David Thomas has seemingly always had two dreams.
Ironically, one was born out of bravery and the other out of fear.
Now he is a picture of irony — a burly, brave firefighter for Newton County and an observant, introspective artist guilded with the Southern Heartland Art Gallery.
When Thomas was in grade school near Tallahassee, Fla., an older student would spend his time on the school bus drawing sketches of characters such as the Incredible Hulk and Hulk Hogan.
The other students would approach the young artist to commission their own drawings, but Thomas wasn’t among them.
"I was really amazed at his work," Thomas said. "But I was always too afraid to ask him myself, so I would try and draw it myself. From then on, I kept getting better at it."
Thomas’ artwork continued to improve, and he developed his own style of pastel, charcoal and pencil drawings. He would draw for his family and friends anything he could replicate — still-life scenes, landscape photos, vehicles, people and animals.
When he wasn’t drawing, he was listening to stories from his uncle, Jimmy Thomas, a firefighter in Waycross. Jimmy Thomas, himself a strong, heroic figure, would share stories of rescuing people from burning buildings and cars, painting a picture of a hero that was possible to bring to life.
David Thomas took his art and his fondness for his heroic uncle to Savannah College of Art and Design, but was able to attend only for a semester due to financial constraints. Next, he decided to study for his other dream. He enrolled at Chipola College, where he stumbled upon the written test.
While working his way back into school for firefighting, Thomas worked for Terminex while trying to catch on with a firehouse. Eventually, Newton County came calling, and Thomas started to become part of his own heroic stories.
"When you’re younger you always want to be like a fireman or whatever," David Thomas said. "(My uncle) told a lot of stories about how he saved the day, fought fires and helped people out. I wanted my own story."
He got many chances, including pulling a man who was restricted to a power wheelchair out of a burning house. The smoke was engulfing the man when Thomas and his team pulled him out and kept him alive with CPR.
"The experience of knowing you can help someone, whether it is just helping them out with a smoke fire or clearing the house — just knowing how appreciative they are is great," Thomas said.
That incident inspired him to continue working as a firefighter, and continuing to draw heroic scenes and figures. He also uses his drawings as a coping mechanism that helps him deal with stressful situations.
His first action as a firefighter, a double fatality, came when a man driving a truck crashed into a woman driving a Toyota Camry. The truck lifted into the air after impact and landed on its nose, catching fire and fatally burning the driver.
"(Drawing) helps to cope with stress and things like that, and of course faith in God — knowing people are not hurting anymore," Thomas said.
As the economy started to falter, his art also began to help him financially. He would sell some of his work or draw scenes his family and co-workers requested and sell them for a small fee.
From there, some fellow firefighters on his shift, shift B, suggested he sell his art in the Southern Heartland Gallery.
His first sale was a drawing of a fire truck in September, and he is currently working on a series of pieces for the Rockdale County Fire Department depicting its 1951 pump engine.
"Walked over there, driving by their truck, thought I have got to draw that," Thomas said. "I talked to the guys over there and let them know, ‘Hey I’m a fireman, and also an artist. I’d like to be able to draw that truck.’"
Thomas will continue to put his drawings in the gallery on the square. One, entitled "Patience," and another, a marina scene, are on display and for sale. His goal is to have a bigger area to display his pieces, becoming a gallery artist rather than a guild artist.
He will also continue to face his other dream head on, as a Newton County firefighter.