God will need new artists to praise him since the passing of Thomas Locker, the well-known and beloved painter of the Hudson River School tradition. Locker, 74, lived much of his life in Stuyvesant, NY, until he moved several years ago to East Jewett, in the Catskill Mountains. Thomas Locker loved God. No one could have painted the way he did without the love of God in his heart and mind. Passionate about nature and art, Locker was a self-professed pantheist, but his work expressed an unspoken belief in God the Creator, which always made us feel close to him. However he expressed it, what he saw and painted was enormous, and he praised boundlessly through his art.
Locker was our neighbor in his last years, with his home and studio only a few miles from our home. He visited us several times, and art classes from our community school went to his garage-studio, where he was always ready to create a teaching moment. Thomas gave generously of his skill and time. Once he even asked the elementary school my children attended to house one of his canvasses, a study of Kaaterskill Falls. Kaaterskill Falls is a double cataract, and it drew him time and again to its base, in the light of all hours and seasons, to try and capture its wonder in the plein-air style for which he became famous. This painting stood eight feet tall, and made me exceedingly nervous all the months it hung, un-insured, in the lobby of our elementary school. It was between galleries, he said, and he didn't want it in his studio. It was too big. It was fantastic, but I was relieved when he came to pick it up again.
Painting was also an educational tool, and he visited schools and museums with his traveling shows, teaching children about the formation of river valleys, clouds, water cycles, and so on. There is a whole generation that has learned how to see nature, through his numerous books for children. He stated more than once that while he had traveled all over the world, he never found a geographic location as profoundly beautiful and important as the Hudson Valley, and all Locker aficionados will recall how he painted and painted the Hudson River, with the Catskill peaks in the background, and the sunset, or noon sun, shining over it all – and perhaps a thunder storm over North Lake. The Clove – a gorge in the Catskill mountains through which the Kaaterskill Creek runs into the Hudson River – was Thomas's spiritual home, and he set up his easel countless times. He painted the rocks and pools, waterfalls, leaves and trees, light and shadow. He struggled with the shadows in the Clove, which are deep, and discovered that in order to achieve shadows, he had to paint the light. He never felt he really achieved what he wanted: to fully capture the wonder of creation on canvas. Be that as it may, those of us who have stood before his work have learned to see that wonder, and to marvel at its Creator.
But the painting that has brought me to tears is one he did in 2010, several years after a near-death experience, which he told us about one Sunday afternoon, at my home. Locker had been in poor health for the last years, but one particular health crisis brought him to the edge, and what he shared with us was an experience of traveling towards light, and clarity of sensation he had never known before. He longed to travel the whole way, to become part of that light. However, medical intervention drew him back, and he found himself still on the earth he loved. In 2010, he painted his understanding of what he had seen, and called it "Gateway to Eternity." It changed him profoundly and has affected many who have seen it. In the painting, a river flows through hills lit from behind the viewer, and into a wide water way, which extends to the horizon. Above the horizon is golden light. The whole image draws one's eyes beyond the canvas, and one's thoughts to another World.
As Thomas was dying, he said to his daughter, "It is my time, and I am not afraid." Thomas had no fear because he had seen the other side, and knew it was all light. I believe he has set up his easel, and is painting again, and now the light is right, he doesn't have to worry about shadows, and God is watching. I hope so.