A Lover’s Tribute to The Man Who Named The Pearl
Words Janice Jada Griffin
If you think that someone is speaking to you from outside of time and space, they probably are. On the afternoon of Wednesday, January 31st, I lost Thomas Paul Augustine, the love of my life. That morning I’d witnessed the total lunar eclipse, where Earth lies in-between Sun and Moon, casting an orange shadow upon our smaller satellite-companion. I’d put my mind into a more expansive place knowing difficult news lay ahead whether Thomas survived the day or not.
Thomas thrived in parallel universes. Comfortable with not having all the answers, he knew that, as humans evolved within a grand universal timetable, we’re barely escaped from primeval goo and far too limited to fathom the mysteries of the cosmos.
Today, just 3 days after losing my beloved, when things felt terribly dark and as if I’d never paint or write again, kaboom, I sell Nebula Pueblo Beyond Time, one of the last works I had painted in my Santa Fe, New Mexico, studio and that Thomas and I had examined together. Thomas, at heart a sculptor, loved bronze, glass and the precious agates and jade that he fashioned into jewels. A problem-solver, he had a positive mind-set and could do anything. Our conversations, which seemed so straightforward at first, always blossomed into something magical. His input, always epiphanic, invariably caused me to make small, yet significant, adjustments to my pictures. Thomas was not locked in by dragons in life and he was not confined by celestial monsters now. This was his way of refocusing me, of telling me to keep faith, to continue the program we’d started some 20 years ago – first, after we’d met and my work was represented by the Lawrence Gallery at NW 9th and Davis Street, and secondly, after he and I formed our own art studio and gallery, the Janice Griffin Gallery, at NW 12th and Overton Street. “Remember,” he said. “Remember who you are. Everything you did was not a lie.”
Thomas’s contact was a reminder – the paintings I create, (most of them large-scale female figurative pieces,) are consequential, an expression of our shared love and impulse to offer what we considered an important philosophical statement for society. My female figures are on the vanguard because they contain an underpinning of pro-women’s advancement ideals that have become even more potently relevant today. Thomas was thrilled about the #MeToo movement. We both knew women’s personal power and sexuality – their sex drive – to be inextricably linked. My pictures take on a political stance against patriarchal systems that seek to silence women’s voices and confiscate their worth through barbaric practices such as institutionally sanctioned rape and genital mutilation. Thomas despised the subjugation of women. “This has happened millions of times,” he said, never shying away from being a spokesperson for the freedom, strength and beauty of my gender. In this capacity Thomas remains a true warrior, a warrior for human justice and equality.
Thomas and I were mutually inspired to bring my likenesses of women to life. Thomas performed the majority of physical labor involved in stretching, framing and curating the canvases. He was pure brilliance in being able to speak about the work, its ideological significance, and in joining with the emotional force it contained, communicating that eloquently in words to a mesmerized audience. He could put into vocabulary with no rehearsal whatsoever what people barely knew they sensed and bring everyone in the room into connection. Folk in the Pearl still remember his Valentine’s Day talk and the penetrating relevance of what he had to say about male/female power dynamics. Speaking from knowledge of his own physical body, he channeled his personal experience of what carnality could be when a woman felt safe, felt held, when a woman was truly awake and free.
Many of you will recognize Thomas Paul Augustine’s name in the context of the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon. It is here that Thomas had his art gallery, The Augustine Gallery, from the early 1980s when the neighborhood was still known as the Northwest Industrial Triangle, to the end of the decade. It’s no accident that Thomas is famous for naming the Pearl District. His charismatic genius was absolute. A spark of recognition ignited the moment we met. Larry Peetz, a local collector of my paintings, became Thomas’s instant fast friend. “Thomas,” he says, “was the real deal. He was not someone you could compete with, but he had compassion. We were brothers, Thomas told me, we just had different mothers.”
Like Larry Peetz, the men and women who could appreciate and love Thomas, left their egos at the gate. You had to offer something of yourself to inhabit the same space with this man. Articulate and non-competitive, he had authority in the realm of art. He knew that some people wanted only the facts and figures of the academic. But for Thomas, life, like the act of making and selling gorgeous things, could never be a mechanical process. Art that was true came from a mysterious, unnamable inner force. It had the power to move us and deepen the meaning of existence. Thomas’ contribution was not to be taken in the usual sense, the sense of what it might be worth in a capital-driven marketplace. His contagious joie de vivre came from a position of mutual-benefit. He had something to teach and something to give and people were thirsty for the message.
