In 1971, the O in a “LOVE” sculpture was lowered into place at the entrance to Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 60th Street.
VINALHAVEN, Me. — Jamie L. Thomas has spent most of his 54 years on this remote island off the Maine coast, where he cobbled together a livelihood from an assortment of jobs.
Painting houses. Sterning a lobster boat. Helping run a small seafood business.
And, in recent years, caring for Robert Indiana, the Pop Art great, who retreated to this island decades ago and lived alone in a sprawling home overlooking the harbor until his death in May at 89.
When the details of Mr. Indiana’s will were disclosed a week later, it turned out that Mr. Thomas had also been entrusted with an unlikely new job: shaping how the artist, best known for his depiction of the word “LOVE” with the jaunty, tilted O, will be remembered by the rest of the world.
The will named Mr. Thomas the executive director of a foundation that will have a huge role in stewarding Mr. Indiana’s legacy. It put an estimated $50 million worth of the art from Mr. Indiana’s home under the foundation’s control. And it directed that the foundation convert Mr. Indiana’s house, a distinguished but dilapidated 140-year-old Victorian confection with peeling paint and weeds popping through the sidewalk, into a museum.
These are the sort of responsibilities that would test even a veteran administrator. In Mr. Thomas’s case, they will pose a particular challenge. He has no formal art training, no experience in running an institution. Perhaps most significantly, he was accused this spring in court of having tarnished the artist’s legacy while Mr. Indiana was still alive.
In a lawsuit filed in New York a day before the artist’s death, a business agent for Mr. Indiana said Mr. Thomas, his caretaker, had purposely isolated the artist to enable a scheme by an art publisher, Michael McKenzie, to forge and sell multiple works falsely attributed to Mr. Indiana.
Both men have denied the accusations. But the F.B.I. began poking around the island after Mr. Indiana died, even as art experts questioned how Mr. Indiana could have agreed to some of the works sold as his late-in-life creations — clumsy, overtly commercial material, they said, at odds with the deeper themes that inspired his LOVE and HOPE works.
One sculpture, BRAT, was created as a homage to bratwurst and was sold to a Wisconsin sausage company. Another sculpture, WINE, was created for the publishers of a wine magazine.
Luke Gottwald, the record producer known as Dr. Luke, said that last year Mr. McKenzie discussed with his former business partner in CORE bottled water the possibility of having Mr. Indiana design a sculpture by that name. Mr. McKenzie said the idea petered out because Mr. Indiana only wanted to do something monumental.
The colors, proportions and subject matters of these late works did not seem to match what Mr. Indiana typically produced, said John Wilmerding, emeritus professor of American art at Princeton University, and a friend of the artist.
“I would be surprised,” he said, “if any serious and informed Indiana critic or writer would accept these works, in my opinion.”
If one wanted to escape the New York art world, as Mr. Indiana did in the 1970s, Vinalhaven would be a good place to start. Summer visitors might spark a line at the candy store, but year-round this rocky place 15 miles off the coast is home to only 1,200 people. For generations, Mr. Thomas’s family has accounted for some of them.
Tall with a set jaw, Mr. Thomas first worked for Mr. Indiana in the 1990s, one in a crew of young people who helped the artist stretch canvas and other tasks. But before long he moved on to other jobs and pursuits. He was in a country blues band, BarnRatt, ran the island’s recording studio, the Flophouse, and acted in local productions of the Vinalhaven Players, where one of his last turns was as Leo Clark, a down-on-his-luck actor in Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies.”
“He has such a sweet voice,” said Diana Cherbuliez, an artist on the island who said she has seen him sing at parties.
About five years ago, Mr. Thomas returned to work in the circle of Indiana assistants and swiftly became its center. At the time, Mr. Indiana’s celebrity had faded from the heady days when his bold rendering of “LOVE” had become one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century. But critical appreciation of him as a Pop icon, not a one-hit wonder, had recovered of late, particularly after a 2013 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art that Morgan Art Foundation had pushed for.
Mr. McKenzie, who had worked with Mr. Indiana off and on for decades as a publisher of his work, said he worried at the time that Mr. Indiana’s other studio staff were not dependable.
“I said to Bob, ‘Is there someone?’” Mr. McKenzie recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, the person on the island I trust the most is Jamie Thomas.’”
After one longtime assistant, Valerie Morton, died, and another moved away, Mr. Thomas’s influence grew. Many on the island attribute it to Mr. Thomas’s unfailing devotion to Mr. Indiana. But several former aides to Mr. Indiana who worked with Mr. Thomas described him as domineering.
