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‘Mourning Revival’ exhibit paints family’s struggle

  • Written by Dr. Sybill C. Mitchell
Meet Matthew Frank Thomas, Memphis-bred, making his own unique mark on the art world. He has traveled the globe, honing his craft and exhibiting in some of the world’s most fabled cities. Meet Matthew Frank Thomas, Memphis-bred, making his own unique mark on the art world. He has traveled the globe, honing his craft and exhibiting in some of the world’s most fabled cities.

Back in Memphis, artist and filmmaker Matthew Thomas (center) has found reason to smile again, “climbing up from nothing.”

Matthew Thomas earned his bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and a master’s degree in Digital Arts from The Maryland Institute College of Art.

A portrait of Thomas’ cousin, Fred, who underwent a sex change because he felt he was a woman inside.

‘Remains’ is a self-portrait of Matthew Thomas, with his rescued dog, Chip. (Photos by Jeffrey Blake Adams/ adamsphotographics.com)

Thomas’ critically acclaimed exhibit – “Mourning Revival: A Family’s Struggle With Violence, Cancer & AIDS” – was praised by art enthusiasts and professionals, alike when it debuted for one night at the downtown Memphis Central Station Power House Gallery last Thursday (Oct. 6).

On hand with endless praise of the seven, larger-than-life portraits was art instructor Bill Hicks, Thomas’ art teacher at Central High School in the mid-90’s.

“This is just incredible,” Hicks said. “Even when Matthew was just a kid, he showed such promise. An astounding 98 percent of black students in AP art instruction scoring five on the standardized art tests were from Central High School.

“Five was the highest score, and I tell you, there were not many across the nation graded at a five. Those students were serious about their art. Matt did a memorable portrait study in hands back then. It was extraordinary art, way beyond his years.”

For Thomas, “Mourning Revival” signifies a watershed moment in his illustrious career. Forget the front cover of Art World News he graced in 2009. Never mind the $30,000 production grant for his animated feature, “The Kindness of Strangers.”

He is “climbing up from nothing,” having lost everything in 2010. Battered and wearied by “The Big Apple,” Thomas loaded up a rented van with his artwork, supplies, and rescue pit bull, Chip. He had lost “a decent” job, his girlfriend, and most of his living.

“It was like being evicted from the city and beckoned back home to Memphis,” he said. “I had not exhibited in a while. I had not painted for months. It was a creative drought for me. And I was talking to my mother. During the course of our phone conversation, she was like, ‘Oh, by the way, I have breast cancer.’ I was broken. I began writing a new chapter in my life. I knew I had to come home.”

‘Violence, Cancer and AIDS’

Many African-American families grapple with one of the three major themes of “Mourning Revival.” Thomas’ family has struggled with all three. Talk about suffering for one’s art. Guarded family secrets protected those close to him. This compelling exhibit brought welcome transparency to the Thomas clan. Just ask Levoyd Thomas, breast cancer survivor and the artist’s mother.

“I raised Matthew to freely express himself in his art and to be true to himself,” she said. “I am very proud of him, proud of his work. I am a survivor of breast cancer, and I love Matt’s portrait of me. His work tells a story that should be told – not just about our family – but families everywhere. People of all races struggle with cancer and violence and AIDS. Thank God, I am still here. Matthew has memorialized loved ones who, otherwise, might have been forgotten.”

In his own words…

“Mourning Revival” is the end of a long journey for me,” said Thomas.

“When I was in high school, I was a pretty good athlete in track and field, I enjoyed my art, and things were great. But early on Thanksgiving morning when I was 16, I was rushed to the hospital with a bullet in my right temple. I didn’t sleep for the next two days, I was so excited about the new addition to my brain, I guess.”

The fragments from that stray bullet still are in his head. A constant reminder, said Thomas, that he has some divine purpose, some destiny to fulfill.

“A dream-like calm came over me, and I was at peace. But God left me here. Paranoia and nightmares have sometimes been familiar companions. But I am still here, by the grace of God…”

In 2001, he was the victim of a stabbing attempt, and a near-deadly assault in 2004.

“So many of our people have been victims of violence – sometimes random, sometimes deadly. I painted a portrait of my Uncle Henry whose decomposing body was found in his apartment with pockets turned inside out. Because he was poor and black, the investigation was essentially dropped. I did not want him to be forgotten...I want the world to remember that he lived,” said Thomas.

“My cousin Fred was transgender, but he was a man in many ways. Fred lived in Los Angeles and underwent a sex change because he said he felt that he was a woman inside. He died from AIDS in the late ’90’s. These are some of the most misunderstood individuals on earth. Fred was a person who was loved. He lived, and his life meant something.”

“Remains” – a self-portrait – seems to have been an exhibit favorite, said Thomas.

“I’ve only done two self-portraits in my career. I am shown with my dog, Chip, who I rescued in New York the day before he was to be put to sleep. He’s been a faithful friend. We drove back home to Memphis at the end of last year. Chip and I are refugees of sorts, I guess you could say. He and I are the remains of what our life was back in New York.”

(For more information on past exhibits, accolades, and future exhibition dates, visit: matthewthomasart.com. He can also be contacted for event bookings through his website.)

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