There is a reason artist Daniel P. Turner Thomas keeps the Turner in his professional name: he is distantly related, on his mother’s side of the family, to James William Mallord (J.M.W.) Turner, one of the great painters of the English Romantic period.
“There is some lineage that goes back through my mother’s side, so maybe there is a bit of the rub off the old block,” Thomas says in a phone interview from his home in East Windsor. “I’m very proud of it. One of the interesting things about Turner is that he did a lot of paintings of heroic and battle scenes. A friend of mine suggested I might go that route and do heroic scenes.”
Thomas is off to a running start. His watercolor “Miracle on the Hudson,” depicting the landing of US Airways Flight 1549. Thomas has painted the chilly passengers waiting to be rescued, standing on the wings of the plane as it slowly sinks into the river, emergency vessels and life rafts nearby. He plans to donate the painting, which has been featured in the New York Times and on Fox 5 News, to the crew of flight 1549 in the fall, after a series of summer shows.
“Miracle on the Hudson” is just one of a number of Thomas’ watercolors on view in a solo show, “Familar Places,” in the gallery of the Plainsboro Public Library, for the month of June, starting Monday, June 1. An art chat with the artist, open to the public, takes place on Sunday, June 21, at 3 p.m.
Born in Wales, Thomas came to the United States in 1993 and was enchanted with the natural beauty of central New Jersey. “When you fly in to New Jersey, you first see Elizabeth and the refineries and whatnot, but it’s very different down here, as well as into areas like Newtown, PA,” Thomas says. “Luckily, all the farmland preservation around here has really helped. My heart probably rests back in Wales, in the mountains, which I have also painted, but right now I’m concentrating on Jersey landscapes.”
In the exhibit at the Plainsboro Library, viewers will recognize the fall harvest of pumpkins at Stults Farm in Plainsboro, sites such as Gil and Bert’s ice cream place in Cranbury, Terhune Orchards in Lawrenceville, and Hamilton Jeweler’s and Lake Carnegie in Princeton. (Incidentally, Thomas, an avid birder, reports that volunteers have recently banded two chicks high up in a nest of bald eagles near Lake Carnegie.)
Thomas works both on site and, when the weather is too hot or too cold, in his studio. He has been drawing and painting since childhood, when he was the illustrator for his primary school’s magazine. “I did little charcoal and pencil drawings of the birds I saw, just dabbled with it,” he says. “But I didn’t take it up as a career, just found it later in life. I gave art up for a long time, but now I’m pursuing it with a passion. I strive for capturing atmosphere and that’s most difficult with watercolors — it’s all about the light. I started off doing picture post cards but now I’m striving to be an artist known for creating a mood. It takes a while to establish this. Once you’ve mastered the medium a little bit, you ask yourself, ‘what am I going to do with this?’”
Thomas has more creative time on his hands now since the sluggish economy has affected his business, Chameleon Marketing, a full service marketing communications agency based in East Windsor. For some 12 years Chameleon has specialized in working with the pharmaceutical, financial, and entertainment industries, but Thomas admits things have slowed down. “One thing about the recession, it’s a good time for people to take up something like painting,” he says. “For me, it’s therapeutic, peaceful, and relaxing. I’ve been able to spend more time painting, and am slowly making a name for myself as well as making a little money. I have a little claim in the U.K. since I have paintings in the Welsh National Gallery (the national museum of Wales), as well as a few paintings in private collections. But I only began my U.S. painting career about four years ago, so it’s very young. This is like dipping a toe in the water, defining myself as an artist, finding out what I like to do, which I think will be mostly landscapes.
“I will be doing just watercolors, though,” he continues. “They’re difficult but if you can get involved, be patient and persevere, they’re very rewarding.”
Thomas is a self-taught artist who grew up as the eldest son of the royal chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II. “We rubbed noses with royalty,” he says modestly. “In fact, I’m in the process of writing a book about the experience. My family and I experienced a lot of interesting things behind the scenes. But sadly, my father passed away in 1997 and my mother in 2003, so it’s up to me to remember. We lived opposite Buckingham Palace for some eight years and my father was one of the chief (persons) who counseled Charles and Diana during their marriage. He would come back from (speaking with them) and I remember him looking very distraught.”
Thomas remembers the late princess kindly, reflecting that the press was overly critical of her. He notes that his father died just two days before Diana. “It was as though my father was saying, ‘come on up here, you don’t want to hang around down there,’” Thomas says.
Because of his family’s proximity to the royal family, Thomas gained access to private places like the grounds of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he sketched and painted. Almost 30 years ago, he did a sketch of the private cricket field there, which he had almost forgotten. A friend encouraged him to exhibit it at a small show in Bernardsville last year.
“Lo and behold, someone bought it,” Thomas says. “I never knew who it was but that’s the amazing thing about art. You never know who’s going to buy what.”
Thomas says his mother was also artistic and wanted to paint but never seemed to find the time. “When she died, we were clearing out her house and I found some art materials, paint brushes and whatnot,” he says. “We found out she had enrolled in an art class but never took it. I still use some of her brushes.”
After a stint at “one of those Harry Potter-type places” — a private boarding school called Haileybury — Thomas got a degree in business from London University in 1988 and went into advertising. He worked for KLP, one of the UK’s top marketing and communications agencies, and was transferred to the company’s New York branch. “I came over with my wife and three children in 1993, and never looked back,” Thomas says.
Bumpy corporate circumstances led him to create Chameleon, his own firm. He says running his own business suits him better and even in rough times, “you do your best to keep things going. You have to create your own security because, as I learned, you can’t rely on a company.”
Now divorced, Thomas stays close to his children, Amanda, who is attending Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, PA; Robert, who is at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA, and youngest daughter Charlotte, a high school student at West Windsor-Plainsboro North. Thomas turned 50 last year, which he reflects is a “good age.”
He painted “Miracle on the Hudson” in just five days, inspired by the uplifting story, a bright spot in a particularly bleary news cycle. “It’s a great demonstration of how, in these times, we can all pull together,” Thomas says. “The pilot and crew did such an incredible job and they were very humble with the media. I was moved by that, by the way the pilot and crew didn’t seek out more publicity. I thought, ‘if more people were like this and didn’t always look for glamour, this would be a better place.’ That’s why I painted it. Who knows? I might do more ‘heroic’ paintings like this in the future.”
Art Exhibit, Daniel P. Turner Thomas, Plainsboro Library, 641 Plainsboro Road. Monday, June 1, 9 a.m. “Familiar Places” featuring paintings of local sites as well as “Miracle on the Hudson,” a watercolor created after the recent crash. The painting, featured in the New York Times and Fox 5 News, is being donated to the crew of Flight 1549 in the fall. On view through June 30. Art chat with the artist on Sunday, June 21, from 3 to 5 p.m. 609-448-0560 or www.danielpturnerthomas.com.
Gallery hours: Monday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.