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The artist's caretaker once controlled everything. No more.
Robert Indiana, left, and his caretaker, Jamie Thomas, at Thomas’ home for Christmas dinner in Vinalhaven, Maine, Dec. 25, 2014. When Indiana died, Thomas, who had directed his affairs, was supposed to help run the artist’s foundation and its new museum, but those plans have changed. Jamie L. Thomas via The New York Times.

by Graham Bowley



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- One person was conspicuously absent from an event at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, last year, a gathering as close to a memorial for Robert Indiana as has been held since his death two years ago.

The affair heralded the reinstallation of an important Indiana sculpture there, and the artist’s lawyer and his former publicist joined friends of the museum to celebrate the pop art pioneer who fled Manhattan, New York, in the 1970s to make his home on a remote island a boat ride away from Rockland.

But missing from the celebration was Jamie L. Thomas, the artist’s caretaker in his final years and the man Indiana — whose bold rendering of the word “love” became one of the most recognizable artworks of the 20th century — had picked to help guide his artistic legacy.

In fact, in recent months, the man who came to control most aspects of Indiana’s life — his meals, his home, his email account, even what new works of art were marketed under the artist’s name — has largely disappeared from his affairs.

He was not invited to the museum event, a decision its director attributed to the fact that Thomas had no connection to the Farnsworth.

He is no longer going to direct the new museum that Indiana wanted created in his former ramshackle Victorian home, the Star of Hope, on the island of Vinalhaven.

He is no longer on the board of the Star of Hope Foundation, the nonprofit that Indiana established to operate the museum.

It is a remarkable turn of events for a man whose roles as museum leader and keeper of the Indiana legacy were designated in the artist’s will. That will is being disputed now, and lawsuits have separately challenged whether Thomas was an able caretaker of the artist, who died in 2018 at 89.

As the debate over his relationship with Indiana continues, Thomas’ critics have vilified him in court papers and conversations as a man who took advantage of a rich, aging artist who had no close family. On Vinalhaven though, Thomas is applauded by islanders who say he did his best to care for an often eccentric person who viewed him as a son.

Jennifer Sargent Desmond, a family nurse practitioner who cared for Indiana in his final years, said Thomas, 56, has been criticized unfairly and the artist’s wishes are being ignored.

“There is no question about what he wanted,” she said. “He wanted Jamie to be in charge.”

Whether the level of charge that Thomas took during the artist’s lifetime was appropriate, though, has been questioned. Friends said they were blocked from seeing, or even talking to, the artist.

Indiana’s lawyer, James Brannan, who is executor of the artist’s estate, went further, arguing in court papers last year that Thomas had acted “to improperly line his own pockets” in Indiana’s final years. He cited Thomas’ roughly $250,000 salary for a job that, he said, resulted in little work, about $600,000 in withdrawals from Indiana accounts, and some valuable paintings that Thomas said he had been given.

Thomas said in response that he had a letter from Indiana acknowledging the gifts and that he had turned over all the withdrawn cash to the artist. Brannan said in court papers that $95,800 in cash had turned up behind a filing cabinet in a storage space known as the Schoolhouse. Thomas’ response said he had found other bundles of Indiana’s cash and that his wife had returned them to Brannan.

“It is clear,” Thomas’ legal team said in court papers, “Thomas had no intention of misappropriating funds since he turned over possession and access to the Schoolhouse storage facility weeks earlier.”

Experts have also questioned whether Indiana had fully signed off on works sold under his name, such as BRAT, a mammoth sculpture sold to a Wisconsin sausage manufacturer. And Brannan has called attention to the deterioration of Indiana’s house while Thomas cared for him.

“By the time of Indiana’s death, the home where Indiana lived to the end of his days with millions of dollars of artwork was littered with animal feces and urine,” Brannan said in the court filing last year. “Portions of it had become uninhabitable due to water intrusion, deteriorated plaster and rotting wood, mold and the stench of cat urine.”

Thomas responded in his filing that Indiana had allowed the cats and pigeons to live in the Star of Hope and that it was the artist who had refused repairs and visitors. As evidence, his lawyers included a picture of Indiana seated with a pigeon atop his head. Thomas said he simply followed directives from Indiana, who cherished his privacy.

“Indiana depended on Thomas and other caregivers for his physical and emotional well-being and in order to live his last years as he wished, in his own home with his companion, Woofy, in his lap,” Thomas’ lawyer wrote. Woofy was Indiana’s chihuahua.

The lawsuit between the estate and Thomas was resolved last year on confidential terms, though Thomas’ departure from the foundation seems clearly to have been part of the deal. Brannan said he could not discuss the settlement. Thomas declined to be interviewed.

