A master, remembered

'Thomas Sgouros: Drawn to Paint,' at Woods-Gerry
By GREG COOK  |  September 11, 2013

EVOCATIVE One of the 'Remembered Landscapes' [2009].

In the early 1990s, Thomas Sgouros began to lose his sight. He had been an illustrator and a painter of fine art landscapes and still lifes. Macular degeneration would be the end of many artists’ work, but as the center of his vision failed and he was left with just snatches of peripheral vision, he launched on a new series of paintings in 1992.

Sgouros, who died from cancer at age 85 in December, called them Remembered Landscapes. They were based on what he could recall and what he might still hazily glimpse. “Evocations of a place or a feeling,” he said.

“He simply stepped back and found a way to continue to paint that was not a concession to his disability,” illustrator Chris Van Allsburg says.

A room of these effervescent paintings — usually low strips of land, like marshes seen from a distance, under big, softly billowing clouds, all in warm autumn oranges and reds and purples — closes “Thomas Sgouros: Drawn to Paint,” a retrospective of the beloved Providence artist and teacher at RISD’s Woods-Gerry Gallery (62 Prospect St, Providence, through September 26).

Sharply organized and handsomely installed by Cade Tompkins of Cade Tompkins Projects with help from RISD’s Mark Moscone and Robert Brinkerhoff, the exhibition is a model of the kind of thorough, thoughtful attention it would be great to see more local artists get here.

Sgouros was born in 1927 to Greek immigrants and grew up in Chicago and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He moved to Providence to study at Rhode Island School of Design, from which he graduated in 1950. After a stint in the Air Force, he worked in Boston and New York, where he painted illustrations and dabbled in a spiky flavor of Abstract Expressionism.

“I wanted to be au courant,” Sgouros told The Phoenix in 2004. “But I gradually realized that I wasn’t that, or I didn’t want to be. So I became a factual painter, painting from observation.”

He returned to Providence to teach at RISD from 1962 to 2007. He served as the head of the illustration department on and off in the 1970s and ’80s.

“I had heard a little bit about Tom, that he was a bit of a taskmaster and had high standards and could give the challenging critique,” Van Allsburg recalls of his student days at RISD. He got to know Sgouros when he taught with him at RISD in the ’80s, and also found “this kind of protective nature he had around his students.”

Among Sgouros’s dozens of illustration clients over the years were Narragansett Race Track, Fleet Bank, and Amtrak. “I remember donning a hard hat and pretending to lug lumber as a model for some illustration,” his son Thomas Sgouros, Jr., writes.

Illustration paintings here from the 1950s to ’80s include a ski jumper, a deer hunter, and George Washington for Yankee magazine. His style was a loose, brushy, expressionist realism, often with images layered one atop the next, that embodies the zeitgeist style of the field during that era.

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