Baltic’s John Thomas was a talented but troubled artist

Baltic’s John Thomas was a talented but troubled artist

Image Credit: Melissa Herrera

Photographer John William Henry Thomas was born in 1935 and lived in Baltic. His nondescript home held his eccentric presence, a force that filled each cluttered room. He placed his collected knickknacks on shelves where he could readily see them.

Stacks of his self-matted photographs were kept throughout the house, lined up like silent trees in a forest, and he handwrote snippets on the backs of them like liner notes on an LP. Thomas was an artistic photographer, capturing the world around him.

Thomas died in May at age 87, a man whose art was beloved by those who knew it but not always by the town he grew up in. He had several good friends and was loved by Coco the cat, who belonged to a neighbor but had claimed Thomas as her own.

“People didn’t like his art because they didn’t like him,” said J. Mark Miller, a friend and one of the executors of Thomas’ estate. “My wife took apart a piece to reframe. Behind it, John had written out an entire rant, then matted and framed it. He did that on a lot of his pieces.”

“When I first saw his work at an art festival, I was struck, wondering how so much emotion could be in one photograph. It just gob-smacked you with feeling,” his neighbor Donna McKinney said. “He told me he would wait for hours until the timing was right on any one photo or scene, and then he couldn’t take the picture. The man was photographing his own loneliness, the immensity of it. He has notes all over the house on how lonely he was.”

The house brims with his prints, but behind their beauty lies his sadness.

Jackie Buck was Thomas’ best friend. After she and her husband made a move to Ohio for a new position, Buck started working at the Holiday Inn.

“John was a customer at the hotel restaurant,” Buck said. “He would come in every morning for breakfast and come back for dinner.”

Buck and her husband became fast friends with Thomas, but after they moved to another state, they lost touch with him. Buck reconnected with him after her husband died, and they remained close friends. She has spent many hours organizing the disarray Thomas left behind.

Thomas began setting up at local art shows and monetizing his art after meeting a woman named Sylvia, who took one look at his photos and told him they were too good not to be seen. This also led to other opportunities like a fascinating tidbit of Thomas’ trivia that included the mini-series “Centennial.” Primarily filmed at Roscoe Village in Coshocton, it premiered on TV in 1978. Thomas became involved with the project, taking pictures onset. Those in charge of the mini-series could see through his exterior to the brilliance inside.

There was a delicacy to Thomas’ photos, a story always attached. Buck tells the tale of a hazy picture of lacy curtains and a window in early morning.

“He was driving in New York or Pennsylvania and saw a barn he wanted to take a picture of,” she said. “He pulls over and gets out when a voice says, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ And it was a little, old lady. He told her the barn had spoken to him, and he wanted a picture of it. They walked around taking pictures in the misty rain, and she told him she couldn’t let him go without pie and coffee. They talked for hours, and it got late. She brought him a blanket and said he could sleep on the couch. He took this picture in the morning inside that room.”

Thomas took photos of the Amish, always with permission, and the quality is unmistakable. “I thought he deserved a Pulitzer for them,” said Linda Senter, Thomas’ friend.

But after taking many photos of them, he decided his work was intrusive to their way of life and stopped photographing and monetizing them. Prior to that, George Voinovich selected a huge work to hang in the great room of the governor’s mansion when Voinovich held that post in Ohio.

Thomas was more than an eccentric man. He was hospitalized five times during his lifetime due to mental illness. In the ‘60s, the last time he was hospitalized, a doctor told him he didn’t think he belonged there but couldn’t free him. A plan was hatched for him to run away. The law then said if an escapee from a mental institution could fend for himself for three days, he was home free. The escape was well planned with a guard leaving a door open for him and a hidden stash of cash. Thomas slipped away into the night.

History gives glimpses into tortured artists who tried to push through the veil of their loneliness and mental disease. Thomas could be filed into this category, but despite his solitary state, he never stopped making art.

In his later years, he remained obstinate. He had an old truck that sat ramshackle in his yard, rusting away in violation of city ordinance. Instead of having it towed away, he had the front of the old truck taken off and attached it to the front of his house, where it remained for many years.

Spirituality can exist on many levels, and Thomas found his inside the lens of a camera.

“He was always a spiritual man, not just in the last months of his life,” Senter said. “I think he had a reckoning in these last years that brought it to the forefront. He had some good men that never gave up on him.”

Thomas, upon his death, did not want his art simply sold off at sale. He wanted it to go to people who cared about the meaning behind it. It hasn’t been decided what will happen with his vast repertoire of photography, and for now it sits silently in his house.

“My only goal is that I want his work to be seen,” Senter said. “I want his work to be known.”