Traveling down the winding road from Main Street into Peaceful Valley, where the river flows serenely between the north bank and Browne’s Addition at “the heart of the Great Gorge,” the arrival at veteran artist John Thamm’s home and studio is peaceful.
His neighbor, poet and author Tom I. Davis, is there bearing a marked-up chapter of his biographical manuscript for the book the two artists have collaborated on, “Vets,” which will be released in the fall.
The artwork for the book – 50 portraits of 50 Spokane-area veterans – goes on exhibit beginning Saturday at the Spokane Veterans Administration Hospital. An artist reception will be next Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m.
The book came about “because of a letter to the editor written by a veteran who volunteered at the VA Hospital in Spokane,” writes Thamm in his show statement.
“The thrust of the letter was an appeal for more volunteers. For some time I had wanted to express my thanks and appreciation to the veterans who had made sacrifices in (our country’s) wars.”
Thamm’s contribution has proven cathartic to the participating veterans, who were enabled to express thoughts and experiences that “no one ever asked” about, he said.
The 48 men and two women he painted approached him at the hospital, welcoming the honor of being captured on canvas by Thamm, a veteran by many definitions.
Born in Wendell, Idaho, on the day that Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, and activated in the Naval Air Reserve in 1961 for the Berlin crisis, Thamm, 71, has been making social-commentary pieces since he was in sixth grade.
He also sculpts, and paints acrylic landscapes, cityscapes and figurative oil portraits. As a courtroom sketch artist, he has worked with CNN, ABC, the Associated Press, and regional television stations and newspapers.
Thamm’s first socio-political endeavor began with a box of chalk he took from school. He sketched the likes of German Messerschmitts, Jeeps, tanks and war vehicles parceled by passing freight cars he saw on his walks home near the railroad tracks.
“I took the box of chalk and drew pictures all the way home. (The pictures) dealt with what I would see and hear every day … then things caught up with me later on,” Thamm jested, in reference to the stolen chalk.
He went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Idaho and also studied in New York City, Los Angeles and Padua, Italy. Thamm has taught portrait workshops in the U.S., Mexico, the Netherlands and Germany, and owned art galleries on and off since 1964 in New York City’s Greenwich Village; Asbury Park, N.J.; Bisbee, Ariz.; and Spokane.
He is represented regionally by Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene and at his JF Thamm Studios in Peaceful Valley (johnthammstudios. blogspot.com).
As artist in residence for the City of Spokane in 1979, Thamm completed a 26- by 4-foot mural in the Council Chambers’ waiting briefing room, depicting the history of Spokane. The previous year, he created an 83-foot long exterior mural in Hillyard, illustrating Spokane’s railroad history.
Thamm created “Raptured Just in Time,” a painting hanging in his home’s entryway, at the onset of the war in Iraq in 2003. Utilizing the same black stretch limo in which President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, Thamm places President George W. Bush, standing with arms outstretched to the sky, in the center of a clamor of seated passengers representing victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.
“John is a phenomenal painter. He’s a radical painter,” Davis said as he flipped through the gleaming rows of veteran portraits leaned up against Thamm’s dining room wall, awaiting transport to the veterans hospital.
“He’s able to catch that flavor of each (veteran). It’s pretty phenomenal, what he’s done. In fact, it’s incredible, what he’s done.”
Gold-leaf frames surround the soldiers in their crowning glory.
The 50 veterans – colonels, captains, sergeants, infantrymen, and servicemen and women from every branch of the armed forces – come from “all the wars, World War II, Korea, Vietnam,” said Thamm.
Added Davis: “All these guys have been guts to the wall.”
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