With a radiant smile and outstretched arms coming in for a hug, the young girl’s face was the picture of pure joy.

Barbara Thomas had never met the girl, who lived in Kenya and had been photographed during an Indianapolis couple’s mission trip to Africa. But even from thousands of miles away, Thomas was impacted by the warmth in the child’s expression.

Other photographs inspired the same passion.

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“I was just so enthralled by the pictures of the people. They were just so amazing to look at; the expressions, the emotions. You could just read their faces to know what they were feeling,” she said.

Thomas, a Center Grove area artist, has created a new series of paintings inspired by the photographs of missionary Carol Polley. Together, the work makes up Journey of the Heart, an exhibition showcasing the work of Polley’s ministry as well as Thomas’ talent.

They will host a one-night showing of the work, with the paintings accompanied by Polley’s words regarding each scene, Saturday at Grace Assembly in New Whiteland.

“I felt like I’ve kind of found my niche. I’ve really enjoyed painting something that felt like it meant something,” Thomas said.

Thomas has painted for most of her life, attending Illinois Wesleyan University to major in fine art. Her career was in interior design, but she never lost interest in painting as an outlet for her creativity.

For the past 15 years, she has been working with watercolor paints. She discovered it after taking a class with Bev Mathis at the Southside Art League, transitioning from oil paints from that point forward.

“I’ve never put myself out there. I’ve entered shows and had some work in shows and hanging in businesses. But I’ve never had a solo show.”

“I did all kinds of subject matter — landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, animals. But I never really felt satisfied that I was where I wanted to be,” she said.

Thomas found true inspiration about one year ago after a conversation with Polley, one of her close friends.

Polley and her husband, David, started Increase Ministries to reach adults and children in new ways and engage them about Christianity. The Indianapolis couple’s most visible ministry is using the power of laughter and clowns to awaken people’s faith in a fun way.

In December, Polley had invited some people to her home following a mission trip to Kenya. The get-together was an opportunity to see photographs from the excursion.

With each smiling face that Thomas saw from the trip, she became more interested in capturing their joy. Polley provided some of the photographs for Thomas to paint, and the Journey of the Heart project was born.

Thomas painted a selection of the people, locations and wildlife that Polley encountered on her trips.

Each painting depicts a different country around the world: Kenya, Cuba, Ghana. To go with each work of art, Polley contributed a one-page sheet of explanation, telling the stories behind each one.

“We started talking about a way that each of us would benefit from this — her mission project and my painting. That culminated into this art show,” Thomas said. “I told her I’m just vicariously traveling through her.”

The exhibition will be held in the church’s cafe and meeting place, called the Hub. Thomas plans to show not only this new series of mission-inspired paintings, but some of her earlier work as well.

Hors d’ouevres and coffee will be served, and Johnny Garrison, a pastor at Lakeview Church in Indianapolis and an accomplished pianist, will perform music during the event. Near the close of the evening, Garrison will perform a short concert of patriotic music in recognition of Veterans Day.

Prints of the paintings will be available, and the proceeds will support Increase Ministries.

“We hope we can help support their work, and then I’m hoping to get more exposure as an artist,” Thomas said. “I’ve never put myself out there. I’ve entered shows and had some work in shows and hanging in businesses. But I’ve never had a solo show.”

If you go

Journey of the Heart

What: An exhibition of paintings by Center Grove area artist Barbara Thomas, inspired by the photographs of missionary Carol Polley.

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Hub at Grace Assembly, 6822 N. US 31, New Whiteland

Benefits: Prints of Thomas’ work will be available for purchase, with proceeds going to benefit Polley’s mission group, Increase Ministries.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.