Alumnus makes migraines into masterpieces

Ever since suffering from a seizure, a Providence artist has been seeing gears and designs that have led him to create truly emotional and inventive works of art. Christopher Thomas, who was born and raised in Rhode Island, works as an artist from his home studio in Providence, RI, now that he is retired from his old career as a physical therapist.

Thomas graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in Physical Therapy in 1991, and went on to work as a physical therapist for 14 years. He left his job when he had the opportunity to move to Europe during the early 2000’s.

He spent years in Europe, and even became a citizen of the Netherlands, before making regular trips back home to care for his father, who fell sick in 2005. His first piece, he says, was of a clock that he designed for his father, who was unable to see it finished before he died.

Thomas’ artwork is full of surprises, and beautifully depicts his struggle with chronic migraines and frequent seizures. In 2007 Thomas suffered his major seizure, he fell, fractured his head, and woke up in the hospital.

“I initially smelled the hospital then heard the beeping and knew immediately where I was,” Thomas said. He noticed a change to his vision right away. When he was first in the hospital room he described his nurses’ movements as appearing like a flip-book, with chopped up motion. After this seizure he was forced to retire. Thomas said this was difficult at the time, “I had a whole new life I didn’t want.”

Fortunately, this gave him more time to focus on his artwork. With no formal education in the arts, he believes that his ability to create such beautiful works is “a God-given gift.” His home studio is filled with pieces in progress, some half constructed, but everything seems to have its place. The studio space is filled with shelves and bins all sorted with parts from old appliances, collected from scrapping or donated by friends.

Ever since his seizure in 2007, Thomas sees, what he describes as, different gears and designs during his migraine attacks. He creates works of art that illustrate what he sees and feels. “It seemed like things are moving and working together,” Thomas said. “Even now, I’m constantly seeing stuff I want to get out of my head.”

He still suffers from seizure today, saying that he has both “hysterical and hypnotic seizures.” During his hypnotic seizures he may freeze, or black out, for hours without realizing that time has passed. In addition to this, Thomas has been struggling with his migraines since before his major seizure.

These migraines often cause him to be up all night, sometimes for days. He tried to combat these migraines with “handfuls” of painkillers like Aleve and Tylenol, but it was killing his liver and kidneys. Thomas said he was able to detox from the painkillers and is now on a healthy diet. This struggle with migraines and his bouts of seizures is the inspiration for nearly all of his work, he said. A healthy and regulated diet has helped him to lessen the frequency of his seizures and his migraines are less intense. Thomas has plans to use his gift as a platform for other migraine sufferers, or anyone with health issues, and is planning to return to school for his Master’s in art therapy.

The URI Providence campus gallery showcases the wide variety of his work. The halls are filled with dozens of art pieces, ranging from decorative clocks and furniture constructed from recycled gears and various parts, to intricate sculptures, clothing and paintings. One hall featured a collection of spaceships and a piece titled “Death Star I,” this collection was inspired by the sci-fi franchises of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.”

Some of the most impressive of Thomas’ artwork are large clocks and frames made with moving parts that opened up to reveal amazing paintings hidden inside or underneath. These breathtaking works of art seem to capture the carefully constructed chaos of life, with all the small parts, some broken, coming together to make something beautiful. Thomas claims that his appearance in the AS220 Gallery and URI Providence Campus Gallery last October and April marked a major turning point for him.

“My life was changing dynamically,” he said. “My whole life was being converted and reverted to [Providence].” After he appeared in the AS220 gallery he met Steven Pennell, head of the URI Urban Arts and Culture program. Pennell helped Thomas to realize that he needed to continue pursuing a career as an artist. “I told him I was giving this up,” Thomas said. “He has been a tremendous guide in my life, and a mentor.” Pennell even encouraged him to pursue his master’s in art therapy.

The URI Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Education and Professional Studies has been proud to feature the solo exhibit of Thomas’ brilliant creations for the month of October, and will be featuring his work again in their upcoming exhibit starting next week.  

“Art and Healing / Art and Health” will be open to the public from Nov. 6 – Dec. 8, with a reception from 5-9 p.m. on Nov. 16. The reception will feature singing, flute, and drumming circle performances. The exhibit will portray the numerous ways that art can be used for health and wellness, featuring pieces from dozens of contributing artists.