Florence Young Thomas
A Life in Art
“I wanted to learn to paint so much that I would have endured about anything. You go down the road and you see something and you pass it every day and finally you just have to paint it. I just have the urge to create something and I just can’t give it up. It’s part of my life. I can’t think of living if I don’t paint.” – Florence Thomas
Born in Ashe County in 1909, Florence Thomas grew up in a world difficult to visualize today. With no electricity, few roads and no means of travel except walking or horses. Small communities, each with its own church, country store, and school, were essential. In 1933 there were 80 schools in the county, over half of which had only one teacher. Today there are five. Florence’s parents made their living from the land, but they valued education for their eight children above all, moving from Horse Creek to Creston and finally to Grassy Creek, always in search of better schools. Florence had her first exposure to painting in high school. She and a classmate made copies of paintings on scraps of canvas which they sold for two dollars apiece. She had found her passion and pursued it for the rest of her life, though the road was never easy.
In 1930 after a year of teacher training in Crossnore, NC, a scholarship opened the way for her to study art at the School of Design for Women in Philadelphia, a dream come true. Sadly,18 months later a sudden illness forced her to return home, ending her formal studies. Later that year she married Paul Thomas and settled into life as a farm wife and mother.
She grasped every opportunity to continue her studies, traveling to workshops and classes from Florida to Maine. Her studies with Carolyn Wyeth, proved to be especially valuable and helpful, a time she always recalled with great affection. For twenty years she held painting classes in her basement, sharing with others her knowledge, touching the lives of countless people. Grandmothers who had dreamed of painting all their lives came and painted and found joy. After retirement in 1976 Florence was instrumental in forming the Blue Ridge Art Clan as a way to bring in teachers and speakers. It continues today, an ongoing testament to her influence and dedication.
Florence painted scenes of the life all around her. Her art is characterized by softness and light, allowing the viewer to enter a scene uncluttered by excessive detail. In her scores of landscapes, portraits, or her enchanted renderings of animals, she captured the essence and spirit of her subjects with a simplicity and distinctive elegance all her own. “I don’t put much detail in my painting because if you tell everything you know about something, and just load it with detail, it’s like a person that gossips and talks too much. You don’t allow the viewer to enter the picture.”
An admirer of Cezanne and Van Gogh, Florence drew from their painting an appreciation for color and movement, but in the end she found her own way, resulting in an extraordinary artistic chronicle of the Appalachian mountains. Her art has been in major exhibitions throughout the eastern United States and was included for many years in the prestigious traveling exhibition sponsored by the Grace Pickett Studio Guild of Connecticut.
She died peacefully at her home on March 30, 2007, at age 98, leaving behind the means to establish a non-profit art school. In 2008, Florence’s dream was realized when the school held its first workshops. With continued growth and support, the spirit and lessons of her presence will continue to inspire students well into the future.Today, the Art School provides a wide array of classes and exhibits for artists in it’s gallery in downtown West Jefferson, an enduring legacy of her life in art.