For many people, breathing is a natural, involuntary behavior. For Jeremy Thomley, it is a challenge and the inspiration for his art.
Thomley is a survivor of cystic fibrosis. Inherited by both parents who must also carry the recessive-gene, he was diagnosed at age 4. Symptoms include fluid build-up in the lungs and digestive tract, making breathing and digestion difficult.
Thomley, who has half of his lung capacity, contrasts his life with an astronaut. While an astronaut has an oxygen supply to breathe in outer space, Thomley has to wake every day and trust his lungs.
“Perhaps the biggest misconception about me is the illusion of independence,” said Thomley, adding that he always felt ashamed and insecure as a child about his medical condition. Self expression came in many forms, such as coloring his hair purple, wearing exotic clothes, and even vandalism and a night in jail.
“I had great parents and a wonderful support system that allowed me to be me,” he said. Doctors said the artist, now 36, was only predicted to live one year. He’s now defying the odds in many ways.
In 2005, Thomley discovered a love of rock climbing. He loved climbing in Africa, but his favorite trip has been Venezuela. By traveling all over the world, he discovered that high elevations and tactile sensitivity to the Earth increased his lung capacity.
“I was doing breathing treatments from portable solar panels and climbing hard with 65 percent lung function” he said.
Thomley’s best friend and business partner, Daniel Bell, said Thomley is brave. “He looks like he is dancing with gravity when he is up doing his thing,” Bell said. “He has no fears.”
Not only is this a dangerous hobby; Thomley is usually days away from a hospital, which could be deadly.
In 2006, his art was sparked by fire, literally. He began using welded- sculpture as his voice, welding iron rods around glass lungs to illustrate how fragile his lungs are.
“Breath is the currency we use to buy movement,” he said. “I needed to document this steely grip on breath that won’t let go.”
A local art gallery in his hometown, Hattiesburg, hosted an exhibition of his work. The mediums he used to create pieces are clay, glass, wood and film. A production company made a small documentary about his life and new found passion for climbing.
Thomley has created many extraordinary, commissions, including a 10,000 lbs., 33-ft. Yeti for a Park City, Utah business; a 900 lbs. comedy/tragedy mask for William Carey College in Hattiesburg; and a 6,000 lbs., 9 ft. sign for a corporate office in Columbia, Mississippi.
Thomley is now working on his family tree farm in a converted barn that houses a personalized 30 ft. climbing wall, his lung-art in various shades of blown glass with different elements of iron, and his glass-blowing kilns.
Thomley; his wife, Lindsey Thomley; and business partner, Daniel Bell, have opened a new business, Mohawk Steel Co. Thomley and Daniel lead glass-blowing classes there. From local elementary school children on field-trips to Couple’s Night Out, they can accommodate any occasion.
“We found a niche that no one else was providing in this area,” said Lindsey Thomley. “For Couples Night Out, we include either a jazz or blues band, and we have dinner catered.”
Harry Richardson began working with Jeremy in his shop in 2014. He and Jeremy have been friends since high school, and he is working almost 20 hours a week to help with anything Jeremy needs.
“We’ve been friends a long time, and I admire his love and passion for his art and his strength to keep going,” Richardson said. Together, they have created over 50 sculptures displayed throughout Hattiesburg.
For a lifetime, Thomley has faced an uphill struggle. From living with an incurable disease since birth to rock climbing his way around the world, he has managed to survive and thrive.
A 2000 University of Southern Mississippi Art School graduate, he discovered a way to remain alive, healthy, and showcase his art in a way that brings awareness about cystic fibrosis.
“It’s as easy as breathing,” Thomley said.