Karen Thomas’ Thai housekeeper is apologetic. “Karen” is down in the garage basement, unpacking a shipment. So down we go from the Bird-Thomas household on the sixth floor and find a tiny dynamic powerhouse, power tool in hand, tackling large flat wooden crates of art, flown in by Fedex from Vietnam.
Sometimes, Thomas explains, pictures are sent pre-framed. These are heavier, so cost more, and they take longer to get through customs. Thomas prefers the canvases to arrive stretched and adds simple display frames for exhibition. Buyers can then properly frame them or not as they wish.
“For now,” she says, “Greg can finish these off.” And, as if reading her mind, Greg Copeland (GC Innovations: design, space planning, reforms, custom carpentry) arrives to take over.
In the elevator going back up to the apartment, which doubles as an exhibition space and a home for husband, Jack, and four sons aged 12 through 18 (who go through 40 liters of milk a week), she checks and signs off for a package being delivered.
“Images,” she reveals. “Critical prints of new paintings by Le Thanh Son that I need for the Web site ahead of his exhibition. Now I can finish it off.”
Capable, organized and adaptable, Thomas and her husband came to Japan in 1992 with a baby and a toddler. For years after, her life was centered around children and schools — PTA, trustee of the board, chair of the board. Then, in 2004, the family decamped to the U.S. for a year.
“By that time, art was a big factor in my life. I knew what I wanted to do — establish a permanent gallery of Vietnamese art — but Oregon was not the place. There was a lot of soul searching.”
Having first visited Vietnam in 2000, Thomas had quickly become intrigued by the quality of its art. “It was bright, different, and very good from a price performance perspective. Indian and Chinese art markets were beginning to boom. But Vietnamese artists were not getting the recognition they deserved.”
The family returned to Tokyo in November 2005. Thomas went to Vietnam in December and started making contacts. She opened Toriizaka Art in March 2006, since when it has “evolved.”
“Mistakes? Of course I’ve made mistakes. Mis-pricing items, for example — there are people in the world with great bargains! But then price is always difficult. Some people who come here to look at what I have on offer say, “Oh, too expensive.” Others imply “too cheap.” Also one partner of a couple may not like something, to which nowadays I always advise, “Forget it. Don’t buy it.”
Luckily, her own husband never comments on any of the work she brings in. If he has opinions, he keeps them to himself, concentrating on being wholly supportive.
“Jack designed my Web site so that I can update it myself. He helps with exhibitions — puts up picture rails, moves lighting.
“Never complains that every inch of wall space is covered from top to bottom, that closets are fit to bursting. The boys are the same. Great kids. Very tolerant, very helpful.”
This is not to say she does not have to be circumspect. A recent shipment of paintings — Buddhist monks painted in oil on large canvases, almost in the style of a watercolor, line one corridor, their faces to the walls: “Just in case. . .”
We eat in the kitchen (under another wall of artwork) and it’s Thai food and delicious! Ja has been nanny, friend, cook and housekeeper for 16 years; she moved with them when they tried Oregon; her family has visited Tokyo; the Bird-Thomas menage has met with her relatives in Thailand. It really is one big happy family, which goes a long way to explaining the success of Toriizaka Art.
In her first year, Thomas sold around 100 artworks — figurative, landscapes, abstract, symbolic. Last year she sold 175.
Interested parties can arrange to come to the apartment, preferably by appointment since it is also her home. She also stages a monthly in-house event, the dates of which can be checked out on her Web site.
Thomas likes the slow pace of the business she is developing. Yes, of course she’s busy, but it’s through choice, never imposed. Happy buyers spread the word, so she’s never found the need to advertise. Consistency is the key: in the quality of the pieces and the artists she represents.
The painter who focuses on monks, Nguyen Minh Phuoc, depicts them walking away into the distance, an effect that is both ethereal and full of mystery.
Trinh Quoc Chien, a devout Buddhist who works in lacquer, mixes gold leaf, mother-of-pearl and stone for three-dimensional effects and images that reflect his meditative process.
Bui Huu Hung is interested in recording Vietnamese history and he is prolific. But Thomas says she may see 50 pieces before she brings one into Japan. “I’m picky.” From next week, she will focus on the exhibition of paintings by Le Thanh Son, planned to open April 12 at Shinsei Bank’s headquarters in Yurakucho. It’s a fabulous exhibition space, she enthuses, “up on the 20th floor, overlooking Hibiya Park”
This will be Le Thanh Son’s first solo show in Japan. Last year he was in Dubai. In 2006, London.
A bonus is that four organizations will benefit from sales: Tokyo English Life Line, Hands On Tokyo (a new clearinghouse for volunteers), Second Harvest Japan, and Room to Read.
Generous indeed considering the low profit margin that Thomas already works with. Eight of the 20 paintings shown in advance on Toriizaka Art’s Web site (she puts up every single painting, so what you see is what she has) have reserves on them. Now there are new pieces that no one has seen before.
“His color is luminous. Trees, flowers, lanes, scenic views, they have a rare quality that people really love. There is one painting, of palms, that I could have sold many times over. The intensity of light is just stunning.”
Le Thanh Son is planning to attend the opening, together with his wife, their 3-year-old daughter and his mother. But as Thomas says, this depends on visas. Assuming all goes well, the artist will spend a day at Tokyo’s American School.
“He doesn’t speak English, but I’m not worried. . . . creativity is a universal language.”
In May, she will bring in the work of three new artists. Her parents are coming to visit. The summer will be spent in a cabin in Oregon. In the meantime there’s the anxiety of waiting to hear if applications made by elder son Miles for college are successful.
Even as she voices such sentiments, another package arrives and Thomas hits the ceiling with excitement. She believes it to be an acceptance for Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., but obviously can’t be sure until Miles gets home to open it. (It was.)
Thomas loves “great but busy days,” and today has been no different: “a mile a minute.” But she always starts quiet. She rises early — very early — to spend 10 minutes sitting reflectively in front of one of the many ever-changing images of Vietnam on her walls, drinking her one coffee of the day.
Growing up in a home filled with music rather than art, she believes it’s important for people to surround themselves with things that make them feel good. Art, she says, improves the quality of our lives. “It’s the right music for our souls.”