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Faced with his parents’ deaths, a Kansas City musician took solace in composing music

Thomas Tarnowski, took this photograph of Larry Thomas in his studio. His son, Collin Thomas, keeps it safe -- stored among the prints and artwork his father left behind.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Larry Thomas' son, Collin Thomas, keeps a photo of his father by Thomas Tarnowski safely stored among the prints and artwork his father left behind.

A new, four-hour-long piece of music by Collin Thomas is two years in the making, and explores the grief that comes with losing family.

Musician Collin Thomas says the August 2021 day that changed his life forever started out normally.

“I was in a meeting," Thomas says, "when my father called and said, 'I need to go to the hospital.'"

His father, artist Larry Thomas, had retired a few years earlier from his longtime position as professor and chair of the Department of Fine Arts and Photography at Johnson County Community College. Larry Thomas was also primary caretaker for his wife, Pam Thomas, who had Alzheimer's disease.

At the hospital, doctors diagnosed Larry Thomas with stage-four lymphoma. He died three months later, leaving Collin Thomas to find new care for his mother.

“What happened that day was my father went to the hospital, and I was in charge,” Thomas says. “My mother didn't know who she was anymore and so I kind of had to take over and take care of my mother, and it was hard.”

Seven months later, his mother died too.

A new piece of music by Thomas takes a look at that late-summer day, and the days that followed. He calls it "The Gauze Eyed Gaze Of Bracketed Air," and he composed it in the room that was once his father’s art studio.

Collin Thomas composed his latest work in the room that once was his father’s art studio.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Collin Thomas composed his latest work in what was once his father’s art studio.

Thomas has changed some things in the room around a bit. And he's left some the same: the streaks of paint on the walls where his father’s easel once stood, and a few paintings here and there.

Above the door, the younger Thomas mounted a panoramic photograph of the studio to remind him how it looked when his father, known for large-scale paintings, abstract collages, and mixed-media work, was alive.

“My parents, and especially my father, were such a huge influence on me for so much of my life. To lose them so quick, it was just a whirlwind,” he says.

In the whirlwind after their deaths, Thomas developed "The Gauze Eyed Gaze" as a way to cope with the loss and grieve for his parents.

“If you listen to it from start to finish, and let it slow down and experience it slow down, it feels so slow," he says. "It feels so long.”

Collin Thomas took a panoramic photograph to remember the studio the way his father Larry left it.
Collin Thomas
Collin Thomas took this panoramic photograph to remember the studio the way his father, artist Larry Thomas, left it.

The piece is four hours of distorted, ambient sound with a melancholy piano theme that drifts in and out.

“When I listen to it, it hurts and I really considered whether I should even do it this way or not," Thomas says. "Then I thought, 'No, it's the pain. That's the pain of listening to it. It shouldn't be easy to listen to.'”

“It was one of those things for about a year of my life, I woke up every day and didn't know what was next," Thomas says. "There was no time to process anything, and what little time I did have, I would go to the studio and take a half an hour and just write some music or do something just to get my mind off of it.”

“As I wrote, I kind of could see me feeling better,” he says.

The experience reminded of him of a conversation from years ago with his father.

"I went through this kind of stereotypical artist's creative dilemma,” Thomas remembers with a laugh. “'Why am I doing this? Why am I making music?' I asked all my friends.”

When Thomas finally asked his father, he got a simple, short response: "If I don't do it, I don't feel good."

Larry Thomas in 2019.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Larry Thomas was an artist known for his large-scale paintings and collages. He retired as professor and chair of Johnson County Community College's Department of Fine Arts and Photography in 2016.

“It's true,” Thomas says, summing up the impulse to create. “There's an itch in creative people that you just, you feel better once you do it. You feel better once you make something.”

Thomas says he and his father always planned to collaborate on a project, but it never quite worked out.

"His paintings were always brightly-colored with pinks and greens and almost neons — colors that just jump out at you," he says. "And my music is sort of quiet and there's lots of reverb and it's sort of echoey, so it just never seemed to fit."

Thomas knows this music isn’t for everyone, especially considering its running time of four and a half hours.

“So I don't know that everybody will experience it the same, if they even experience it at all,” Thomas says. “But it'll be interesting, this emotional ride that I've gone through, if it translates to other people.”

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Thomas experiments with a a new piece of music. After finishing his latest project, Thomas says he finally feels like he can begin to move on from his parents' deaths.

Now that the work is finished, Thomas says he finally feels like he can begin to move on.

"Only recently, now that I feel like it's done, do I really feel like, not only is the piece concluding itself, but I'm concluding this grieving process I'm going through,” he says. “This wrapped up that whole era of my life."

In the hopes that his music can help other people like it’s helped him, Thomas has posted the entire project for free on his website.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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