Mary Bailey Thomas, a photographer who sparked creativity in students in Winston-Salem and Davidson County for more than 40 years, died Sept. 9, after years-long struggles with diabetes. She was 71.
For 39 years, Thomas taught art, photography, design and darkroom skills to students in public and private schools, college courses and community classes.
"She considered herself an educator first and an artist second," said her daughter, Elizabeth Thomas, a writer who lives in Richmond, Virginia. "One Mother's Day she said I was her greatest work of art. And I consider her to be my greatest teacher.
"She was a unicorn who raised a unicorn, and it was always equal parts exciting and frustrating. My cousins and I are organizing her art. My organizational skills were finely honed from organizing her chaos."
Thomas dropped out of college in 1967, Elizabeth Thomas said, but in the early '70s she went back to school at High Point University. She received her bachelor of art in art education in three years, while simultaneously working several part-time jobs and raising a child.
"I was exposed to the creative process at a very early age," Elizabeth Thomas said. "I got to tag along with her on her creative journey. She didn't leave me somewhere while she was on her journey. She took me with her.
"It was like growing up with one of the great musicians in Laurel Canyon, because I always had a seat at the table with with creative grownups."
Thomas taught for 22 years in Davidson County before leaving that public schools position in 2000 because of health problems. She returned to teaching in 2002 at Forsyth Country Day, where she taught darkroom photography and AP 2-D design classes for nine years.
In addition, she taught darkroom classes at the Sawtooth Center for Visual Arts and as a Salem College adjunct photography instructor. She also held classes and private lessons at Studio 7 in the Downtown Arts District.
Thomas shared space at Studios on 625 (where Cheesecakes by Alex is now) with Marianne Di Napoli-Mylet for about 15 years.
"What I really was impressed with is how she kept in contact with all her students for so many years — from Davidson and from Salem College," Di Napoli-Mylet said. "She did some incredible photography and made jewelry. She was very warm. Once you were her friend, she was always a friend, and she kept up with you.
"She was a great supporter to me of my art."
Thomas worked for Di Napoli-Mylet on the People of Winston-Salem Art Reclamation Program, aka POWAR, a summer program that taught art to 14-18-year-olds. The program created several murals throughout the city, including one on the corner of Acadia and Holyrood streets. It features self-portraits of all who worked on it, including Thomas.
"I was amazed at how she could corral kids and get them to sit up and listen," Di-Napoli-Mylet said. "She was really a great teacher."
In 2000, Thomas taught darkroom photography to artist Amanda Sullivan at the Sawtooth.
"She could frustrate and inspire you in the same breath," Sullivan said. "She believed that everyone could be creative and helped so many to find their spark. Above all else, she loved freely and encouraged everyone to believe in themselves."
Sullivan said that Thomas helped her find a job as coordinator of the photography department that she held from 2011-16.
Thomas' work has been displayed throughout the community at Studio 7, Associated Artists of Winston-Salem at Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts, Salem College, the Sawtooth, Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center; and in public and private collections throughout the Southeastern United States.
"The outpouring of support from the community has been a solace," Elizabeth Thomas said. "I know how many people loved her, and they loved her well. It was my privilege to be her daughter."
In the spring, Elizabeth Thomas hopes to have a gallery event that will establish a scholarship in Mary Bailey Thomas' name for Penland School of Craft.
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