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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, September 7, 2001

Painter John Paul Thomas dead at 74

By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

KAILUA, Hawai'i — John Paul Thomas of Kona, who came to Hawai'i in 1965 to teach art for a year and stayed for the rest of his life, died Tuesday at Tripler Army Medical Center. He was 74.

The Alabama-born painter's works were displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington, San Francisco's Legion of Honor and museums from Seattle and Los Angeles to Rome and Bucharest.

Since 1970, he worked from his home and studio in Kona where he collaborated with noted composer and longtime companion Jerre Tanner.

Thomas started his art career depicting abstract human forms, but later switched to watercolor studies of flowers. When he came to the Big Island in 1965 to teach at Hilo College, now the University of Hawai'i-Hilo, the artist was captivated by Hawai'i's colors, intense light and mystique.

In a 1985 interview, Thomas said he was unable to get the Islands out of his creative system. He painted watercolors, mostly of orchids, and large oil paintings of tropical foliage using bold colors. His orchid watercolors were reproduced on notecards and posters; his "Boy With Goldfish" series inspired a musical composition by Tanner in 1976 that was later recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The following year, Thomas received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to create sets and costumes for "Ka Lei No Kane," the first Hawaiian opera ever produced.

He was commissioned by the State Foundation of Culture and the Arts to produce an oil painting of Washington Place in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the governor's mansion and former home of Hawaiian royalty.

Hilo artist Kay Yokoyama considers Thomas her mentor. He told her "don't be afraid of colors," she said yesterday. Her pastel palette became "much brighter" because of Thomas' strong influence, she said.

Friends in Kona said Thomas had been ill for some time and was being treated for a chronic heart condition at Tripler before he died.

Thomas was born Feb. 4, 1927, in Bessemer, Ala. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he used the GI Bill to obtain a master of arts degree from New York University. He also studied in Europe and taught at the Detroit Institute of Art, the University of Iowa at Iowa City, San Francisco State University, the University of Washington at Seattle and other colleges.

Services have not been announced, but Thomas' ashes are to be placed at the Kona Veterans Cemetery.