Certainly, all access to the artist came to flow through Mr. Thomas, who could be rude in defending his boss’s privacy. In 2014 dozens of people gathered outside Mr. Indiana’s house to celebrate his birthday and “International Hope Day,” an event Mr. McKenzie had organized to promote the HOPE works. Mr. McKenzie sold prints to the crowd as they waited for the artist. But after several hours, Mr. Thomas came to the front door with a blunt announcement — a bluer version of “It ain’t freaking happening,” according to Kathleen Rogers, a publicist whose clients included Mr. Indiana
“It was so disappointing for everyone,” she said.
By 2016, Mr. Indiana had given his power of attorney to Mr. Thomas. Three of the artist’s former assistants have signed sworn statements that say the artist later denied to them that he had ever made the transfer. But it was witnessed by several people who said the elderly artist did so willingly.
By this time, anyone who tried to email or phone the artist found that everything was routed through Mr. Thomas. Close aides, friends like Ms. Rogers, Mr. Indiana’s New York gallerist and several art scholars said in interviews that they could no longer get through.
Sean Hillgrove, who had worked for Mr. Indiana for decades, said Mr. Thomas took such control that salary payments eventually had to be approved by him. And then suddenly the payments to him stopped. His key no longer worked in Mr. Indiana’s front door.
“I wasn’t even told I was fired,” he said. “Just new locks on the doors, and that’s that.”
But was all this Mr. Thomas’s doing? Or was he only trying to abide by the wishes of Mr. Indiana, who by many accounts grew ever more cantankerous as he aged. He could be short tempered, even with friends.
“The allegation of Jamie not letting him talk to anybody is not true,” said Chris Clarke, an artist whose studio is directly across the street from Mr. Indiana’s former home. “Bob didn’t want to talk to anybody.”
Friends of Mr. Thomas say he was, in fact, the helper always willing to be on call, to bring in meals, to stay over when Mr. Indiana fell ill, or to repair the boiler at his home, the rambling Star of Hope, a former Odd Fellows Hall that dominates Main Street here.
“Jamie was devoted to Robert Indiana,” said John Wulp, the playwright and resident of Vinalhaven. “I believe he kept him alive during the last few years of his life.”
Mr. Thomas did not respond to several requests for comment. But John D. Frumer, a lawyer for Mr. Thomas, said his client always acted in Mr. Indiana’s best interests.
Mr. Thomas’s role in Mr. Indiana’s life is likely to draw even greater scrutiny in coming months as the artist’s estate is settled, the effort to create the museum expands and the lawsuit filed against him proceeds.
In the case, Morgan Art Foundation, a for-profit company that owns the rights to Mr. Indiana’s LOVE image, argues that it was damaged when Mr. Thomas and Mr. McKenzie conspired to put forward what they characterize as a bunch of bogus Indianas that were not up to the artist’s standards.
Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Thomas have said in their court responses that it is the Morgan company that actually defrauded Mr. Indiana, by failing to pay royalties on the sale of Indiana-related products.
Mr. Thomas said in his court filing that he had uncovered “numerous instances of the Morgan Art Foundation, and Simon Salama-Caro, as its agent, breaching their obligations to Indiana,” a charge the company has denied. Mr. McKenzie, who said he paid Mr. Indiana $1 million a year in royalties, has images of Mr. Indiana signing some of the works whose authenticity is disputed in the lawsuit.
Divining whether art has been authorized, or not, can get murky when artists employ staff to help create their works. Throughout his career, Mr. Indiana employed foundries and printmakers, like Mr. McKenzie, to produce his sculptures and prints.
Mr. McKenzie, whose business association with Mr. Indiana dates back to the 1990s, operates out of a studio in Katonah, N.Y., where he produced most of Mr. Indiana’s latest works, including those now challenged as forgeries. In his response to the lawsuit, and in an interview, Mr. McKenzie said Mr. Indiana had personally signed all the works they produced together, citing that as evidence they were all authorized.
But Luke Nikas, the lawyer for Morgan Art, said the company had found a video that “proves the opposite.” The video, posted on social media in 2013 by one of Mr. McKenzie’s studio assistants at the time, depicts an automatic signature machine signing a series of Indiana prints. On the video and the surrounding text, she expresses concern that her boss had asked her to use the machine. “Forgery,” she intones at one point.
Mr. McKenzie said use of the machine for one series of 200 prints was approved by Mr. Indiana. “For me, if he blesses the signature machine, that’s the same thing as signing,” he said.
Criticism of the authenticity of the late works was misinformed, he added. Mr. Indiana in recent years had decided to try new things, and was open to the commercial opportunities that fellow Pop artist, Andy Warhol, had once explored.
The BRAT sculpture reminded Mr. Indiana of his Midwest roots and was designed to be his largest ever, he said. The WINE work sprung from the artist’s long love of it — a passion that several other friends said they had never witnessed.
The CORE sculpture, Mr. McKenzie said, had actually been the beverage company’s idea, and one that Mr. Indiana considered because he had become fascinated with the idea of doing something related to water.
