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"After 5 years of painting portraits of Indigenous People, musicians, pets and icons my work is beginning to mature. I am now working more from my own models and photos and love the freedom it’s allowed me. Generally my compositions are of tightly cropped faces, often looking at the viewer, or exaggerated foreshortening but I believe it is the use of extraordinarily bold color that most distinguishes my work. Acrylic on gallery wrapped canvas is my chosen medium but recently I have been experimenting with mixed media as well. My hope is that my work will leave you feeling hopeful, inspired, happy and energized."


A bit about me...

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Thea McKay McElvy was born and raised in an old Alabama cotton mill town on the central Georgia border. Its people, descended from red clay farmers, could earn a respectable wage then, weaving towels and sheets to pay for once-a-year vacations on the beaches of the Florida panhandle or in the cool mountains of North Georgia. It was steady work, until the world changed and the old behemoth factories fell silent. Former doffers and weavers watched their mill villages teeter on the edge of becoming ghost towns, watched their way of life fade into history, watched friends and family move away or spend hours driving to work in more prosperous towns and cities. 

Art instruction was not high on the list for the public schools Thea attended. They were more focused on training students to be technicians or managers for the mills. Formal art lessons were limited to a summer ceramic class taught by a volunteer or mimeographed coloring pages to be colored in the lines with a Crayola 8-pack. 

But for Thea, the need to express herself through art was part of her DNA. Her great grandmother, Vera, was a self-taught artist who covered the walls of her home, floor to ceiling, with her depictions of landscapes and religious themes. Thea’s mother, LaFaye, honed the talent inherited from her grandmother  through correspondence courses in art. She sketched to entertain her children, and created beautiful slices of Americana for the bulletin boards in her aunt’s first grade class. 

Thea’s innate creative impulses were relentless, and rebellious. She ignored instructions she was given for arts and crafts projects so she could learn through experimentation and express her individual vision. She played in any medium she could access: fabric art, performance, kaleidoscopes, sketching and painting, even cake art. No matter the medium, the results were always bold, colorful, and whimsical.

2003 was a turning point for Thea’s development as a serious artist. She was hired as an assistant to art teacher Becky Guinn at her alma mater, Valley High School. Working in art education, she learned techniques and thought that led her to a more professional approach to art, while never losing her curiosity and daring. 

She began to draw attention from fellow artists who recognized and encouraged her unique talent, and soon opportunities for a true career in the arts began coming her way. After 4 years in the art department at Valley High, she was named Education Director for the LaGrange Art Museum. Then, in 2010, she joined Sheltering Arms-Educare Atlanta as their first art teacher. Funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the early education center was a lab school housed in an Atlanta public school, offering birth through fifth grade education in one building. The art program was patterned after the world-renowned Reggio Emilia ateliers, with Thea as the atelierista leading children to build knowledge through artistic exploration, research, and invention.  

During a trip to Savannah, Georgia’s At Hun Gallery in 2014, Thea found new inspiration in the bright, provocative works of artists such as Chuck Hamilton, Steve Schuman, and Bill Colt. Their paintings led her to think about her use of bold color in new, out-of-the-box ways, evoking feeling, creating atmosphere, and bringing attention to the prismatic play of light others might miss in her subjects.

As a portrait artist, her work began to evolve into a style all her own. Her portraits can now be easily recognized by their energetic color, tightly cropped faces, image wrapped canvases, and frequent use of foreshortening. She chooses as subjects highly emotive faces that tell a story or reveal a character.

Thea’s unique portraits have earned eight awards including the People’s Choice Award in the Second LaGrange Southeast Regional. She has been in over 25 exhibits including the Rare Disease United Foundation “Beyond the Diagnosis” traveling exhibit and a spotlight at the Miss Alabama Fundraising Gala in Birmingham.


Thea has never left her home in Alabama along the Chattahoochee River. Remembering the lack of opportunity she found as a young artist growing up there, she now is a tireless arts advocate for the West Georgia/East Alabama area. She is a founding member of Visual Artists Alliance of LaGrange (VAAL), which she has served as president for the past six years. She also founded West Point Fine Arts to bring more art to her hometown. Through these two organizations, she encourages beginning and emerging artists, provides artists new opportunities to exhibit professionally, and increases public awareness of the arts locally. She is proud of the work she has done individually but it is her work with other artists, using the philosophy “we rise by lifting others”, that gives her the most satisfaction.


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