Before World War II Bernard Thomas earned a bachelor’s degree in commercial art from Woodbury College in Los Angeles. He enlisted in the Army in 1943, served domestically, and was sent to Germany in early 1945. He continued to pursue his art during his military career. Thomas spent the bulk of 1945 and 1946 studying art at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. He got this opportunity because a sketchbook of his, The Old Country and its People, made its way into General Patton’s hands. He recognized Thomas’ talents, and arranged for him to be one of the American soldiers to have the opportunity to study art in Europe after the war. One of his teachers was Jean Dupas, a celebrated muralist and portrait artist. His teachings married well with Thomas’ commercial art training and influenced the art Thomas generated over the course of his long art career.  When he came home, Thomas started a career in commercial art doing murals.

Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, 2012
Mbzt, Wikimedia Commons

In August 1947, Bernard Thomas and his brother Jess visited the Squirrel Creek School located a few miles on the Montana side of the Montana-Wyoming. His brother was setting up chairs for a meeting there the next day. Since he didn’t have anything to do, Bernard took some colored chalk and at the end of the blackboard drew a Native American Chief in a war bonnet. He signed and dated it 1947.

For the next 40 years the teachers at the school never allowed anyone to touch or erase the chalk drawing. Eventually the blackboard was moved to the basement of the school, but the image was still on it, though it had faded with time. In 1987 Bernard Thomas was invited to a Squirrel Creek School reunion for everyone who had attended that school. The organizers wanted him to add some more color to the original drawing. On August 11, 1987, Bernard Thomas surprised the crowd at the school by giving an oil painting of Chief Red Cloud to the school. The school was abandoned not long after the reunion, and the painting was moved to the Spring Creek School. A few years after it was abandoned, the Squirrel Creek School burned down, destroying the chalk drawing originally done by Thomas. In 2007the Spring Creek School donated Chief Red Cloud to the Sheridan County Historical Society.

Bernard Thomas presenting a painting to the Squirrel Creek School. August 15, 1987.
Spring Creek School-Jim Hamilton Collection. 2007.044.001

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