Column

Know Your Neighbor: J. Matt Thomas

Talented artist and Paseo Project founder dances the Taos Shuffle

By Kathy Córdova
For The Taos News
Posted 2/6/19

"I grew up in a shoe store on High Street in Jefferson City, Missouri. My dad was the president of the Downtown Business Association, so my family grew up with a strong sense of community, including the area as a place of commerce, art and events.

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Column

Know Your Neighbor: J. Matt Thomas

Talented artist and Paseo Project founder dances the Taos Shuffle

Posted

Taos area residents like Matt Thomas know "the Taos Shuffle," that is, having to work more than one job in order to survive.

"I wear multiple hats and am therefore a member of the Taos Shuffle," Thomas said during a recent interview. "I am the curator of exhibitions at the Harwood Museum and executive director of the Paseo Project, both part-time positions," he related. Still, Thomas said he enjoys the flexibility and variety this arrangement provides.

His Harwood hat

"I help manage and execute exhibits for the museum collection, artwork on loan, and work with guest curators and local resource persons," Thomas said. Each year, the museum hosts two major exhibits - in summer and in winter. In between, Thomas works on providing "something fun and exciting" every two months. The exhibit producer works with a wide spectrum of artists, particularly Northern New Mexico residents. The exhibits range from traditional to contemporary.

"I find the work so intoxicating and interesting that I don't mind the fast pace," Thomas said.

His Paseo hat

As the executive director of The Paseo Project, Thomas referred to the event as "my little baby." At first, The Paseo Project worked in partnership with Fall Arts. Its success fulfilled Thomas's vision of sharing art with the community at large. The project began with a $30,000 kick-starter, and in 2017, gained nonprofit status. Planning and implementation involve a yearlong process, including 120 volunteers, 39 artists, a staff of 13, and 18 installations for the 2018 season. AmeriCorp VISTA also assists with the project.

Thomas called those who help with The Paseo "an incredible team." He explained: "For the past five years (this year will be the sixth), we have worked on taking over the street with art. We focus on the downtown historic district, and the placing of the installations varies each year. Past sites include Kit Carson Park, Taos Plaza and Civic Plaza Drive. We use art you can't hang on the wall and feature light and sound. Each installation offers either projection or performance art or both. Symbolically, the project represents the community taking back the town by coming together in this public space."

The Paseo is an event that invites the community to interact with the downtown spaces. He believes that, in Taos, art brings the community together.

The Paseo Project initiated a global open call for entries until Feb. 28. Check the website paseoproject.org or Tempo for more details. Entry fees and attendance remain free to the public. The Paseo Project occurs from sunset to 11 p.m. on Sept. 13 and 14 this year. Last year, people of diverse backgrounds and entire families attended together. Thomas hopes this trend continues in 2019.

Background

Thomas blends his education and experience in both his positions. He earned a B.A. degree in architecture from Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas. Thomas moved to Taos to complete internships with several Taos County architects. In 2007, the recession hit, and the young architect decided to attend graduate school. He earned an M.S. in architectural urban design from Columbia University in New York City. Thomas taught architecture in New York and then at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.

"My dad's family is from Lebanon, so I was able to track down and visit with distant cousins. My great-grandfather Goshen was the village shoemaker. He came to the U.S. through Ellis Island in 1900 and returned to Lebanon a few times to bring family members to this county," said Thomas of this experience. At Ellis Island, Thomas's great grandpa Goshen was forced to change his last name, a fate faced by many immigrants who arrived in New York. He selected the surname Thomas in honor of one of his ancestor's first names. The family also changed religions from Greek Orthodox to Catholic because the new religion was the closest to their former faith which was unavailable in Jefferson City, Missouri, where he grew up.

In Jefferson City, matriarch Betsy Thomas created Lebanese dishes - beef tartare (kibbeh nayyeh) and foods with lamb or beef, raw or minced meat. Pita bread and tabbouleh often accompany the meal. When Thomas lived in Lebanon, he was pleased to realize that his mother's cooking remained true to what he ate halfway around the world.

Thomas's father James Joseph (Betsy) Thomas followed two family traditions: the eldest son receives the name James (but with a different middle name), and four generations of the family work or worked in the shoe business. "As the eldest son in my family, I received the name James Matthew," Thomas said.

"I grew up in a shoe store on High Street, the main street in Jefferson City, Missouri. My dad was the president of the Downtown Business Association, so my family grew up with a strong sense of community, including the area as a place of commerce, art and events. It was a nice feeling. This sentiment is my hope for The Paseo," said Thomas.

Thomas wed Richard Spera. The pair spent 16 years together, four of them as a married couple. Thomas is close to his older sister Julie (Keith) McElwaine and a younger brother Drew (Stacy) Thomas. "My siblings both live in Jefferson City. I'm the only one who left the nest," said Thomas.

His Taos home

Thomas's desire to return to Taos remained strong. "When I came back to Taos, I began my Taos Shuffle by integrating and creating through the lens of community in partnership with art and design," he related. In other words, his transferable architectural skills greatly enhance his two employment positions.

Thomas owns an art studio in his backyard. He recently hosted a show at Encore Gallery at the Taos Community Auditorium. The artist completes drawings, mixed-media, paper, paint and patterns geometric designs for an architect. Thomas likes to cook, and once a year every summer, he prepares a large amount of tabbouleh that includes the parsley he grows in his garden.

He likes to travel and explore the world, including China and the Czech Republic (Prague), both places where he once lived. Other visits include South America, North America, Asia and Africa. Matt never visited Australia and would like to travel there in the future. He enjoys mixing with artists, viewing artwork and tasting new foods. More favorites in his life include viewing foreign films, drama and documentaries. His favorite magazines include National Geographic, Wired and Smithsonian.

The Taos Shuffle keeps him busy, but Thomas said it's worth the effort. "There are assets and values in small-town life that are important to me. Bringing all this together in Taos is such a joy."

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