Meet Duquesne’s first female photojournalist from 1951

Courtesy of Kay Thomas | Kay Thomas's Sumi-e art work.

Naomi Girson | Staff Writer

On her first day studying journalism in 1951, aspiring photographer Kathryn Dowling was told by the editor of The Duquesne Duke, not to expect much.

“There has never been a girl on the staff of The Duke and there never will be,” the editor said.

Kathryn, now known as Kay Thomas, was a shy young woman but did not let that comment discourage her.

She vowed to prove him wrong.

“I promised myself there would be some changes in the journalism department,” Kay said.

By the end of her four years at Duquesne, she was The Duke’s photojournalist and a trailblazer for women attempting to pursue journalism, which at the time was a male-dominated field.

Since Kay can remember, she has kept a camera with her at all times. According to Kay’s daughter, Austin Thomas, Kay received her first camera at 10 years old and has been surrounded by art her whole life. Between her, her mother and her daughter, artistic talent spans three generations.

Kay grew up in Mount Washington and attended a small Catholic high school. She commuted to Duquesne and claimed she was even able to ride the incline to campus. She majored in journalism and graduated in 1955.

During her time at Duquesne, Kay was never without her camera. She took photos of sporting events and music groups – wherever she was able to snap a picture, she would. She spent lots of late nights in the newsroom with her editorial staff, as well as much time in the darkroom developing her photos.

Kay moved from Pittsburgh to New York right after college graduation and never looked back. She said that she read an of Seventeen glamorizing New York when she was in eighth grade and decided right then that she would live there when she was older.

While living in New York, Kay met her husband, Grant Thomas, when they were both members of the Greenwich Village Camera Club. The club was a great outlet for both of them to be creative with their passion.

As Kay continued pursuing photography, while working in several fields, including teaching art classes and working at an advertising company, she learned about Sumi-e, a Japanese art style that uses ink dissolved in water to paint subjects in various shades of black.

Kay became infatuated with Sumi-e and according to Austin Thomas, her Sumi-e art and her black and white photography are inexplicably connected.

“There’s a link with this black and white photography and its fluidity that Kay might have embraced being on The Duke to then learning Sumi-e in New York City,” Austin said.

With all of Kay’s passion for art, especially the Sumi-e, she became well-traveled, spending time studying many forms of art in China, Japan and Taiwan.

Kay went on to teach and mentor others as they learned the wonders of Sumi-e, just as she had.

Her formal teaching did not cease until she was 80 years old.

“It meant so much to me, what I did, what I enjoyed, I liked teaching other people, so I stuck with it because I liked it, and I figured I liked teaching other people and seeing them turn into photographers and artists,” Kay said. “It was satisfying.”

Today, she still spends her time sketching in her notebook, drawing whatever she feels inclined to draw that day.

Kay’s passion for Sumi-e led her to join the Sumi-e Society of America, and what’s more, she founded the Midwest chapter.

According to a former president of Sumi-e Midwest, Regina Siske, there are currently over two dozen members in the chapter.

“It all started with Kay, she was the springboard because she was my teacher, my first teacher [of Sumi-e],” Siske said. “You stepped into a new world, and it felt challenging, but Kay was a teacher.”

The two met at one of Kay’s art classes in the botanical gardens in Chicago. Siske loved having her as a teacher and learning the art of Sumi-e was met with nothing but encouragement and enthusiasm. Siske describes Kay as curious and passionate with a zest for the work.

Kay’s artwork and photography have been shown in her daughter’s gallery in New York, Pocket Utopia, as well as other galleries in Washington, DC, in both individual and group exhibits.

“She never misses a day of drawing in her sketchbook,” Austin said. “It seemed like Duquesne was really seminal in giving her her gospel [art and photography].”