Thom Reaves is a New Jersey-based artist who has a two-fold mission.  He creates and expresses himself through his art, but he also shares joy.  Not many artists embrace joy so publicly, but that’s what makes Thom and his work so unique.  Check out our cool chat and learn more …

“…It is not my place to express the darkness. I don’t want people to experience those places which I do not want experience myself … My job personally and as an artist is to bring the light of life … that is my philosophy of what I’ve been given this gift for.”

MICHAEL: Hello Thom!  First off, your paintings seem to be very playful and they provoke a sense of happiness.  What's it all about for you?  Is there a message that you're trying to convey?

THOM: Regarding my art being happy, it is very much intentional. I must admit that even before I formed a personal philosophy about my art, I felt almost compelled to weave a feeling of happiness or joy into it. My reasons are two-fold: My art is both an action and a reaction. My art comes from my personal battles. I wrestle with Bipolar illness, a mood disorder which sweeps one from extreme highs, called mania, to extreme lows, called depression. It is a literal life and death illness for me and as such, it has pushed me, in reaction, to find joy inside myself. Upon finding it, allowing it to well up and come to the surface.
I normally have a very happy disposition, but the periodic lows of depression can be very low. I feel however, that it is not my place to express the darkness. I don’t want people to experience those places which I do not want experience myself.  There are plenty of other people in this world expressing their dark places already. My job personally and as an artist is to bring the light of life. This is the action springing from the reaction. I guess that is my philosophy of what I’ve been given this gift for. I guess once I consciously formed this view, I found that it was automatically a part of me already – so that I don’t have to purposely do it; it automatically shows up in my art. The message  I would say I’m trying to convey is a dialogue between the viewer and the painting where the viewer can actually feel the joy exuding from the work, and in a sense, let it change them, lighten them and, like a mirror, reflect it back at the work; creating an interplay - a circle of joy.

MICHAEL: You know, so many people equate happiness with being lightweight and not very serious. They think that only darkness and gloom can really be profound and meaningful.  What do you think about this?

THOM: I think those people are wrong. And I’d ask, how can something so integral to our lives not be profound? By happiness, I don't mean silliness. I believe it is a sense of well-being, contentment and optimism which affects every part of your body as well as those around you. And you can feel that from looking at art. I hope that that can be gotten from mine. I wouldn’t call that lightweight at all. I’d call it lightening; and that lightening is meaningful.
I think anything can be profound if that profundity is found in the lesson learned from it. I believe darkness and gloom are merely good for the sake of comparison. I have learned lessons from my own personal down times, but those lessons learned are in relation to the up ones and are discovered when outside the dark times while in the light ones – like hindsight.

MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family?  When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist?  When did you decide to actually pursue it seriously?

THOM:  Yes, I am from an artistic family. My father has always been a craftsman. Over the years, he’s created many objects, creations in wood, acrylic sculptures, toys, even what he called “Disco Belts” in the 70’s. My brother could always draw. My younger sister created dyed silk scarves for awhile and her daughter, an eleven year old, with her mom’s help, has a business making hand-made jewelry, which she makes herself. As they say, “I got it honestly.”
I first became aware of myself as an artist when I was very young; I’m not sure what age. I was born with a crayon in my hand. I knew I was going to be an artist when I grew up. I knew it. And I was always encouraged in it by my parents and family. My father would bring home computer paper from his job for me to draw on; my grandmother would let me have the cardboard that came in her packages of stockings to draw on. I made three dimensional trucks and paper dolls - front and back. (I still have the collection of my paper dolls and I’m thinking of publishing a book of them). I sat in front of the TV and drew the cartoon characters. I even began drawing the news anchors on the TV news. I took summer art classes; I was always in the art room at our local Boys Club. My parents always let me create and be surrounded with art.
My father was a driver and I used to go on trips with him. I would always get into the maps because they had gas station logos on them. I was fascinated with these logos for some reason, especially Phillips 66, because that was the year I was born. But I would draw them – each one I could, while having my ubiquitous paper and pencil in hand, which there always had to be ample supply of when we rode.

