Petersen Thomas '85

First Person - Summer 2009

Though Thomas works in painting, sculpture, and mixed media, he considers landscapes and abstracts his “bread and butter.” This triptych–acrylic on wood–is a way of combining those ideas. To see more, visit www.petersenthomas.com.

Petersen Thomas is sometimes described as a lawyer who became an artist. This is not entirely true. Thomas was an artist before he became a lawyer. He was an artist while he was a lawyer. Now he just happens to be an artist who is no longer a lawyer.

After graduation, Thomas scratched out a living working construction jobs by day and did his art on the side. When his pickup truck died, his parents offered to fix it if he took the LSAT. Figuring that a more lucrative day job would better support his artistic career, Thomas earned a J.D. from the University of Michigan. Therein followed a decade of highly paid litigation work punctuated by artist’s sabbaticals in San Francisco and Stockholm.

In 2000, Thomas decided to leave the law for good. His work, which encompasses painting, sculpture, and mixed media, is now shown in galleries across the country and in Europe. (His next show is scheduled for October at the Hayley Gallery in New Albany, Ohio.) We talked with Thomas to find out why he’s never looked back–and why he’s never regretted his former career.

I’ve always evaluated every decision in terms of whether it would mean it was more likely or less likely that I would do my art. Practicing law made it more likely–it would keep me supplied in models and paint.

Right after law school, I moved to Sweden. I got a little garret outside of Stockholm and starved. Then I got a call from one of the firms I interviewed with, and they said, “How is the art thing going?” And I said, “I’m starving.” And they said, “Well, the offer still stands.” So I went to California and practiced law for four years and painted on the side.

Later I moved to Kentucky. I got a job in a car factory that made door assemblies for Toyota. It didn’t leave as much time for art as when I did law, so I went back to law for four more years. I moonlighted illustrating children’s textbooks.

I wasn’t one of those lawyers who hates law. I loved it, and I have no regrets about it. I miss trying a big case, and talking to a jury, and wearing expensive suits, and the intellectual rigor. But the truth is you can’t be a great artist and a great lawyer; they both require 100 percent commitment. I needed to devote myself to one or the other, to art or law, and art won.

I wouldn’t say I’m a starving artist. I’m a hungry artist. I think art can sometimes suffer when it’s a hobby. You can get complacent when you have a steady paycheck. Nothing focuses your energy and hones your skills more than the realization that if this painting doesn’t blow your client away, you won’t be able to pay your phone bill.

We all think of the absinthe-crazed artist in the garret. But it’s also about updating the Web site, having the art supplies you need at the right time, and making sure the galleries have your work. Keeping all those balls in the air is a skill I developed as a lawyer that directly translates to making a living as an artist.

I just feel so damn lucky to live the dream of being an artist, to feed my addiction to making things, to have a life where I am supposed to go into the studio and lose myself in a project. It’s a drug and a thrill.

Published August 2009