Many have speculated over which of Thomas’s two stories related to the naming of the Pearl are correct. Margie Boulé interviewed him in 2002 for The Oregonian. Initially, Thomas said that he loved the image of the rough neighborhood of the then named Northwest Industrial Triangle being filled with crusty, archaic buildings with exteriors that looked like oyster shells. Inside they were filled with pearls, heroic individuals who, like fishermen and priests, lived a faith-based existence. Like Thomas, these innovators – painters, poets, sculptors, dancers, musicians, wine-makers, software designers and filmmakers such as Gus van Sant, knew that originally inspired work was an offering to civilization. It necessarily came before financial reward. Thomas, the consummate visionary, catalyzed creativity in a utopian, bohemian counter-culture that echoed Paris’s Left Bank in the early 20th century. Painters like James Macko, whose work Thomas carried at his NW13th and Hoyt Street showroom for 7 years, were doing exploratory experimentation akin to Picasso and Matisse on the Rive Gauche almost a century earlier.
In his interview with Boulé, Thomas elaborated on how the Pearl District acquired its name by revealing that his friend, Pearl Marie Amhara, an Ethiopian woman who had introduced him to Oregon and who held women’s empowerment gatherings in “the hood,” had rightly anticipated that it would become filled with creative types of all sorts and eventually gentrified. Amhara was enigmatic. There has been speculation as to whether she ever truly existed. But James Macko once met Amhara at the Augustine Gallery. “She was a gracious, elderly black woman who spoke highly of Thomas,” he said. It was Amhara who Thomas thought of when asked at a block party by an Alaska Airlines magazine writer what the neighborhood was called. “It’s Pearl’s District!” he declared, and the appellation stuck.
“In truth,” Thomas told me, “the naming of the Pearl District came from twin sources, both of which belong to me: the image of the pearl-treasures inside the calloused mollusk shells and from Pearl Marie Amhara, my friend.”
It’s easy to believe that Thomas Paul Augustine named the Pearl District, for he lived, not in the world of the ordinary, but in the world of the extraordinary. Thomas was tactile, warm, compelling. Whether making coffee, making love or making art, everything about being with this man contained eroticism, eroticism in equal measure. We were limited only by the contours of our imagination, because everything we did was always rooted in love.
Thomas Paul Augustine, the Thomas I adored, had many challenges in life, all of which stemmed from physical health issues coming out of the Vietnam era in America and with which I was intimately familiar. He was physically wounded, but through discipline and force of will, he made his mind non-desperate. He stayed in the present, never pushed the river, allowing inspiration to flow like water over stone. Thomas moved with ease between the parallel universe that art at its best is, and the “real” workaday world, never limiting himself by preconceptions. A person of extreme intelligence, a true artist, he danced along the razor’s edge between imagination and fantasy, for his was the quintessential hero’s journey. The Tommy I shared a home with for two decades, this Thomas that his family, friends and associates knew, was replete with vitality, unafraid to follow his heart’s desire. He lived the “soul’s big adventure,” as Joseph Campbell described, choosing art as his work because it was that which excited him. He was filled with verve, uncompromised courage, kindness and wisdom. A product of the 1960s, where Thomas’s pilgrimage was at times a pilgrimage to save himself, his vitality made others come alive, and in many ways, he saved the world.
The liberty of Thomas’s imagination knew no bounds. Recently he said to me, “You must have the feeling that a dream can come true. You will see how that feeling can also take a step over the line, but you must still keep the feeling.” Thomas loved rich metaphors, metaphors contained in mythology and fairy tales. He loved them because they held an ultimate truth. Metaphorically speaking, Thomas kept doors open in the night, for he knew that at any time, a person could find the unexpected, the pearl in the oyster shell.
My darling Tommy, I can entirely you only love – your grey-green eyes as deep as a well, your strong sculptor’s hands caressing me, the radiant genius of your Buddha-mind. You talk to salamanders and stones. The riches you give me are of a different kind. This is not goodbye. We wrap around and around each other, a swaying Indian raga, infinitely repeating, warming the blood and stirring the bones.
Janice Jada Griffin
~ Loss ~
I see him in my living room and in my dreams.
I feel him as if he were a ghost, a phantom limb that should be there but isn’t.
He is in the sculpted clay that his hands fashioned into form.
He is in the gentle breeze and in the storm.
He is in the mountain stream.
As the sharp, cutting edges of my grief soften,
I am a great fallen tree dissolving into time.
I see him in the shadow and in the silhouette.
I touch him in the wet, overcast sky that brings relief to the High Desert light.
I hear him in the raging thunder and in the lightning’s gleaming rod.
At dawn he rolls the rayed disk of the sun across the sky.
And the lotus rises again from the underwater and opens its flower.
He is softly sleeping, resting in the stone.
His blood beats, alive in the canyons that are the veins of the Earth.
Husband, you are with me.
You are with me in chaos, and you are with me when I lean into the wind.
We are flowing with the river.
We are in free play now with the eternal current of life.
~ Janice Jada Griffin ~
Thomas Paul Augustine has left us far too soon. He had much yet to contribute in the realm of art. To those who knew and loved Thomas, I would like to hear from you. I am developing an art piece that will incorporate some of the many extraordinary thoughts and words that have been shared with me about this remarkable man. Please email me at < firstname.lastname@example.org > WIth thanks from the bottom of my heart, Janice Jada Griffin.