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Constance Alexander: Dual exhibitions celebrate art and life of renowned Kentucky painter Joy Thomas

Joy Thomas was petite and soft-spoken, with a light southern accent sweet as honey on homemade biscuits. When it came to her artwork, however, she was no lightweight; she flexed every muscle. A renowned portrait painter with commissions in every sector of business, government, academia, and finance, she understood the practical aspects of self-employment, while always sensitive to the subtleties of human behavior as revealed in a glance, gesture, or certain tilt of the head.

No doubt, Joy would heartily agree with another famous portrait painter, Alice Neel, who said, “I don’t paint like a woman is supposed to paint. Thank God, art doesn’t bother about things like that.”

When Joy’s husband, Fred Thomas, explained the underlying theme of the two retrospectives of Joy’s work – both with opening receptions in Murray on January 12 – he emphasized the capacity of her art to inspire others.

She used to say, “I was born in the middle of nowhere in the Panhandle of Texas. Even the tumbleweed was trying to get out of there.”

“How did she get here from there?” Fred mused as he described the ways Joy’s early life was filled with uncertainty.

“She grew up like a gypsy,” he added, mentioning that her father’s peripatetic jobs as a pipeline worker involved frequent moves. She attended fourteen different schools until the family ended up in Campbellsville.

Joy was one of the smartest kids in class and was also head majorette. After a fleeting interest in dance, she discovered art and never turned back.

Besides the portraits, her extensive body of work includes drawings, still lifes, landscapes, videos, and a book. With all that, Joy found time for teaching too.

One of her students, artist Jennifer Fairbanks, remarked that Joy “was an incredibly talented teacher who had a strong influence on my life.”

When the two first met, Jennifer was an undergraduate at Murray State University. She visited Joy’s studio every week, working side by side with her on still life paintings. “I once watched her paint my own portrait from life, with a mirror set up so I could see her process,” Jennifer recalls.

Gone too soon, Joy died of cancer on October 1, after a courageous battle. Much of that journey was chronicled on Facebook, where Joy still managed to cavort with her grandchildren, share special time with friends and family, and document the progress of aggressive medical treatments that would have sapped anyone else’s vitality.

As a tribute to Joy and her work, the Murray Art Guild is mounting two exhibitions of her work simultaneously. One is at MAG, on North 4th Street in Murray, and the other is at the Wrather Museum, on the Murray State University campus. The exhibitions run from January 12 to February 2, and opening receptions are at both locations on January 12 from 5 to 8 pm.

Murray State University’s Wrather Museum will be featuring many of Joy’s formal portraits from across the state, as well as five commissioned by MSU, including one of interim MSU President Tim Miller, and another of the late Sid Easley, who served with honor on the university’s Board of Regents.

The MAG Gallery will display a collection of drawings and paintings from family and friends of Joy.

Much of the work in the exhibits is on loan from the various people she painted and drew. In the weeks before and after Christmas, Fred Thomas drove across the commonwealth more than once to pick up work that will be included in the retrospective.

The exhibition is a labor of love, a celebration of an artist as friend, wife, mother, grandmother, and tireless student of human nature.

Dan Gheno, a fellow artist who teaches at the National Academy School in New York, and the Art Students League of New York, sums it all up by saying, “Joy Thomas is quite an extraordinarily fine artist and inspiration and role model to others. She is an intense worker with great color and value sense. What’s more, she imbues her beautifully crafted images with a fine grasp of the sitter’s psychology and mood.”

For more information, contact MAG at 270-753-4059. Joy’s website is www.joythomasart.com.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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