thomas, and an internationally known artist and sculptor from Alexandria who sees life in spheres and circles. “We are mere passengers who pass through and orbit in a circle starting with inception to infinity,” he has written.

Thomas, said Randall Henry, an associate professor of art at Southern University, is “serious about art and the education of arts, and not only that, but he is a good visual artist, too.”

He worked for 37 years in Rapides Parish public schools, including 25 years as a principal at Wettermark High School in Boyce and D.F. Huddle Elementary in Alexandria. He taught for 12 years, including a senior art class for several years when he was Bolton’s assistant principal in the 1970s, and has taught some night art classes at LSU of Alexandria.

A 1960 Southern University graduate, Thomas was in the same fraternity as 1948 Morehouse College graduate Martin Luther King Jr., and was chosen as the local person to meet the civil rights leader at the airport in 1966, when King spoke to the Louisiana Education Association at the Rapides Coliseum.

King arrived in a crop-duster, without any entourage, said Thomas, who was with a handful of reporters, including two from New Orleans and another from Baton Rouge.

“The wind was blowing so hard he had to hold his hat down as well as hold his briefcase,” Thomas recalled.

NOTICED FRATERNITY PIN

“Being green, I was reluctant to run forward to meet him,” Thomas said. “The reporters ran out and started bombarding him with questions, and I followed them and walked along as he headed to the gate security.” Then King noticed his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity pin, slowed down and reached out to shake hands with the younger man.

King’s eyes were very intense, Thomas said. “He could look at you as though he could see your soul. He had full focus.”

Those eyes were the focus of a portrait Thomas made for the lobby of the MLK branch library, he said.

Thomas also made the “Remembering the King” sculpture that stands in front of that branch. It incorporates three large metal circles; two of them, set on columns, have small figures of heads in profile at the base.

The circles, he explained, “represent a bond of unity, brotherhood and strong family values. The columns represent pillars of wisdom and strength.” He said all the sculpture’s elements “typify” King’s character.

A contemporary metal sculpture titled “Family” stands in front of Thomas’ storage room. The circular head and tallest column represents the father, the next largest the mother and so on. Flicking each column elicits a different sound, with the strongest being the father’s. “That’s because he’s the head of the family,” said Thomas, who has been married 52 years. He and his wife have two daughters, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

New Orleans artist Joseph Pearson, who has done a few art shows with Thomas, said Thomas’ work ethic, creativity, maturity and intelligence set him apart. “He is continually striving to improve, always working to get better,” Pearson said.

Thomas is not only passionate about family values but his own family. He said his paternal grandfather, William Henry Thomas, was a sharecropper and blacksmith who was of Blackfoot Indian heritage and taught him how to hunt and fish.

He said that same grandfather taught him the value of manual labor doing farm work in cotton and corn fields. That’s why he said he is proud of some paintings he has done that represent the lifestyle he saw around him as a youth.

“My grandchildren have no earthly idea how different life was then,” he said, noting that was a motivation to do such paintings for their education. “No electricity, kerosene lamps, no indoor plumbing, drawing water from a well. It was a very rugged, difficult lifestyle, but they survived. Everyone worked hard.”

‘WHERE’S THE DIGNITY?’

“There was a lot of honesty, a lot of loyalty, a lot of dignity and a lot of pride,” he said. “I see all the litter around now and I wonder, what happened to the pride? Where’s the dignity?”

His mother’s father, Samuel Foster, was, he said, the first black employee for Exxon (then Esso), where he worked in Baton Rouge from 1909-49. He encouraged Thomas’ father, a longshoreman in New Orleans, to move to Baton Rouge for a laborer’s job with Exxon when Thomas was 6 years old.

Foster was also an artist and a Baptist pastor. “He used his skills as an artist to sketch scenes to illustrate something while he was preaching,” said Thomas, “like Noah’s ark, for example.”

Thomas first started sketching while daydreaming during elementary school classes at Southern Lab (“I got in trouble for not paying attention,” he said), and he went on to be greatly influenced by Frank Hayden, one of his professors at Southern.

MASKS FOR MANDELA

In the last 25 years, Thomas said, he has received more than 100 awards for his art and had numerous prestigious commissions. He was commissioned to design a metal mask for South African President Nelson Mandela, and he presented two (one mahogany, one metal) to him at a ceremony at Southern University in 2000, later getting a thank-you letter.

Gov. Mike Foster convinced him to create an ornament for the White House Christmas tree in 2001. That brought an invitation for Thomas and his wife, Willola Thomas, to have brunch at the White House.

“I thought it was a crank call,” said Thomas. “I kept waiting for the punch line from somebody telling me it was a joke. It turns out it wasn’t.”

He said his greatest challenge as a sculptor was the time Louisiana State University asked for a 15-foot-high reproduction of his much smaller “Sunflower with Insects” outside Alexandria City Hall. Mark Emmert, then the university’s chancellor, had seen it on temporary display at the LSU Sculpture Park and wanted the giant version for a new building.

“They asked me how much time did I need before completing it, and I said two months.”

He got two weeks to have it finished and delivered.

Gilchrist Construction of Alexandria, he said, donated some of the steel he needed, including some discarded discs originally made to chop up highways.

Thomas said he worked day and night at a welding shop on Third Street in Alexandria to complete the 800-pound sculpture on time.

“We got a flatbed truck and about 14 guys picked it up and put in on the truck,” he said, “and we tied it down and took it down there, driving about 35-40 mph.”

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Information from: Alexandria Daily Town Talk, https://www.thetowntalk.com


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