By Jana Seitz
Thank goodness it’s been too nasty for outdoor adventure, otherwise I may have missed the opportunity to run into Michael Thornton-Smith. Sometimes God throws you a bone in the middle of winter doldrums, this one a future friend in the form of a complete stranger. We met in Aisle 14 at CVS where we engaged in delightful banter well above the usual caliber. I could tell I was in the presence of greatness; at what I wasn’t sure. I was content listening to him read the cold medicine labels in his old-school British best. He invited me to see some of his work. Ah, so he’s an artist. But that doesn’t sum him up in the least. It took a couple of Covid years, but we finally got together when he was painting a mural at my neighbor’s home and invited me to pop in. I was stunned. He’d recreated Long Island Sound on their dining room walls!
I finally paid a visit to his Port Chester studio, where I imagined I would lose myself in his work like Mary Poppins in the chimney sweep Bert’s chalk drawings on the sidewalks of London. “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” Jump in and bye-bye dreary gray winter. But instead, I stepped into his past.
Listening to his stories is like riding a tsunami or holding onto a whale’s tale, like staying on a bull for eight seconds or hiking a mountain in an avalanche. Thornton-Smith’s life is a romp through the Seventies in the art worlds of London and New York. From his Anglican priest father’s and loving mother’s home in Cornwall, he exploded onto the scene. The bookends of his adventures are London (where he moved as a college freshman to study at the Central School of Art & Design while teaching painting and photography at an all-girls’ catholic school) and Rye (his wife Susan’s hometown where they settled to raise a family of their own).
But as in any Oreo, it’s the stuffing in the middle that’s the sweetest. While in college he was commissioned to paint a hotel mural in Tunisia, a trip which kicked off a great love affair with the African continent and a life of exploring it. He has slept on the top of the pyramids in Egypt and lunged unridden horses-for- hire by racing them across the pyramid plateau. He has that knack of being in the right place at the right time, and his travel juju hasn’t let him down. He has traversed the Kalahari solo in an old beater truck, bungee jumped off Victoria Falls Bridge over the Zambezi River, lived in a kibbutz in Israel, and run ten watchtowers on the Great Wall of China in his own mini marathon.
But his wanderlust was always tempered by talent and ambition. He soaked up experience for an unknown future, thriving on collaboration with new cultures before he knew what he was being shaped for, unknowingly honing an ability to see the interconnectivity of things and express them to the best of his ability. The picture came into focus in 1979 when he was invited to The Whitney Museum in New York on a fellowship/internship where his first task was interviewing Robert Mapplethorpe. Other jobs included designing windows at Saks Fifth Avenue, serving as in-house artist at Bloomingdale’s, painting the first mural at Henri Bendel, giving lectures funded by the Helena Rubenstein Foundation, and working with renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Clearly, greatness recognized the same in him.
Even his living quarters reeked of adventure. In London, he shared a house with Sir Terence Conran, retailer/restaurateur/writer/founder of the Design Museum in London. In New York City, he lived in a loft with a dance studio in TriBeCa, in a flat above the Mudd Club, and in an apartment building where he met his future wife, a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He married “the girl next door” and the stage was set for a life in art.
Thornton-Smith is a tale of two cities, thriving in the space between the devil and the deep blue sea. It’s an old story line: the son of a preacher blazing a different path. He could hang tough with the bad boys (was invited to run onstage with his buddies The Clash at Bond’s Club on Times Square and had a knife drawn on him by Sid Vicious), but he had set a framework of rules for himself and colored within the lines when tempted. He was self-disciplined within his freedoms. He has a head for business and a heart for following, and rather than rend him in two, it worked to satisfy the whole. Finding that balance has been his life’s work. And God Himself has his back when he takes a walk on the wild side. Their relationship informs all he does and is the foundation from which he creates.
I love listening to him ramble on about the creative process, how one can become completely immersed in the work until all else falls away. Time stops. Merce Cunningham, with whom his wife danced, explained it as “that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” Translated into the language of sports, it’s the “White Moment” as defined by Russian weightlifter Yuri Vlason:
“At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort,
while the blood is pounding in your head,
all suddenly becomes quiet within.
Everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before,
as if great spotlights had been turned on.
At that moment,
you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world,
that you are capable of everything, that you have wings.
There is no more precious moment in life than this,
The White Moment,
and you will work very hard for years just to taste it again.”
Michael Thornton-Smith’s life has been a series of white moments which are mirrored in his paintings. You too can immerse yourself in his work at www.michaelthorntonsmith.com and www.thorntondecoratif.com.