The following story was written for “Multiplatform News Room: Projects,” a capstone course examining issues surrounding the cultural arts, during my senior year. This piece was published by The Steffen Thomas Museum in Buckhead, Georgia in an anthology titled “Art Speaks: Painting with Words.”
The Steffen Thomas Family Portrait
By Marlee Middlebrooks
The Steffen Thomas Family Portrait created in 1948 depicts the unique bond shared by the Thomas family throughout Thomas’ life and unto his future generations.
Thomas raised his family in Stone Mountain, Georgia while creating public sculptures including a family portrait—also a sculpture. Thomas believed that the family unit and close relationships are necessary in the cycle of life, thus this became a theme often displayed in his art.
“He felt that raising a family was the most important job that anybody could do because he said if you don’t nurture the younger generation then you will have no real leaders for the future of the world,” says Lisa Conner, Thomas’ daughter.
The family portrait is a relief sculpture—it stands out from the wall, but it is not a three dimensional piece that can stand alone on a pedestal.
Carved from mahogany wood, a hard wood that is difficult to carve, Conner speculates that her father chose this wood so that it would be a lasting image and not easily damaged.
“He also finished it in a very smooth, soft kind of way, which was unusual for my father. A lot of his wood carvings were very rough; on the finish, he didn’t sand them down,” says Conner. “[This piece], took a lot of work. It was a work of love, I’m sure.”
The immediate Thomas family includes Steffen Thomas and his wife, who are the top two people in the carving. The two boys, Douglass (above) and Steffen Jr. (below), are on the left. The girl in the center is Robin, and the girl to the right is Lisa [Conner].
“It was always hanging in our home—in the living room of every home,” says Conner. “One of the reasons no member of the family has it in their own home is because, ‘Who would get to have it?’ It would be a big fight. So, the best place for it is in the museum in the family room.”
The Steffen Thomas Family Portrait is a physical display of the closeness inherent within the Thomas family. Now that Thomas and his wife have died, it is permanently housed in the Steffen Thomas Museum of Art.
“Once a year at Christmas, we still have a family Christmas party [at the museum], and people come from all over to be here, be with the art and feel the connectedness of the family,” says Conner. “This piece is very, very special to all of the children and all of the grandchildren. My parents were very powerful parents and grandparents.”