Steffen Wolfgang George Thomas (January 7, 1906 - January 27, 1990) was an artist and poet. He was born in Fürth, Germany, but lived most of his adult life in Atlanta, Georgia. His most notable pieces are public monuments; however, he also worked in other media (including, but not limited to painting, sculpture, mosaic, printmaking, encaustic, and watercolor). His art is greatly influenced by Expressionism.
Thomas expressed a strong passion for art from an early age. After his father witnessed his son carving angel faces in the marble foundation of their home, he later apprenticed Thomas to a stone carver, providing Thomas a useful skill, but also a creative outlet to cultivate his artistic talents.
Following his apprenticeship, Thomas was accepted to the School of Applied Arts, Nuremberg, and then to the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich. His focus was drawing and sculpture based on the classical model. Thomas achieved “Master” status at age twenty-one and was given his own studio.
Thomas quickly tired of his artistic life in Germany and longed for greater endeavors. In 1928, Thomas realized his dream of moving to America. He spent brief periods in Florida, Illinois, and Alabama, but eventually settled in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1930.
A few houses down from Thomas lived a school teacher named Sara Douglass. Thomas was introduced to Douglass through her mother over a conversation about gardening, and after a two-month courtship they were married (1933) at Fulton County Courthouse. Thomas briefly returned to Germany after his move to America, but did not visit again until 1972. While his family remained in Germany, Thomas found his artistic life belonged in his adoptive country and he became an American citizen in 1935.
In 1941, Sara and Steffen purchased fifty acres near Stone Mountain, Georgia, and subsequently built a home and artist studio. The couple raised four children, Steffen, Robin, Douglass, and Lisa. Thomas continually worked on the complex by hand, and it became a popular destination, visited by friends, family, and tourists.
Thomas supported his family through public commissions and portraiture. Among the most notable monuments are the Alabama Memorial (1951) installed at the Vicksburg National Military Park, the statue of Eugene Talmadge, Georgia State Capitol Collection, and the Trilon (c.1950) located on the corner of Peachtree and 15th Street in Atlanta.
Thomas also created numerous busts commemorating prominent Georgians: Chief Justice Richard Russell Jr., Georgia State College for Women (currently Georgia College and State University), Milledgeville, GA; Martha Berry, Berry Schools (currently Berry College), Berry, GA; Joel Chandler Harris, Atlanta Public Schools; Moina Michael, “The Poppy Lady”, Georgia State Capitol, Atlanta, GA; portrait head of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Little White House, Warm Springs, GA; and George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Institute (currently Tuskegee University), Tuskegee, AL.
Thomas found acclaimed success with public works; however, with the refusal of his proposal for the Stone Mountain Civil War Memorial (a twenty year plan in the making), he became disenchanted with seeking public commissions, and naturally turned his focus toward creating works to express his personal artistic ideals. Essentially, he was free to create art without the restraints often associated with commissioned projects.
From his days at the Academy, Thomas did not take criticism well. He lost a Palm Beach commission when he substituted his own imagery in place of the Gothic specifications of the patron. He was notoriously hypersensitive to gallery owners, collectors, and patrons that did not appreciate his art. Thomas had a distinct artistic vision that was difficult to change once he set his mind to creating.
Art Historian Anthony Janson comments on Thomas's attitude toward his art, “What better way to shield one’s work (and oneself) from criticism that to avoid the confrontation altogether by keeping all but true believers from seeing it?”
In 1970, Thomas returned to a midtown Atlanta studio, selling his Stone Mountain estate. He continued his work until his death with the same passion and intensity from his student days.
Thomas’s wife and lifelong muse, Sara, conceived the idea to create a museum dedicated to the memory of her husband and his art. She founded the Steffen Thomas Museum and Archives (Steffen Thomas Museum of Art) in Buckhead, Georgia, in 1997. The museum houses an extensive collection of Thomas’s art and is dedicated to the research and documentation of his life’s work. The Steffen Thomas Museum of Art is one of the few organizations in the country dedicated to one artist.