'The Rockwell of Lionel'

Marshalls Creek painter makes international name for herself in trains, cars and collectibles artwork

WAYNE WITKOWSKI
Angela Trotta Thomas is often commissioned to do portraits of children with their favorite toys.

Angela Trotta Thomas said that she always was captivated by art that conjures memories.

And it's that emotional response from art lovers that took the Marshalls Creek resident from doing commercial artwork to her being commissioned by Lionel Trains for nostalgia paintings, by Packard for a commemorative painting for its centennial anniversary and now by the owner of a castle in Poland.

"I wanted to do something I could call my own with pride, and something collectible," said Thomas.

It started in 1991 when she sold her artwork at the nationally known annual York Train Meet. Her husband, Bob, was an avid collector of Lionel trains and had a spectacular display of model trains where they lived previously.

They felt the show would be a good opportunity for her to sell her paintings. Thomas at the time was a graduate student studying for her master's degree in art and illustration at Marywood University in Scranton.

One painting — "Window Wishing," of her son, Bobby, as a 7-year-old boy looking through a store window — was a huge seller. Many of her works have her two children, Bobby, now 23, and Sarah, 25, when they were young children as subjects.

The Train Collectors Association, which hosted the York Train Meet, placed an order to carry Thomas' Christmas cards that she designed as well.

"They saw my work and felt I had something and encouraged me to move forward," said Thomas.

Because she used model trains as her subject, Thomas decided to reach out to Richard Kughn, Lionel Trains owner at the time, for permission to use the company's model trains and logo as a subject for her artwork. She accepted Kughn's offer to license her art.

Six years ago, the company commissioned Thomas to paint a nostalgic scene that would be printed on a collector's boxcar every Christmas. "Window Wishing" was the first one.

"I've had people call me the Norman Rockwell of Lionel," said Thomas, referring to the renowned American artist.

From that, one thing led to another. Linda Kughn, wife of Lionel owner Richard Kughn, suggested to Thomas that she branch her interests out to antique cars, and Thomas followed that advice. The Packard company then commissioned her in 1999 to do a print commemorating its centennial painting at its birthplace in Warren, Ohio, that was signed by the founder's grandsons.

A few years later, Thomas rendered a commemorative print for Pierce Arrow's 100th anniversary in Buffalo, N.Y.

"I've been known more quickly in both worlds model trains and vintage cars than I would have ever thought," said Thomas. "I'm amazed about that and when people respond the way they do to my work."

Otis Chandler, the late owner of the Los Angeles Times, commissioned Thomas around that time to paint him and his wife at their ranch with a vintage car.

But she found her work wasn't confined to vintage cars and trains.

"There are a lot of fabulous car artists, but that's not what I'm all about. I like to paint things that are totally different," she said.

That includes a poster that Thomas designed for rock music legend Neil Young, who became part owner of Lionel Trains when the company was sold to New York City investment company Wellspring in the mid-1990s.

During that Packard centennial celebration, Thomas also met with the owner of a castle in Poland near Krakow that is being turned into a resort center. He got back to her years later and asked if she would do six paintings of his castle in different settings. She plans to travel there in April. Thomas said she especially enjoys painting snow scenes, and she can do it even when the subject she is looking at doesn't have a fleck of white on it.

She says that, even though she said she plans on retiring with her husband some day to a warm weather region.

Thomas' efforts have been influential. Her artwork was featured on the cover of Lionel's annual catalog in 2000, a nostalgic theme with a train in it. It was the first time in about 40 years that the company went away from photography and back to an artwork feature on its cover.

"I was always intrigued by the artwork on the Lionel catalog covers in the 1950s, and then in the 1960s they switched to photos, but I always felt that art is evocative," said Thomas.

Lionel stayed with that theme on its 2002 catalog cover when Thomas did a commemorative 9/11 painting of Engine 54, Battalion 9 Fire Co. in New York.

Along with painting the castle, Thomas has been commissioned by 18 clients, taking up her time for the next two years, primarily on themes of cars, homes and children. She said she even has been commissioned by a priest in the Bronx for a painting of Jesus Christ and his disciples in a boat.

Thomas also does a commemorative Christmas card line that has featured at times her beloved pet dog Lucy, a Westie. She adds to the card line every year as well as artwork for Admired Designs interior decorating with her Country Club of the Poconos neighbor Carrie Wetherbee.

"I've been fortunate to have kept myself very busy over the last 16 years," she said. "I'm grateful when somebody asks me to do a portrait of their child. I do so many portraits of children with their beloved toys. I don't take that opportunity for granted."

Angela Trotta Thomas' artwork can be seen at www.angelatrottathomas.com.