Mr. Thomas, acting on Mr. Indiana’s behalf, approved some of the later works, according to court papers filed by Mr. McKenzie. In some cases, Mr. McKenzie said in an interview, Mr. Thomas generated new ideas by bringing to Mr. Indiana’s attention things the artist had drawn in old sketchbooks.
The question of whether all these works were authorized by Mr. Indiana will be explored at a hearing this month in Maine, called by Mr. Indiana’s lawyer, James W. Brannan, who is also the executor of the estate. Mr. Brannan has expressed concern in court papers that the disputing parties may have sold works by Mr. Indiana, or works “derivative of” the artist, without paying him his share.
In an interview in his office in Rockland, Mr. Brannan said he had no idea whether all the works produced by Mr. McKenzie or sold through Morgan had been authorized.
“I was not involved in who did what in terms of works of art,” he said. “Those decisions are going to have to be made by somebody else, maybe even a jury.”
Mr. Brannan came to work with Mr. Indiana in 2016 and redid his will that year. He had previously helped the artist as the lawyer on some real estate transactions. Now he also helped create the Indiana foundation, known as Star of Hope Inc., on which he serves alongside Mr. Thomas as one of the two current board members.
Under an earlier version of the will, the foundation was to have been established by Ronald D. Spencer, Mr. Indiana’s trust and estates lawyer for 10 years. The nearby Farnsworth Art Museum had also expressed an interest in helping convert Mr. Indiana’s house into a public space for his art. But in 2016, Mr. Spencer said, he received a one-line letter, signed by Mr. Indiana, firing him. He called and emailed to get an explanation, he said, but never heard from Mr. Indiana again.
The new will indicated that all of Mr. Indiana’s estate would be placed in the care of the foundation led by Mr. Thomas. Mr. Brannan serves as the foundation’s secretary.
When Mr. Indiana died, Mr. Brannan began inventorying the art work in the house. Based on a partial 2013 inventory, he determined that 28 or so works thought to be there seem to be missing. He has shipped out the remaining works to storage for safekeeping and to avoid the house’s leaks.
At the upcoming hearing, Mr. Brannan plans to ask Mr. Thomas and others about whether they know what happened to the missing works, Mr. Brannan said.
He and Mr. Thomas will now have to tackle the challenge of turning the fraying Star of Hope into a modern museum, complete with the humidity controls, handicap ramps, additional exits and sprinkler systems necessary when inviting the public to come en masse.
“It will be a big project, but they always are,“ said Jay Fischer, a builder who has restored other historic museum structures on the Maine coast. “It could be a couple of million dollars to restore that building.”
Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, agreed that Mr. Thomas faced a formidable task as leader of the museum. “This is a really important position, and it needs to be done right, and it’s hard work,” he said.
Mr. Brannan, when asked if Mr. Thomas was the right person to lead the museum, did not hesitate. “Bob Indiana thought he was,” he said, “that’s why he said what he said in his will.”
Mr. McKenzie said Mr. Thomas, as a Vinalhaven native, will be the perfect emissary for the museum on the island. Mr. Indiana told friends that, as a gay man living alone on the island, he had not felt particularly welcome in the years after he moved there. The reception warmed, friends said, after Sept. 11 when Mr. Indiana happened to be in New York and saw the towers after they had been attacked. When he returned to Vinalhaven he painted huge images of billowing American flags across the front of his home.
“He is the right guy,” Mr. McKenzie said of Mr. Thomas. “This is not going to work if the island does not really embrace it. This is where it is going to be. If people don’t like it they are going to be graffitiing it. He mitigates this.”
Others are not convinced that Mr. Indiana was well cared for in his last years.
Webster Robinson, 50, who worked for Mr. Indiana for 25 years as a studio assistant, said in a sworn statement that in February, when he still had access to the house, he arrived one day to find Mr. Indiana had fallen on the floor. He said in an interview that Mr. Indiana had been there for hours, pressing his medical alert necklace.
“His arms and legs were like that big around,” said Mr. Robinson, using his fingers to demonstrate how slender Mr. Indiana’s limbs had become. “The only thing big on him was his belly.”
Earlier this year, Ms. Rogers, the former publicist, made a report of elder abuse to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Mr. Brannan said state officials later interviewed Mr. Indiana, but no finding was ever announced. The state agency declined to comment. Mr. Thomas’s lawyer, Mr. Frumer, said in a statement that the “evidence will also show the high quality of care provided to Mr. Indiana by Mr. Thomas.”
Ms. Rogers is now helping the Farnsworth museum prepare a memorial service for Sept. 13, which would have been Mr. Indiana’s 90th birthday. Dozens of Mr. Indiana’s friends and associates from the art world are expected. Should the guest list include Mr. Thomas, the man who became the face of the artist in his later years and will be keeper of his flame in years to come?
“Heavens no,“ Ms. Rogers said when asked. “He kept us out from seeing Bob. Why would we invite him now?”
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