Thomas "Detour" Evans has become a Denver icon. And the city has been lucky to watch the evolution of this artist. He has exhibited in galleries and bars; his outdoor murals can be found along I-70 and in nooks throughout the RiNo Art District; he's an Instagram star.
More recently, Detour has gained international pop-cultural recognition, and it all started with an email he nearly ignored.
This past March, Evans landed an artist-in-residency spot at La Napoule Art Foundation in France, a short drive from Cannes and Nice. The foundation has its U.S. headquarters at Denver's RedLine Contemporary Center, where Evans is a resident.
During his stay in France, Evans received an message with the easy-to-ignore subject line "Netflix Opportunity," which he initially thought was spam. “I got an email about a networking opportunity. I thought it was just a LinkedIn message,” the artist says with a smile. But Evans checked the message the following day and realized the opportunity before him.
Netflix had reached out with a proposal regarding the company's new show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman. The company asked for two portraits — one of the late-night legend and the other of his upcoming guest, hip-hop mogul Jay-Z. Evans would also have to provide video of himself creating the pieces. One hiccup: Evans had no professional video equipment.
So he used his iPhone and borrowed a GoPro, and captured the step-by-step process of painting Jay-Z and Letterman with help from a fellow resident. In five short days, he finished both paintings and sent them off for approval.
“Whenever I do a commission piece, I wonder, ‘Will they accept this?’” says Evans. “Not because I don’t think it’s good, but it's a business that has very specific demands. But they knew the work that I do, that I have colors everywhere; it’s not a typical realistic project.”
Luckily, the process was easy and the team “loved it the way it was.” A few days after completing the project, Evans made it back to the states just in time for the episode to air.
“I didn’t know it was going to be that big,” Evans admits.
When the episode premiered this past April, Letterman changed his profile photo on both Facebook and Instagram to Evans's colorful portrait and tagged the artist.
“I was featured on Fox31 and 9News," Evans says. "I’ve received a lot more engagement online and commission work. It was a really good response.”
Currently, both canvases are on display at Netflix’s FYSEE event in L.A. and will eventually return to the care of Evans.
“Once it was all said and done, I asked them how they found me, and they said through Instagram. I was like, ‘Oh, social media does work!’”
This was not the first time Evans has received national acclaim. His 2016 series combining DNA mapping, African relics and photography, They Still Live, received a shout-out from the Huffington Post. Late last year, Evans was recognized as the Denver regional winner of the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series; that led him to exhibit his work at the internationally prestigious art market Art Basel.
With all this new recognition, will Evans leave Denver? Worry not: He's here for the long run.
“Denver has room to grow when it comes to the creative practice. There’s room to carve out your own space, rather than going to a larger city and having to network your way in. Plus, I like the Denver pride, so I want Denver to be a place that is known for an artist making it,” says Evans.
Invested in the community, Evans and his fellow residents at RedLine are inspiring the next generation of artists. One of the art center's current projects, the EPIC Arts Program, teamed up residents from the gallery with K-12 schools all across the metro area. Evans worked with students at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, creating works about social justice, which are on display at RedLine until June 3.
Nowadays Evans is busy at his studio, experimenting with interactive installations, or hitting the streets, painting murals nationwide, including a recent piece in Memphis. In June, the artist plans to travel for yet another residency, this time to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Around town, you can find Evans’s latest mural, hidden on the back patio of Meadowlark Kitchen. A photo of it has already racked up 6,000 views on Instagram.
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If there's such a thing as "making it" in the art world, Evans has done that. Even his follies are treasured by his fans.
To keep up with his evolving body of work, Evans constantly trashes works and repaints his murals a few times a year.
“A while back, I threw out a plexiglas piece I was working on," he recalls. "I wasn’t feeling how it came out. The next day, someone hit me up on Instagram with a photo of it in their apartment, saying they had an original Detour work. I was like, ‘What? People are dumpster diving for art?”
Follow Evans on Instagram @detour303.