Brad Thomas thought he wanted to be an architect. A degree from UNC Charlotte would help him when he returned to Mount Airy after college to work with his father in the construction business.
“I lasted in the architecture school about 10 minutes,” Thomas said. “But they saw some potential in me and suggested I take some art classes and come back.”
He never did. He didn’t move back home, either. Instead, he pursued art – just as his professors had suggested.
UNCC’s College of Arts + Architecture recently honored him and four others with the first distinguished alumni award, a capstone to a Charlotte career. Thomas (class of 1992) leaves his job as director of residencies + exhibitions at McColl Center for Art + Innovation and in summer heads to Minneapolis.
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The creative life has undergone a transformation in Charlotte in the nearly 25 years Thomas has been working here as a visual artist and curator. “Through the ’90s, I was a full-time artist,” he says. “The commercial gallery scene was thriving then (especially in NoDa, which had something of a DIY spirit), while the institutional offerings remained limited.”
That changed with the opening of the McColl Center in 1999 and the Levine Center for the Arts in 2010. Charlotte’s institutional presence grew, he says, while galleries closed.
“However, with new and relevant galleries like LACA Projects and SOCO Gallery opening, the Charlotte art scene will be balanced and exciting in ways it has never been before,” he says.
It’s an environment Thomas has helped build.
“He has helped Charlotte think and consider,” says Crista Cammaroto, UNCC director of galleries.
“His education planted a yearning for the incredible, and he has never faltered from that aim in his own work or the work of the many artists he has brought to Charlotte,” she says. “ I have always been enamored with his ability to dig deeply into the meaning of each artist’s work, the contemporary flair of his presentations and his warm, Southeastern demeanor that he is lucky to have never lost.”
Artist Herb Jackson, a retired Davidson College professor, describes Thomas’ artistic style as “a patchwork quilt of the subconscious.” He says that style informs his work as a curator, too. “He’s open to almost any approach.”
Thomas says his college professors encouraged him to follow his vision: “Art is about infinite possibilities.”
He has been realizing those possibilities since he graduated. Before joining McColl, he was curator of modern and contemporary art for the Mint Museum and director of the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College.
While he’s been empowered by a number of teachers and mentors along the way – Jackson of Davidson and Ken Lambla of UNCC are two he mentions – his dad was his biggest inspiration. In fact, he accepted his award from UNCC in honor of his late father, Carl.
“My father, one of 10 kids and with no more than a seventh-grade education, always supported my interest in art,” he says. “His experience with the world was limited. He didn’t understand my pursuit of art, but he always supported it.”
“Art has sustained me. I’ve known a lot of people who have gone into the creative life and had their families not be supportive.”
Thomas has come at both his vocations with curiosity. “As a curator, there’s a vision and rhythm I seek. I plan carefully and then put artwork together in the space,” he says. “But if you remain open, you can surprise yourself in the process.”
It’s the approach he’s using in starting a new life in Minneapolis. He’s carefully planning his next career move, but he’s also open to possibility. He has friends and art world contacts in the Twin Cities but doesn’t know where he’ll land.
He and his family – wife Laura Southwell, sons Truman, 7, and Leo, 4 – are moving to his wife’s hometown, but he isn’t saying farewell to Charlotte. “My family and friends are here,” he says. “And the barbecue’s here, so this is not goodbye.”
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.
Brad Thomas’s village
Brad Thomas says he’s had exceptional mentors, patrons and teachers in the Charlotte area. A few of the people he’s been inspired and encouraged by during his nearly 25-year career:
Artists: Ruth Ava Lyons, Rosalia Torres-Weiner, Herb Jackson, Shaun Cassidy, Cort Savage, John W. Love Jr.
Curators: Jonathan Stuhlman (Mint Museum), Lia Newman (Davidson College), Jeff Jackson (New Frequencies at McColl Center), Crista Cammarato (UNC Charlotte)
Patrons: Jay Everette (Wells Fargo), Dana Davis, Andreas Bechtler, Walter Dolhare, Susan Patterson (Knight Foundation), Robert Bush (ASC).
Artists: Thomas’s career has been about identifying and encouraging talent. A few of the area’s up-and-coming visual artists he recommends keeping an eye on: Alex McKenzie, Stephen Leo Hayes Jr., Jen Ray, Andy McMillan, Susan McAlister, Matthew Steele, Nico Amortegui.