The friction between the men is a late development. In recent years, they had worked together to manage many of Indiana’s affairs and, in the days after the artist’s death, Brannan had praised the caretaker. Brannan said in legal papers that his opinion changed after learning more about Thomas’ handling of Indiana’s finances and “additional misconduct.”

Thomas began working for Indiana in the late 1980s, helping the artist stretch canvas and other studio tasks. He left eventually, worked as a fisherman and started a seafood business. He was in a country blues band, BarnRatt, ran the island’s recording studio, and acted in productions of the island’s Vinalhaven Players.

When he returned to Indiana’s employ in 2013, he quickly rose above the other studio assistants to become Indiana’s most trusted lieutenant, involved in everything from preparing his meals to handling his emails.

As Indiana grew feeble, Thomas was given power of attorney, a position that included the ability to authorize what art was produced under the Indiana brand. In some cases, private text messages showed, Thomas had gone through Indiana’s old notebooks to discuss ideas with a New York art publisher, Michael McKenzie, for work that might be created.

McKenzie, in an interview, defended Thomas as someone who brought order to Indiana’s sometimes chaotic household and encouraged the artist to a new burst of creativity in his work.

“This is Indiana’s best friend, who kept him alive for years,” he said.

The extent of Thomas’ role in the artmaking process might not have come to light but for a complaint raised by a company, Morgan Art Foundation, that many years earlier had bought the rights to produce versions of Indiana’s most famous work, the sculpture of LOVE, with a jaunty O.

Morgan has contended in court that Thomas and McKenzie all but hijacked the Indiana name to produce schlock that undermined Indiana’s legacy, and its profits in selling more established Indiana works. Among the evidence it produced: a video of an automatic signature machine in McKenzie’s studio signing Indiana’s name to prints.

McKenzie has said Indiana was fully involved in the design process, approved of the new works, and had requested the machine because signing tired him.

That suit is ongoing. Brannan, as executor, in court papers has accused the Morgan company of cheating Indiana out of the royalties he was due under the licensing agreement. The papers accused Morgan of selling works to another company controlled by an adviser to Morgan, Simon Salama-Caro, which then resold the works, sometimes on the same day, at a markup.

“This structure allowed Morgan to account to Indiana and pay him only for the first sham sale, and not the actual sale,” the court filing said.

Luke Nikas, a lawyer for Morgan, said Indiana had approved the arrangement as a means of paying Salama-Caro, who drew no salary from Morgan.

The Morgan company has, in turn, accused Brannan of mismanaging the artist’s estate by selling artworks worth millions to pay legal fees. Brannan spent more than $3 million in legal fees to outside lawyers in the first year and a half after Indiana’s death and took $550,000 in fees and expenses for his work representing the estate.

“I have great lawyers, and great lawyers charge,” Brannan said.

One of the newer disputes concerns Indiana’s will, signed at the Star of Hope in May 2016.

Desmond, who witnessed the signing, said she spoke to Indiana that day and that he told her he wanted Thomas to run the museum.

“All I saw between the two of them was love and tenderness and kindness,” she said.

But Ronald D. Spencer, a New York lawyer who represented Indiana for nearly 10 years and was the co-executor of an earlier will, and the artist’s former publicist, Kathleen Rogers, have asked the Maine attorney general’s office to review whether the 2016 will is the product of undue influence.

Spencer said Indiana was too isolated in his last years, cut off from established associates and friends. For years, Spencer said, he was unable to contact his client in person or by email or telephone. During that time, a will Indiana had signed in 2013, which named Spencer as an executor charged with creating the Indiana foundation, was scuttled.

“There is ample evidence with which they could conclude that an investigation is worthwhile and called for over the circumstances and execution of Bob’s last will,” Spencer said.

The legal tussles and deterioration at the Star of Hope have set back plans to create a museum in the building any time soon. Larry Sterrs, a veteran of Maine nonprofit management, who replaced Brannan as chair of the foundation board, said he worried that the legal woes were draining resources needed to bring Indiana’s vision to fruition.

Renovation work has revealed deeper structural problems than expected, he said. He could not say when a museum would open, or exactly where, suggesting that Indiana’s art could eventually be displayed in multiple locations to avoid overloading the town’s infrastructure.

“We’re not leaving Vinalhaven,” he said. “Somewhere on that island, there will be someplace that you go to see the art of, and learn about the art of, Robert Indiana.”

Whether there will ever be a public memorial service is less clear. That is one area where Thomas retains a good measure of control. After the artist’s death, Indiana’s body was taken to the mainland and cremated. Brannan gave the ashes to Thomas.

“Pursuant to Bob’s directives,” Thomas said in a statement provided by his lawyer, John D. Frumer, “his ashes were entrusted to me so that I could lay him to rest. The turmoil needs to end for Bob to rest in peace, and for me to be able to fulfill the last promise I made to Bob, to send my friend off with LOVE, as Bob wished.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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