When my brother and I were young, (he’s six years older than me, so I was about 10 years old) he painted the phrase “Steelers #1” on the wall over my bed. Next he painted a large picture of the comic characters, “The Lockhorns.” I wanted to draw on the wall too. My bed was lengthwise against the wall, so I could draw on it while lying down. This was about the time I had first started collecting comic books. I began to draw all the comic book superheroes I knew running across the wall. I think I drew them from the head of my bed almost down to the foot of it. (Come to think of it, when the room was remodeled, a layer of sheetrock was attached right over the top of that wall, so the drawings are still there underneath). These all were the seeds of my life as an artist.
I guess the decision to actually pursue my art seriously came at the time I chose the college I would attend. I say I virtually had no say in the matter because my guidance counselor, knowing what an excellent school it was, told me that if I got into Pratt Institute, that’s where I’ll be going. That’s the time when I was officially on the road to becoming an artist. Now, I took some turns along the way, not knowing which direction of art I was going to take.  In fact, I didn’t start painting until 2000, but here I am – a painter, doing what I knew I'd do all along and actually being what I knew I'd be all along.

MICHAEL: What was art school like?  How are you different as a result of going to art school?

THOM: Art school was glorious! It was an amazing time in my life. There was so much to learn. Funny thing is, I didn’t like painting at the time. It held no interest for me. I was very much oriented toward graphic design, which was my major. I look back on my foundation year and I was so young and naïve. It was my first time being on my own and living in New York City and exposed to everything; new people, new forms of art, art history, museums (the only museum I ever knew up to that time was the NJ State Museum, which isn’t what I’d call an art museum). I learned about the entirety of art and what it encompasses. It was all so new.   My years as an upperclassman were more focused on communications and design. These were the years where I was taught how to think; how, when presented with a design problem, to get past the obvious and push through to come up with new ideas. It was called “Getting Past the Junk.”  This was stressed, especially with things like logo design, which I didn’t quite get the hang of at first. Now I find them quite enjoyable to design. I learned about letters and typography, which we had to learn how to draw by hand. This was before computers (in the ancient times). Typography was probably one of the most important things I learned about at school because I use typography in so much of my artwork.

MICHAEL: So, what brought you to where you are now?

THOM: What I consider to be the decisive moment, that set the direction to what I do now, was my exposure to the works of the poster artist and designer A.M. Cassandre, who was a major force in the 20’s and the 30’s. My professor, the artist, Edward Lazansky, brought in four of Cassandre’s posters: Pathé (one of which I own), L’Atlantique, Normandie and Grand Quinzane Tennis. They visually communicate their message instantly; which is the aim of the poster. It was like, “Bingo! That’s it! I want to do that!” That’s when I fell in love with his work and it is the main reason I paint poster images today. Communicating a message through an image and typography I never cease to find fascinating and fun. This is why I use the vehicle of the poster to express my art.

MICHAEL: And so, how did art school change you?

THOM: I would say I am different as a result of art school by knowledge; about art history and movements which influence my art and even movements that don’t. I’m different in the way I see, such as how influential and powerful visual communication is on people and their lives and how I use that knowledge.  It’s this knowledge that underpins my use of things like smiles in my work; knowing that a smile can induce a smile in return. I guess overall, the learning I received in art school affected my view of art and the world. I heard a phrase once, “Even bad art is still art.”  I consider that to be a profound statement because it provokes questions like, “So what makes art good or bad.” Before art school, I would have thought of something as just being ugly. When I became educated, it opened my eyes and I could look beneath the surface.

MICHAEL: Yes, I totally understand.  I also love the graphic, poster-like nature of your work.  How would you say New York City has influenced your work and what you do?

THOM: Thank you Michael.  I’m glad you like it.  New York City is like those things – I think they call them paddles (defibrillators), that hospitals use to shock someone’s heart to beating when it stops. New York is like that to me. I love it! I love going there. I love being there, eating there and just walking around there. Plus there are so many things you can get in New York that you can’t get anywhere else.   As far as influencing my work, there are things like style, fashion, sophistication and cosmopolitan-ness which show up in my work from time to time, as well as allusions to city street scenes, but I think New York has more of an influence in the creation of my work more so than showing up in my work directly. When I go to New York City, as I live not that far away, my mind comes to life again. There is an energy there which goes right to my brain and opens up my imagination to totally new ideas, thoughts and projects. Every so often, I go through phases of self-doubt. Going to New York, when I see certain things that seem way out there or crazy, kind-of frees me up in my far-out ideas and subliminally gives me permission to do them. It’s like, “Well, if they can do that, then I certainly can do this.” Yeah, NYC - It’s an idea generator for me.

