Author’s Sculpture Anchors State Museum’s Local Artist Exhibit


The artist often speaks best about his work.

Like Owen County author James Alexander Thom evoking his love and reverence for the intricate grain of a piece of wood created by the passing of the ages.

“I carve because the physical work balances the sedentary work of writing, and it keeps me healthy. I love the aromas, textures, and grains of the different native hardwoods. And, quite simply, I love create anything from statues to books, buildings to utensils, to friendships.”

It’s Thom describing an art form he embraced long before a career writing fact-rich historical novels, including “Follow the River.” As a child in the 1930s, his father taught him to take a carving knife and scissors from a piece of wood and create something useful or beautiful. Often both.

“My father taught me about wood and tools before World War II. I evolved from small, intricate sculptures – bowls, canes, tobacco pipes, spoons, animals, ornamental figures – to large abstract sculptures as the wind was blowing on my raw materials here,” he said, referring to trees downed by the elements and time.

Ten years ago, maybe 12, said Thom, a neighbor who knew of his love of carving and his appreciation for a beautiful piece of wood carried a good-sized black walnut stump to the hilltop home of Thom in Owen County.

Thom, who created sculptures from wild cherry, red cedar and black walnut, spent a year outdoors turning the huge piece of tree into a sculpture he calls “Infinity 1/2 “. There is a matching sculpture, similar but smaller and carved from cherry wood, also called “Infinity 1/2”.

After the 5-foot-7-inch-tall black walnut freehand carving was completed, he rubbed the raw wood with “countless applications of linseed oil. No stains or chemical preservatives needed. “

The piece had to be kept sheltered from the weather once completed. So he loaned it out for display at McCormick’s Creek State Park, where he spent years in the lobby of the Canyon Inn and also at the park’s nature center. He went from there to an art gallery.

Thom knew Jaime Sweany when she owned the Wandering Turtle Gallery in Bloomington. When she opened the Juniper Art Gallery in Spencer’s Courthouse Square, she secured Thom’s ‘Infinity1/2’ sculptures and others he had made and put them up for sale in her new store .

James Alexander Thom and his wife Dark Rain Thom pose with the sculpture before it leaves Spencer's Juniper Art Gallery, heading to the Indiana State Museum.

He sold some of his carved wooden pieces to galleries in Canada and gave some away as well.

Recently, Thom donated the black walnut half of the “Infinity” pair to the Indiana State Museum in downtown Indianapolis, where it is part of an exhibit called Collecting Indiana: Recent Art Acquisitions.

The third-floor space features works created by artists from 10 of the state’s 92 counties. The exhibit, which runs through July 17 at 650 W. Washington St., contains different types of art, from a landscape painting by Nashville artist L.O. Griffith to a traditional Mexican paper piece called a papel picado. .

Thom told an art publication about “Infinity 1/2”: “It’s the largest, most perfect piece of walnut I’ve ever had the pleasure of carving.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, the museum is also taking advantage of downtime to complete its collection of state treasures, which has more than 7,000 works of art.

“Over the past three years or so, we’ve collected a wide variety of things in all areas by our local artists or those with Indiana ties,” said Mark Ruschman, chief curator of fine arts at the Museum. “The pieces demonstrate the breadth and depth of the artists and reflect insight into what we collect and why.”

Mark Ruschman, chief curator of fine arts at the Indiana State Museum, wears the walnut "Infinity 1/2" sculpture from the Juniper Art Gallery in downtown Spencer, where it was displayed before being donated to the Indianapolis State Museum.

During an interview last week, Ruschman said Thom’s sculpture reflects how artists can have creative talents in various mediums.

“It’s visually compelling, this large piece of native Indiana carved wood, made by a nationally recognized author not well known for his carving,” Ruschman said. “It speaks to one of the play’s strengths and reveals that Indiana artists often have undiscovered talents.”

The exhibition weaves together elements of the art world and presents it to visitors.

“Mr. Thom was carving wood long before he wrote. And to him, that’s just as important as his writing. There’s really no difference. It’s his creative spirit, his worldview, his outlet, a whole continuum.”

Contact reporter Laura Lane at, 812-331-4362 or 812-318-5967.


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