If you have visited Mainstage Brewing in the historic McCallister/Frank building on Main Street or the Lyons Redstone Museum, then you’ve likely seen paintings by Newton M. Thomas. Better known as Newt, he was a resident of Lyons from the 1890s until his death in 1940. But did you know he was the “most famous artist” in Lyons? At least, that’s how The Lyons Recorder described him in 1915.
Thomas enjoyed painting landscapes in the Lyons, Allenspark, and Estes Park areas and he seemed particularly fond of Steamboat Mountain, the red Lyons sandstone formation that juts dramatically from the foothills west of downtown Lyons. Craggy rocks and warm colors against a cool blue sky—it’s the kind of juxtaposition of shapes and colors that catch an artist’s eye and stimulate creative impulses for a lifetime.
Thomas painted figures, too. In fact, one of the paintings on the wall at Mainstage Brewing depicts two horsemen, rifles in hand, fording a mountain stream with a string of pack animals in the distance. Curiously, the adjacent companion painting portrays a severely listing tall-masted ship with sails furled. The ruddy Turneresque sunset seems to imply that it might be the end of the ship as well as the day’s end. It’s not the kind of picture you’d expect to see in the Rocky Mountain foothills. Perhaps it was a reference to things seen on the artist’s travels.
Thomas is mentioned periodically in the sections of the old Lyons Recorder that functioned like today’s social media platforms with short, pithy statements recording events, people’s health, notable dinner parties, travel excursions, and general concerns of the day. When his name appears, it’s often a note about him leaving town for a short painting excursion or on longer trips to visit the “tenderfeet of Nebraska,” for example. Similarly, there are comments about recent returns home, sometimes after an absence of months.
Once, as reported in a published letter to the editor, he traveled to southern California, visiting San Diego before heading north up the coast. Seemingly disillusioned by the promises of the Golden State, he exhorted young men to stay home in Lyons, saying that nothing further West was better than what could be found in his beloved mountains in Colorado. It’s unclear if that trip was the one in which he stayed in Oregon long enough to make over a dozen paintings that now reside in Lyons Redstone Museum collection thanks to a Portland collector and antique store owner who donated them to the museum several years ago.
Personally, I’m fascinated by the enigmatic painter. He was a lifetime bachelor with no known living relatives, and the only remaining traces of his life are the twenty-nine paintings I found that he created over a sixty-year period (certainly, there must be more), plus a few newspaper snippets that characterize him as a beloved, if quirky, member of the Lyons community.
I am fortunate to have inherited one of Thomas’ paintings from my grandmother. The small oil on Masonite painting depicts a view of the mountains overlooking Meadow Park (now called LaVern M Johnson Park), with a water tower and train engine steaming on the tracks, in Impressionistic smears and flicks of paint. My grandmother, Caroline Sweeney Lass, was born in Lyons in 1900 and was the daughter of E.P. Sweeney, a single-term Mayor of Lyons, and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad depot agent and telegraph operator. She had fond memories of trains and the people who gathered at the depot. I recall her telling stories about the Stanley brothers (creators of the Stanley Steamer automobile and founder of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park) who played good-natured pranks on her when she worked in the ticket office.
As a child, I gazed at Thomas’ painting of the mountains surrounding Lyons from across the dining room table where I played endless rounds of gin rummy with my grandmother. The artwork, which illustrated my grandmother’s stories, seems to have gotten deep into my psyche. The painting served as inspiration for my novel Aspen in Moonlight—the plot centers on an art historian with paintings inherited from her grandmother who decides to travel to Colorado to learn more about the enigmatic artist who created them. It’s an interesting twist of fate that I am now embodying a similar story in my search to reconstruct Newt Thomas’ life.
Shortly before visiting my Colorado family last summer, I learned about the recent passing of LaVern Johnson (1927-2022), founder and director of the Lyons Redstone Museum for over forty years and a general force for good in Lyons. While enjoying a picnic lunch in the park named in her honor, I watched adults and children gleefully floating down the creek and contemplated the passing of generations of people who connect us to the histories of our communities, especially those, like LaVern, who work tirelessly to help us not forget the past.
In an interview for Denise Berg’s Piecing a Town Together, Families of Lyons, Colorado, my grandmother recalled Newt Thomas sitting by the depot to paint. My mother says she called the artist her friend. I wish I could ask Grammie to tell me more stories about him, but she passed away nearly forty years ago. It saddens me to consider how many stories are lost to time.
This is why I decided to use my skills as an art historian and university professor to better preserve the story of Newt Thomas’ life and artworks. Beginning this summer, I’m launching a public art history project devoted to Lyons’ “most famous” unknown artist. My primary goal is to uncover as much as possible about him and to publicly share what I find as I go, rather than do the research and write about him for an academic publication with a limited audience.
I hope to use my skills to help the Lyons Redstone Museum continue to care for Thomas’ paintings in their collection, and to curate an art exhibition that will contextualize his work meaningfully for Lyons residents. To serve these endeavors, I’ve created a website and Instagram account (see below) where I will post short essays and images. I also expect to pose questions and ask followers for input. With luck and community support, Newt Thomas might become Lyons’ most famous well-known artist!