Painting stories with artist Thomas Lockhart III


Thomas Lockhart III calls himself an inspirational artist, explaining, “People get something out of the paintings. They’re inspired by the images.” That’s certainly the case with the selection of Lockhart’s work that is currently on display as part of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, running from August 6 to 14 at the Performing Arts Center. This is the first time that the festival organizers have included artwork in the event, which makes sense in Lockhart’s case, since he is truly a visual storyteller.

“Of course all art is emotional,” he says. “People have an emotional reaction to a piece but as time has gone by, I’ve gotten more and more into the storytelling aspect of my art. It actually tells a story. There’s a narrative component behind the image.”

In many cases the narrative is very rich and full of information. For example, in a multimedia piece titled “The First Racers,” Lockhart tells the story of the early days of the Kentucky Derby when Black jockeys dominated the field. Thirteen of the 15 riders in the first Derby were Black, and Black reinsmen won 15 of the Derby’s first 28 runnings.

For the central image, Lockhart chose to depict Isaac Murphy (who is regarded by many in the industry as the greatest jockey that ever lived) as da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, posed in a square within a circle. The artist explains the idea behind the imagery, saying, “We can fit inside many spaces.” Surrounding the central image are portraits of other famous Black jockeys, two horse heads, some text, small photos, and artificial roses. All of the many elements combine to tell a story and also to serve as a memorial to the men (and often boys) who played a huge role in the early years of the famed derby.

Another piece titled “The Mothership” is based on the Middle Passage, the section of the triangular voyage that brought slaves from Africa to the New World. Lockhart shows the slave ship as a vessel spiritually guided through a stormy sea by a strong Black woman, whose image dominates the painting. Details that one might easily miss on quick inspection include the use of actual money from the era when, as the artist explains, currency varied from state to state as the country had yet to be truly unified.

Lockhart tends to dive deep into his subject, whatever it may be. He does exhaustive research online and, if he can, talks to experts in order to present as comprehensive and factual a story as possible. “Some of the things that you study may not be the real deal,” he says, referring to the inherent bias in much of recorded history. “It’s kind of like the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’”

Some narratives in Lockhart’s paintings are not quite so literal, as in “The Invisible Moving the Visible,” which shows a sailing vessel on a beautifully rendered wave-filled sea. “When we say we have faith in something, it’s a thing that we can visibly see. [In this picture] the invisible wind is moving the visible — the ship and the people. Wind that you can’t see represents the faith in our life. We can feel it within us.”

In much of his work, Lockhart includes textural elements like handmade paper, fabric, metal, bits of leather and chain (in “The First Racers”) and other three-dimensional objects. He also often uses clay mixed with paint to provide more texture. “I find that this helps bring more character to the piece,” he says of his mixed-media approach. “Sometimes my art is something you can feel — literally.”

Another interesting aspect to the work is that Lockhart tends to start with a Black canvas, which he says, “brings instant depth and contrast to the art.” He then slowly builds up the image, beginning with a sketch in white crayon or pencil, then adding color and finally placing the mixed-media elements. He calls his process “working backwards.” From the completed image he has in his mind, he deconstructs it mentally and then recreates it from the ground up, layer by layer.

Lockhart is a self-taught artist but his considerable talent has brought him to the attention of a number of galleries and institutions around the country, including hospitals, schools, libraries, and a seminary in his hometown of Denver, Colo. Among his many collectors are NFL players, actors, and others in the worlds of entertainment and politics. Commissions make up a large part of Lockhart’s work. One commission can be found at the Tyler Perry Studio. A number of others, including a very large painting depicting the Last Supper as attended by spiritual leaders from throughout the centuries, were commissioned by one of Lockhart’s most avid collectors — Maurkice Pouncey of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As much as he appreciates the recent increase in demand for his commissioned work, Lockhart hopes to find more time to work on the many ideas he has floating around in his head. “When I come up with an idea it could be through a conversation, a piece of music, current events, or a photo where I see something past the image.”

On his website, Lockhart’s bio concludes with, “It is Thomas’ desire that his artwork and design will inspire, encourage and compel others to think, follow their dreams and enjoy the many beauties of life that are often hidden in the world of art.”

The artist will be on hand for the festival, sharing with visitors info about his process and the stories that inspired his work. It’s something that he very much enjoys doing. (On his website,, Lockhart has included a section titled “Stories” that includes a pictorial explanation of his technique and the background on individual pieces.)

Whether or not you’re in the market for a work of art, a visit to the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival may very well inspire you or, at the very least, inform you about something new.