Like so many people trying to make a living on their creativity, Mark Thibeault has his brushes in a lot of jars.
“It’s funny that being in the creative fields as we are, you really have to do whatever you can to stay in the creative field and you still have to do other things to support that, but your feet are still firmly planted in the arts,” he said.
But is he a multi-instrumentalist who paints and makes guitars, or an artist who plays music and builds instruments, or a luthier who makes art and teaches music?
The short answer is all of the above.
The long answer is more philosophical.
“All those arts come from the same centre within me, I think it’s just the mechanics that are different,” he said.
“I wouldn’t consider one over the other, I think it’s all there, it’s just however I decide to express myself at a given time.”
In any event, Thibeault’s prowess in all of his creative endeavours is undeniable.
As a musician, he has toured the world and recorded with numerous artists.
As an artist, he regularly exhibits, has secured representation in the United Kingdom and is now featured in a prestigious, curated collection “of the world’s most exciting artists.”
As a luthier, his company, Rayco Resophonics, has been lauded by Acoustic Guitar magazine as making “the ultimate squareneck resonator guitar.
Thibeault was born and raised in Belle River, Ontario, a small farming community near Windsor, where his father Raymond and most of his family were employed by the automobile industry.
“It’s a really cool place to grow up, because you go across the Ambassador Bridge and you’re in Detroit,” he said. “We’d go over there a few times a year just to go see concerts.”
He recalls always having been surrounded by creativity, particularly his mother, Janice.
“She was always creative, she was always doing crafts and drawing and redecorating our rooms with Peter Pan paintings and whatever,” he said. “She was always really, really creative in that way and I always found inspiration from that.”
He credits his father with passing on the gift of music.
“He was hugely supportive, absolutely loved music, and just really had joie de vivre,” Thibeault said.
“He just really was a very kind person, he just really loved life. This is a guy who had open heart surgery and then three days later he’s walking us to the elevator and making jokes and stuff. I get a hangnail and I’m whining, but I never heard him complain about it.”
Thibeault discovered guitar when he was 12 at an aunt’s house. There was a Kent electric guitar and little Darius amplifier in a closet and he was fascinated by it.
“I was always socially awkward, so at family gatherings you’d always find me in the back room playing music or listening to music or something,” he said.
Eventually his mother made a deal with the aunt to buy the guitar and amp. He took it everywhere, including his junior high school, where he said he felt like a star because nobody else played guitar.
“Because I’ve always been kind of a reclusive person, that’s been a safe place for me, in music, it’s just where I’ve always felt comfortable,” he said. “I’d rather go to a dance and be in the band than on the dance floor.”
By high school, Thibeault knew his future lay in the arts and opted to go to Belle River High School where they had a prominent visual arts program.
“All my friends were going to St. Anne’s, or a lot of my friends, but I knew with this visual arts thing at Belle River, I knew that’s where I needed to be.”
After graduating high school, Thibeault followed the crowd and went to work for GM building parts for transmissions.
“If you weren’t working at GM, Chrysler or Ford, you were in one of the feeder industries,” he said.
After work, he gigged with what people would now call a “classic rock” band and later a new country band. His friends questioned why he was building cars.
“While I was there I would have friends come out to see me playing in bands on the weekends and they would just really try to talk me into doing something else,” he said.
Four years into his automotive career, Thibeault was granted a leave of absence from the company. The idea was that he would go to university in some kind of field related to the car business.
“I ended up travelling out west and ended up just falling in love with it,” he said.
When he got back he was no longer sure he wanted to stay in the automotive industry and decided to enrol in the music program at the University of Windsor. To prepare, he took some classical guitar lessons and learned two pieces for the audition.
“I was late for the audition, because I was held up by a train, and I was so nervous that my hands were shaking,” he recalled.
“You have to go into the auditorium and walk down the stairs, past seven professors and give them all your sheet music, because it’s a classical music program, and get down on the stage and do this and my hands were shaking.”
Nevertheless, they accepted him with the provision that he take a couple of preparatory classes, one of which was a visual arts class.
“When I was in the life drawing course, I thought, this is where it’s at, this is what I want to do,” he said.
It was during his studies, however, he discovered the interconnectedness of music and art. By third and fourth year he was creating abstract soundscapes with some other musicians at the school.
“It was all there, I was in the visual arts department, but I was working with other visual artists doing soundscapes and that sort of thing,” he explained. “Maybe that’s what informed me that there was really no division, it’s just about expression.”
His graduation piece, entitled “Soundworks” embodied that philosophy and he sees the same things in the abstract expressionist paintings he is currently creating.
“It was four monitors in a room and I had different loops at different speeds and to me it was just as visual,” he explained.
“You walked into this room and there was this music that was swirling around you at different speeds and at different rates and sometimes it would sync up and it would harmonize together and the next time around it would be a call and answer thing, the next time around it would be totally discordant.”
He compares that to a recent painting displayed in his studio entitled “Leaving the Fair.”
“To me this is just as musical as that was visual,” he said.
“There’s a lot of different crescendos and resting places, it’s solemn, it’s got a bunch of different emotions in it.”
GO WEST YOUNG MAN
After graduating in 1993 with a visual arts and drawing bachelor’s degree, the future was not so clear.
