COMING | EXHIBITIONS :: LIONEL THOMAS «ABSTRACTIONS 1949-1990» @ WEST VANCOUVER MUSEUM

UBC Historical Photos

Lionel Thomas (1915-2005), a pioneer of West Coast abstraction and proponent of the modern movement, helped transform the region though his art and practice. Thomas’s extant public artworks include Symbols of the Cuneiforms (c. 1960), an illuminated sculpture on the façade of the former Vancouver Public Library. This exhibition profiles Thomas’s rarely seen non-objective paintings and prints inspired by nature. Thomas lived in West Vancouver and taught at the University of British Columbia from 1950 until 1981.

– West Vancouver Museum

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I’m looking forward to this exhibition because I only know Lionel and Patricia Thomas’s sculptural and mosaic work. (I mention Patricia because she so often gets overlooked in the big picture, and yet she played such a central role in much of Lionel’s work.)

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The three Thomas pieces below are exemplars of the mid-century art-and-architecture-go-together movement: artistic visions meant to enhance the architect’s social statement.

The one below (shown in detail) was called Origin & Evolution of the Alphabet, a fitting title for the function of the modern piece of architecture it adorned: the then-new Central Library:

Exemplars should be preserved.

When the old Central Library was converted to commercial space in the mid-’90s, the developer chose to plaster over Origin & Evolution of the Alphabet. The retail space (developed for Virgin Records) totally disrespected the artist, his work, and the building’s overall architectural concept.

It was the theft of a great piece of art from Vancouver’s public art scene.


from The New Spirit:

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Vancouver Public Library, Main Branch; entrance concourse showing mosaic by Lionel and Patricia Thomas just prior to destruction in 1995. Photograph: Robin Ward

Origin & Evolution of the Alphabet, 1956

Vancouver Public Library old Central Branch. Destroyed, 1995.

Source > City of Vancouver Public Art Registry

Symbols of the Cuneiforms, 1960

Vancouver Public Library old Central Branch. Restored ca. 1996

Source: UBC Library | UBC Campus Sculptures

UBC Historical Photographs

Mosaic at Brock Hall. Photo by Gavin Wilson, UBC Public Affairs

Untitled (Symbols for Education), 1958
Enamel tile mosaic

Brock Hall, The University of British Columbia

Like several of Lionel Thomas’ projects, this work was produced in collaboration with his wife, Patricia Thomas who became well known across North America as an architectural colour consultant during the 1950s. She was a pioneer in this field. Lionel Thomas worked predominantly as a painter until 1956 and had shown extensively. Later, his practice shifted and he became recognized for his murals and sculptures. Lionel Thomas was as a member of the UBC Faculty from 1950 until 1980, teaching both in the Fine Arts and Architecture Departments. The Thomas’ advocated an inter-relationship between the arts, and emphasized the importance of collaboration between the disciplines of architecture and fine art. They were committed to these ideals of the modern movement and were instrumental in introducing these ideas to Vancouver.

Belkin Art Gallery, Flickr

SYMBOLS FOR EDUCATION DECODED > see pages 22 + 23

ANOTHER TRIUMPH FOR THE THOMASES FROM THE UBC ALUMNII CHRONICLES WINTER 1960 PDF

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‘He was a man of enormous enthusiasm,’ Scott Watson, director/curator of UBC’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, told the Straight. ‘He was one of a small circle of people who brought modern ideas about art and architecture to the city and won battles. Vancouver is a livable city because of them.’

Georgia Straight, 12 May 2005

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last word:

It’s obvious that Rhodri Windsor Liscombe thinks highly of Thomas’s work: the back cover of his groundbreaking book, The New Spirit, features Symbols for Education on the back cover (that’s the Dal Grauer Substation on the cover):

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