When Don “Tortellini” Thomas II was furloughed from Bell Helicopter during the pandemic, he tried several creative endeavors: playing the guitar, writing and DJing. He stumbled upon one creative outlet that sparked a new career and an artistic mission to highlight the community.
“One thing that stuck was photography,” Thomas said.
In honor of Juneteenth and Father’s Day, a selection of photographs from Thomas’ projects, Faces of Dallas and The Village, are now on display at the Dallas Arboretum through July 24.
Thomas’ first camera was a film camera and he taught himself photography through YouTube videos. For his subject matter, the Dallas native turned his attention to the people in his community. One of his first projects, KLAWZ, showcases the nail art he saw all over Dallas. The project was eventually exhibited at SMU. It was the beginning of Thomas’ ambition to explore neglected aspects of the community.
“I wanted to be intentional with my photography. I wanted to choose subject matters that were overlooked and underappreciated,” Thomas said.
Faces of Dallas features members of the homeless community.
“I see a lot of homelessness around where I live, and I noticed how people treated these people,” Thomas said. “I felt like people in general saw through these people instead of seeing them as human beings. So, I took it upon myself to use my camera to make them seen.”
Thomas developed a relationship with homeless individuals, gained their trust and their permission to take their photo. He heard a full spectrum of stories of how people ended up being homeless. He saw their humanity and he decided to create a fine arts space where others can see it too.
“A lot of the people that will see these photographs will never approach a homeless person. They drive by them on a day-to-day basis,” Thomas said. “As long as I am up on display, people will be forced to see them and understand where they come from.”
The Village commemorates the people, history, and culture of Oak Cliff through Thomas’ lens.
“I was motivated to do this because I felt like so many pillars of the community die off without having their stories told,” Thomas said. “To me, I feel we aren’t educated in the community unless the news reports on it, so for me as a photographer, I go to the places where the news won’t go. I go tell the stories that the news won’t tell. I try my best to honor people through photography, to highlight them and create space for them to share their contribution to the community.”
Documenting previous generations is meant to inspire the next generation.
“We don’t know enough about where we come from and who does what,” Thomas said. “I want to use a lot of my photography as an educational component to educate the next generation after me because I feel like the people before me deserve the respect. They did a lot for us. They made way for us, they sacrificed for us, they died for us, and they deserve to be honored. They deserve to be respected.”
Many of Thomas’ photographs are black and white.
“I love to take away color because it leaves more room for the imagination,” Thomas said. “You don’t when that [photograph] was taken. You don’t know what year it was taken. You don’t know what time of day it was taken. You don’t know anything about it. It makes you more engaged with the photograph. It makes you think a little bit deeper. To me, I just feel that black and white photography is timeless, and it is more artistic, in my opinion.”
Thomas hopes his raw aesthetic spurs people to consider a different viewpoint.
“I believe that a lot of subject matters and art are forced to fit in spaces to make people comfortable. I don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable, but I just want people to think,” Thomas said. “If I can start a conversation, I want to. If I can change a perspective, I want to.”
Thomas is grateful this exhibition coincides with Juneteenth and Father’s Day. He sees his work as a tribute to those who came before him, especially his father who died in 2017.
“This is my father. This is my dad’s upbringing. He instilled this in me,” Thomas said.
A portion of the proceeds from the exhibition at the Dallas Arboretum will go to The Bridge. Thomas has plans to add to projects he has already created and has ideas for work he wants to do.
“Oak Cliff is a beautiful place,” Thomas said. “There are so many things that I have learned along the way that have surprised me and really made me think I’m really from a dynamic, beautiful place. And I haven’t hit the tip of the iceberg of all the stories I want to tell.”
Learn more: Dallas Arboretum