Preserving the works and memory of famous billboard artist Oscar Thomas Sr. A Charles River sabbatical story.

Growing up in Miami, Tasha Thomas knew her dad was famous. He was a billboard artist whose works could be seen all over the city, and whose portraits turned up everywhere she looked. Once, in her elementary school in the late 1980s, she saw a portrait of Michael Jackson hanging in her favorite school counselor’s office.

“I remember being so excited to share that my father was the artist,” she said. “She didn’t believe me at first, and I remember pointing out his signature and reminding her that my last name was also Thomas. Her eyes grew big and she started to share that she purchased the painting at the Coconut Grove Art Festival that weekend, and was excited to know that Oscar was my dad.”

Tasha Thomas

Tasha told her father about the counselor’s excitement, and he visited the school a few days later to meet her. After his visit, everyone at school knew who she was. Three decades later, Tasha is hoping to return the favor by collecting material for a multimedia biographical project on her father. Tasha, who serves a dual role as an Operations/Business Development & Marketing Specialist at Charles River Labs, lives in Miami and traveled during her one-month sabbatical to Costa Rica, Panama, and throughout Miami, where she spent time interviewing his family, friends and colleagues and collecting images of his work to be used for books, prints, and a website.

Oscar Thomas Sr. was born in Costa Rica in 1956, and began his artistic career at age 15 as a billboard restorer at the recommendation of an aunt who saw his talent. He came to the U.S. in 1980 to continue his artistic education, and didn’t stop painting until his death in 1997 due to complications from diabetes.

Oscar Thomas Sr.

Despite his relatively brief career, Oscar’s body of work is prodigious. He painted almost constantly, saying once in an interview, “every day I’ve got to do a painting, or I don’t feel like myself.” He was perhaps best known for his many portraits and murals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and called himself a black historian artist.

Tasha’s goal is simple: she wants to preserve her father’s work. She plans to produce a book on his life and work, and use the profits from hardcover sales to produce paperback copies for donation to schools and libraries. The profits will also be used to buy art supplies for his hometown’s school in Limón, Costa Rica, and create a Spanish translation of the book for distribution in Costa Rica.

She knows that the timing is important, as some of his murals have been damaged by weather or destroyed by building renovations, despite the dedicated restoration work of local artists who were mentored by her father. She also needs time to track down his works in other countries, from Panama to Paraguay.

Luckily for Tasha, many are eager to help. Oscar was well known and well liked, with fans from the late Miami community leader Dr. Earl Wells to Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.

“With each person I met, everyone described my father as a genius, and everyone considered them their friend,” Tasha said. “Even if it was someone I don’t remember meeting [before], everyone wanted to be close to my dad and everyone spoke about his kindness and how he did not know how talented he really was.”

Tasha’s research sabbatical was her first step, but the process is ongoing. Eventually she plans to sell the books of his work through the website oscarthomassr, where she also blogs about her experiences. In the end, her success will be measured not through profits, but through how many people she can introduce to the memory of a remarkable man.

This is part of our ongoing series about the experiences of Charles River sabbatical recipients. You can find more sabbatical stories here.