MICHAEL: Absolutely.  What do you think about the art world and how it functions today?  So many living artists are trying to make it as full-time artists while deceased, famous artists are thriving.

THOM: Michael, there’s nothing worse than a person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about who keeps on talking, so I couldn’t tell you what’s going on in the “The Art World” or be able to tell you how it functions these days.

I can only tell you what’s going on in MY art world and what I see from here in my immediate view.   Although I don’t have a big picture view of the art world, I do see plenty of artists hustling to “make it” in whatever way they define making it. We don’t always hear about them (for the starving artist myth is still going strong), but there are many artists who do make a living from their art and are thriving. Some of these artists will get famous, but I don’t think that as artists, we all crave fame.

The famous, dead artists will remain famous and their selling prices will keep going up, but I think what the majority of us working artists today want through our art, is to do what we love, have other people love it too and to earn an income that supports us in a lifestyle we dream of. I think fame is many times incidental. Now, it may sound counter to what I just said, but I must admit, I want a kind of fame – the kind where many people know my work and want it, but I don’t crave that mega-stardom such as a Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst or Takashi Murakami.  

In our striving to do our art full time, I know there are ways in which we can greatly advance our careers that lead to our dreams. One thing is to know the business end of our careers. I think many more artists would make it if they took the time to learn the business side of their business as well as they learn their craft. There are plenty of programs that artists can take to help us learn our business. I’m taking one now. In the meantime, many of us have to work a full or part-time job. We have to pay the bills. I happen to have the great fortune of holding both a full-time job as an artist as well as my own art career. Until the latter affords me the luxury of sustainable income, I’ll keep on with the 9-5, which for me, is helping my career in that I’m not as stressed out just to survive when I produce my art. Though, maybe being in the fire of having to sell my art to live might be a good thing. I’ll have to think about that one.  

Our success is made up of different components. It’s all about generating income. We have to do more than one thing with our art, like making prints of our work or teaching classes. Another thing I’m doing that other artists can do is to get into licensing their works. I have a contract with ACME Studio, who produces luxury writing pens and card cases with my images on them. I also have a contract with A.D. Lines, a licensing agent who deals with my images for home décor. These kinds of things help artists to move closer to their dreams. I think it just takes time – time to work hard, time to get better and time to build your reputation. We living artists can thrive just as much as the dead ones.

MICHAEL: Fantastic.  Finally Thom, what's the point of art?  It's not a cure for cancer or an end to homelessness.  Why should people care?

THOM: Hmm, the point of art.  That’s a very hard question because art means so many things to so many different people. Maybe there is no one point of art. Each artist creates his or her art from something inside which pushes him to create and that art’s purpose for being created lies with the artist. That’s its point. Now, separate from what was intended in its creation, there is the result of a piece of art.

Now I’m going into idealist mode. To use your example, art may not be a cure for cancer or an end to homelessness, but it can be used toward finding a cure or ending that situation. As much as art affects intangible things, like someone’s mood, its tangible aspects, such as the monetary value of a work can be invested in those organizations or processes which work toward ending cancer or homelessness or some other ill. The amount of money which changes hands in this country, even for art, is incredible. If a portion of that went to organizations or groups which are doing good things to help someone, there’s no telling what just we artists could accomplish.

There’s something in the Bible about giving back a tithe; one-tenth of what comes to you. A consistent one-tenth adds up quickly and can do amazing things. I’ve seen it happen. So then, I guess art is like a tree with spreading branches; it’s created with the artist’s purpose, which is one branch, its effect on the viewer is another. It’s appreciation by a client who purchases it, giving it monetary value, is a branch too, and then an investing of a portion of that commerce creates its own branch of value. So, I guess there’s the point of art; it is one big picture made up of a bunch of small ones. Art can affect everyone, so that’s why people should care.

MICHAEL: Thanks Thom. Very cool chat. I enjoyed it.

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