JT THOMAS | News from Ukelele, Colorado


News from Ukelele, Colorado

IMG_8035Right now there  is a large bearded man from Austin, Texas locked in my bedroom with a ukelele. His father was a methodist preacher, and regardless of his own religious leanings, he too is a preacher of sorts.

And I listen to his music frequently.

His big voice + a little ukelele = something both simple and magical.

Kev Russel has long been at the helm of the Texas band The Gourds. But right now the Gourds are taking a sabbatical while Kev and a new band of pickers and horn players make a run at the world under the moniker of Kev’s nickname, Shineyribs.

(No, I have not done my due diligence and searched out the origin of the nickname. Maybe tonight under the influence of something while we sit in the backyard and pick, I will ask, “excuse me Kev, but how did Shineyribs come to be your nickname and band name?” )

For no particular reason –  other than to honor the fact that there is a large bearded man with a ukelele in my bedroom – I am going to call my new home Ukelele, Colorado.

Years ago I knew a man on the east coast who had migrated from playing the guitar professionally to the ukelele for pleasure. One night at a riverside hootenanny I asked him why he downsized. “Well,” he responded, “…EVERYTHING comes down to the ukelele.”

His existential exclamations continued….

“For you, YOU are going to HAVE TO put down the camera some day and start PAINTING. ALL photographer become painters. Photographers are just painters in training.”

Yes, Dan was pretty sure of himself.

He was the kind of man who, upon wishing someone bon voyage, always delivered it as if it was an order. (My grandfather was the same way, but that is for a future post).

I took his guitar-to-ukelele and photo-to-painting marching-orders more lightly than he. But I did take them to heart.

This afternoon, listening to the ukelele sounds pinging through the air ducts of my house, I cannot help but stare at the paintings on my wall and wonder about Dan’s overwrought statements.

Admittedly, I have not taken many photographs in the 15 months –  at least not formal photos with my “big-gun” cameras.

My iPhone – or rather my iCamera – is always with me and thus serves as my newfangled street camera. (As the saying goes, the best camera is the one that you have with you.)

In this photographic hiatus I have, mostly by accident, painted. Painted houses. A barn. I finger-painted a girlfriend with ripe fruit last summer. And I have a few canvases I have “Jackson Pollacked” with playful angst…and then stuck them into the depths of my studio closet to keep myself from burning them.

So maybe it all does come down to painting and ukeleles.

We grow, we change, we outgrow certain things;  ideas, landscapes, social dynamics and we ponder what is next with us…and the world. Natural progressions, I suppose, usually involve exploring what is over the next horizon…even when we are content with where we are.

For me, photography and journalism has always been about connecting with people, connecting people and ideas and also using photography as a means to create dialog or to reveal a some kind of narrative in the world – especially the stories/narratives of everyday people.

“Giving voice” to voiceless people has been a pillar of my approach to the craft. But inside the photographic craft I have, consciously and unconsciously, always aspired to “paint in” something artful,  beautiful, emotive or, perhaps more accurately, fill in the image with some embellishments of interpretation.

More recently, I have deliberately put down the the camera. In lieu I have explored ways to create stories with others and to foster the creation of connections with and between people and places/space by hosting gatherings where people can come into, ahem, “analog” contact with one another, especially to listen to music.

It’s not a unique formula, of course.

Coming together to talk and sing and be social, however, is more the exception than the norm in todays digitized, virtual world. But it has  been happening right here in my new home of Ukelele, Colorado quite readily and I see how important that is to a community.

I am in my office/studio right now hammering on the keys of my computer with the sounds of ukelele still tinkling in my ears. Outside I can see the gracefully serrated Cimmaron ridge off to the east and all the thunderheads building in the thermal plumes over the dark green juniper hills.

Here in the studio I have may cameras, old and new, all around me. Most I have used. Numerous others are just elegant relics I scored at garage sales. At the moment I enjoy looking at all of them in much the same way as I enjoy looking off at the growing clouds and the mountains.

Some days a paint brush is more appealing to me than a camera. It’s lighter and simpler, sort of like running shoes versus a bike with all its gears and wheel and busy cables and accessories. But despite its simplicity, a paint brush is an intimidating tool.

So in some ways Dan was right about the natural progression of a photographer gravitating to painting. But it is not without its growing pangs and accordant fears.  (At least on the upside – and for the public good – it is best I stick to the visual arts and migrate to painting instead of to a ukelele.)

One day I will lock myself in my studio and wrestle with a paint brush in earnest. In the mean time I am locked and loaded with my iPhone camera and unrestrained with its use, especially when the light is just right and, well, painterly.








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