EVERETT, Wash. — When artist Gary M. Thomas paints a canvas in his Everett studio, his brush moves incredibly fast.
Maybe it’s because of the time he has left — he's 74 years old.
“The quicker it comes out of me, the better,” he said. "I never thought I would be an old person, but here I am. And I like it."
Or maybe it's because of the time he lost —so many years — using heroin.
"I always had that pulling at me,” he said.
He also spent decades paying the price.
Thomas stole to feed his habit. He'd already served two sentences when he walked into a bank and demanded money. He had no weapon — but when he was captured and convicted, it was his third strike.
The sentence: life in prison, without the possibility of parole.
"'Exiled' is the word. It's like being shot to the moon or something. You're no longer a part of anything that counts,” he said. "I committed non-violent crimes. Still no excuse, I always deserved to go to prison, I always did. I just didn't deserve to go there for the rest of my life."
During his time inside the Monroe Correctional Complex, he painted every day, taught other inmates about art, and created murals for the prison walls.
“I painted what they wanted me to paint on those walls — eagles and rivers and beautiful things that no one has anything against,” Thomas said.
But, his artistic impulses wanted to expand further. And after serving 17 years of his life sentence, he made a decision.
"I was listening to all the prison noises and sounds and it just struck me that, I don't think I want to be here anymore. I don't fit in this group anymore,” he said. "I think other people would agree with me, I've just got to get their attention. So I decided I would write letters. Lots of them."
Those letters reached an attorney, who argued on Thomas’s behalf — and at age 70, he was granted clemency and released.
"On my birthday! December 21, they let me go, 2017, on my birthday,” he said, laughing. “They didn't plan on that, it just happened like that, and I thought 'whoa.'"
He maintains residence in Everett, no longer uses drugs, and spends his days making art. For Thomas, creating whatever he wants with pen or paint is the true measure of freedom.
"I'm an abstract expressionist, and I could not express myself on this level in prison,” he said. "I couldn't paint with oil paint in my cell, and I certainly couldn't paint this big."
Collectors now buy his fine art, and Thomas’s passion is a style he calls "interfusion" — blending techniques of his favorite artists.
"Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollack, Richard Pousette-Dart, Wassily Kandinsky, and Joan Miró,” he said. "I just thought, there's too much left those artists could have said if they'd stayed alive, and I see where they were going."
Where Thomas is going is so far from where he's been, it's hard for him to find the words. So, he lets his imagery speak for him — freely — to anyone who's willing to listen.
"There are always forces that want you to give up,” he said. “And you just can't do it, you just have to keep going. There are many times when no one believes in you but you, so that has to be enough."