By John Hacker
Andy Thomas has become famous across the country for his paintings of western scenes and noted historical events — some of his art brings in six-figure bids at national art auctions in Montana and other places. But the paintings he has on display here in Carthage, his hometown, are special, Thomas says. They mean more because the people admiring them are his friends, neighbors, and people he grew up with. National fame, like the notoriety he’s received on occasion for his series on American presidents grouping present-day presidents with their historical predecessors in scenes playing poker or relaxing at a bar, is fleeting, Thomas said. But local recognition is more satisfying and permanent. “It was cool a couple of years ago when I was in the national news, but that’s very short-lived and I’m just momentarily in people’s minds when that happens,” Thomas said. “In your hometown, it’s a little more permanent, and it means more. I was surprised how excited I was working on the big mural we just did and how enthusiastic I got about doing the artwork, the theme of it, and the notoriety, that’s pretty fun too.”
Cherry’s and the Civil War Museum
People don’t have to pay six figures to see Thomas’ art in Carthage. In one case, one doesn’t even have to get out of a car to see his art bright as day.
A shopper can purchase an Andy Thomas original painting at Cherry’s Custom Art Emporium on the Square, and he or she can browse the extensive collection of art there, including several Andy Thomas originals.
Some of Thomas’ first works are on display in very public places, including Carthage City Hall and the Battle of Carthage Civil War Museum on Grant Street just north of the Square. The big mural depicting his impression of the July 5, 1861 Battle of Carthage as the fight crossed the Carthage Square is on display over the desk as one enters the museum. Thomas said that was one of his first works right after he quit working at Leggett & Platt to focus on art full time. “Bob Tommy came to me and said he had said he would do it but he really didn’t want to and thought I would do good at it,” Thomas said. “It was a great opportunity for me.”
Thomas said working on that mural reinforced in his mind the importance of painstaking research. Retired Jasper County Records Center Director Steve Weldon and Carthage historian Steve Cottrell, who authored a book about the Battle of Carthage, helped him suss out the details of the battle from the limited accounts available in 1992. “Thank God I had those two because one of the big things on that painting is that it’s odd that the Union is wearing gray,” Thomas said. “They said history was history and make sure you show it the way it was or it’ll haunt you. They had other details, Steve Weldon gave me the dramatic understanding of what the soldiers were doing and Steve Cottrell was very technical, he let me know exactly what happened, so I had two great mentors to help me do it the right way.”
Thomas said there were limits to what the research could uncover, and he had to create some details based on best estimates. “Steve Cottrell would say most likely scenario would be this and this is why we believe that but there are a lot of things you really don’t know, you have to make an educated guess,” Thomas said. “At some point on the painting you have to show either a white shirt or a red shirt and you make your best guess, but before that, you do all the research you can.”
Carthage City Hall
About a year later, in 1993, Thomas was approached by then Carthage Mayor Herb Casteel about a series of paintings he wanted to see in Carthage’s then-new city hall on the east side of the Square. The project, funded by the Carthage Soroptimist Club, was a series of six works comparing Carthage’s early history to that of its overseas predecessor.“Herb had said isn’t it odd that there are several parallels and it is our sister city, the ancient city of Carthage in Tunisia,” Thomas said. “There really were some interesting parallels. One, both cities were founded on a hill which is just almost natural but in Tunisia, definitely for defense, and here just because it seemed natural. Also, both near bodies of water, Spring River was very important at the time for commerce and Tunisia was on the Mediterranean Sea. Two, both were destroyed, Carthage was utterly destroyed during the Civil War, and Carthage, Tunisia was eventually destroyed during the Third Punic War. Then three, they both rebuilt.”
These works, along with signs explaining each painting, are on display with artifacts sent to Carthage from its ancient sister city, in the lobby of City Hall, 326 Grant St. Thomas said he looks back fondly on those early works that helped keep his family fed and helped him hone his skills as a storyteller with a paintbrush. “It was a lot of fun, I still have pictures of me wearing a skirt, for the pleated Roman uniform,” Thomas said. “That was when I used more photographs when I could and I’ve got pictures of my wife Dina and daughter Tria as a little girl dressed for the painting of the destruction of Carthage. You think back, man, that was a long time ago, and yet it doesn’t seem that long ago.”
Fast forward almost 30 years and Thomas has built a successful business using his skills as an artist, but one of his biggest jobs was still to come. In 2020, Vision Carthage Director Abi Almandinger approached Thomas with the idea for a mural on the blank brick wall of the McBride Building on the southeast corner of the Square. At 27 feet tall and 44 feet wide, Thomas said this was by far his biggest work, although he didn’t have to actually paint the mural on the wall himself, and it’s easily viewable from a car.
He created the individual people and scenes depicted on the wall in his studio, then the final paintings were assembled digitally by Whitehill Enterprises, Joplin, then the finished image was sent to Spain where it was cast on 459 ceramic tiles, each 19 inches square and weighing 14 pounds. Ceramic tiles were used to ensure durability and make sure this mural lasts long after others painted directly on walls have faded in the sun. Thomas said he used different artistic techniques to create the scenes in the mural.
The mural includes seven Carthaginians who have gone on to do big things and depicts them in a sort of fantasy style as children playing in a way that hints at what would make them famous as adults. Then it includes pictures of them as adults. The seven residents honored are Hall of Fame baseball Pitcher Carl Hubble, Television Host and Zoologist Marlin Perkins, Former Jasper County Clerk Annie Baxter, Hollywood Leading Man David Newell, Ragtime Composer James Scott, Astronaut Janet Kavandi and NFL Football great Felix Wright.
Finally, along the left edge of the mural, he added a scaffold that makes it look like six of the artists, including himself, who made Carthage famous as an arts community are working to complete the top left corner of the mural. The artists are Bill Snow, Thomas, Jerry Ellis, Bob Tommey, Lowell Davis and Sam Butcher. Thomas completed the mural in early 2021, and it was installed in April and dedicated in May.
Thomas said as an artist, he watched closely as the mural took shape on the wall of the McBride building.
“By far, that was the biggest thing I’ve ever created,” Thomas said. “It was a little scary at first. I saw it going up and I thought, oh my gosh, the colors are so dull, but it turned out when they added the grout it left a film and they hadn’t removed that yet. The last time I went up there, I looked at it and I know the colors are different from the print on paper, but I was satisfied with the way it looks.”
Another work by Thomas that doesn’t have unfettered public access is the mural in the lobby of the Carthage R-9 Auditorium on Main Street. The public’s best chance to admire that work is during the activities surrounding the Maple Leaf Festival. The mural features scenes from Carthage High School history up to the 1990s. Additional works, secluded from public view, hang on the walls of the corporate headquarters of Leggett & Platt where Thomas once worked. The works line the halls and mirror the history of the company and industrial initiative in Carthage.
People traveling to the historic battlefields that dot the four-state region can also see Thomas’ work.
- The Pea Ridge National Battlefield in Northwest Arkansas features a series of a dozen paintings the park commissioned Thomas to do depicting the stages of that 1862 battle that secured Missouri for the Union side.
- Thomas created a painting of the Civil War Battle at Wilson’s Creek, which happened in the late summer of 1861, that was on display at that battlefield’s visitors center just east of Springfield.
- His work is also on display at the Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in eastern Arkansas. This battle, in December 1862, was the last major action in Northwest Arkansas in the Civil War.