“At that time painting was seen as dead and I didn’t know what to do with a visual arts degree and I ended up going on to doing other things like playing music, started recording and touring,” he explained.
While playing in a band in Windsor, an old friend who had moved to Vancouver offered him a job in a blues band he was forming in Vancouver. Having always wanted to go back to the west, Thibeault felt like he had to do it.
That is where serendipity stepped in. The band was not really flying and Thibeault found himself in need of a job. He had seen an advertisement for a pump repairing business. Having had some experience in the past repairing medical pumps, he headed over to drop off his resume.
But he missed the address.
“I looked up and there’s the Larrivée guitar factory sign and there’s acoustic guitars, 30 of them, in the parking lot flashing off, because they’d just been sprayed and they’d take them outside in Vancouver in the summer to flash off,” he explained.
Thibeault still gets chills thinking about it because of something that had happened to him just prior to leaving Windsor three months earlier.
He was sitting by the Detroit River with a friend explaining that he didn’t know what to do with himself. The friend asked if Thibeault had ever thought about building guitars and produced a Larrivée from a guitar case he had with him.
Thibeault said he had thought about building guitars, but had no idea how to go about getting into the business.
And now, here he was, accidentally standing in front of the Larrivée factory.
I talked to Jean Larrivée and I said, ‘I’ll take any job you’ve got, I’ll sweep the floors, I don’t care, I just want to get in here and learn this’,” he recalled.
With a little persistence, two weeks later he was binding guitar bodies and later carving necks. After six years he was a senior manager, having learned every aspect of the business.
It was during that time, he met the Bulkley Valley’s own Jenny Lester when a western swing band he was working with advertised for a multi-instrumentalist. They would later marry.
Thibeault said the first time they came to the valley to visit Lester’s family, he knew it was the place for him.
When Larrivée decided to move a large part of the operation to California, Thibeault was ready for a change.
A GUITAR IS BORN
In 2000, the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou? was a massive hit, which created a surge in popularity of resonating guitars (formerly known as Dobros, after the brand name).
“It was huge for bluegrass music industry,” Thibeault explained. “It just generated all kinds of interest in the instruments that were making those sounds in that movie.
“There was nobody that was building a resophonic guitar in an accessible price range, that’s why I had to build one because I couldn’t afford 35 hundred bucks for a resophonic guitar.”
“I worked at Larrivée for seven years and I thought, ‘well, why can’t we just make one?’”
So, Thibeault started the first one before he left Larrivée in 2001 and moved to the Bulkley Valley. His partner, Jason Friesen, finished it and the Rayco Resophonic Guitar was born.
“It was really well-received,” Thibeault recalled. “People kept contacting us; we just kind of got in at the right time.”
While establishing Rayco as a luxury guitar maker and himself as an artist in the valley, Thibeault was also playing with Jenny and her mother (and Interior News columnist) Sonja Lester. On a tour to Whitehorse, he met the guys from the Juno award-nominated band Undertakin Daddies.
The following winter they offered him a chance to tour the world.
Meanwhile Thibeault and Undertakin Daddies mandolin player Bob Hamilton were also backing up Jenny Lester, which would lead to the formation of the Bulkley Valley-based band Hungry Hill, which also toured in the U.S., Europe and Australia.
His gig with Hungry Hill continued on after his five years with the Undertakin Daddies, but Hungry Hill also eventually dissolved by the 2010s, as did Thibeault’s and Lester’s marriage.
THE CYCLE OF ART
Prior to COVID-19, Thibeault had been scheduled to tour with Mark Perry, but all those gigs got cancelled. He looks forward, though, to getting back on stage when conditions permit.
Rayco has also been scaled back significantly. With Friesen moving on, Thibeault now builds about a half dozen guitars a year and repairs instruments in his workshop in Telkwa.
He also teaches guitar and bass a couple of days a week out of a shared studio in the Central Park Building in Smithers.
But just as musical pursuits have taken a bit of a downturn, Thibeault is seeing an upswing in his visual art career.
“I think 2020, people with these handheld devices, they could visit galleries, people were starting to turn inward to these devices in our hands,” he said. “I think that opened up things for visual artists.”
Thibeault noticed a few art galleries from the U.K. and New York had started following him on Instagram. So, he started putting out feelers.
One gallery in London, England, NoonPowell Fine Art, appeared to be a particularly good fit.
After working through the initial challenges presented by the pandemic, Thibeault and gallerist Rachael Noon-Powell came to an agreement and he is now a featured artist there.
Douglas King, the editor of the Art Folio Annual 2021 was also an Instagram follower, so when the call went out last year for submissions, Thibeault sent five pieces, two of which were accepted.
The 210-page coffee table book is now available on Amazon and features Thibeault’s piece “Confluence” a 40-inch by 40-inch artwork in mixed-media including acrylic, ink and wax pencil on stretched raw canvas
He is also currently creating pieces for the Affordable Art Fair an online international event running from April 9 to May 3.
He also has a physical exhibition opening at the Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George today (March 18).
Thibeault currently lives in a modest home in Telkwa with his second wife Amanda Anderson-Thibeault, a home care support worker with Northern Health.