Denver artist Thomas "Detour" Evans has learned the business of art.
Known for colorful large-scale canvas portraits, public murals and, most recently, his interactive project The 5 Pointers, his impressive résumé ranges from the Crush Walls street art festival to prestigious international artist residencies.
As an active artist navigating the world of social media, he is often asked for advice by creatives. After four years of posting weekly career tips every Tuesday for creatives on his Instagram page, he decided to expand the posts into a book.
With help from Fulcrum Publishing, Evans released Be the Artist: The Interactive Guide to a Lasting Art Career on February 11. The book is an amalgamation of personal anecdotes, interviews with other creatives, answers to frequently asked questions, and resources for further education. We caught up with Evans ahead of several appearances in Colorado to discuss his new book.
Westword: Why did you decide to write a book?
Thomas Evans: It started off from a post I do on Instagram called Art Tip Tuesday. It was about four and a half years of doing it, and people kept asking where they could find the archives, and I didn’t have a specific place. I only started doing hashtags on those posts about two years ago.
So people kept asking me if I was going to write a book, and, you know, sometimes you just pass it off or procrastinate. But one of my friends actually reached out to a publisher for me. And I told them my idea, so they met with us, and basically, I pitched them my idea of these art tips in the form of a book — having the book be like some of these other art books, but more about the nuances, a lot of the stuff that artists are going through today, by a working artist. And having it like a workbook or a guide type of thing, as well. So it’s small, easily digestible, sort of like a resource guide. And they loved the idea, but I didn’t really have anything written at all, so it was basically just off of that pitch and the Instagram posts that I do every Tuesday that I was able to write the book.
It took about a year to get everything started and in their hands. It was just doing those Art Tip Tuesdays, and just trying to vomit out to a Word doc about everything I’ve been going through, and some of the most impactful tips I’ve been giving artists and the students that come through my studio — and really, it just came from there.
So is there a lot of overlap between what’s in the book and what was in the Art Tip Tuesday posts?
There’s a significant amount of overlap. I would say at the beginning, the first two and a half years, it was mostly about technique and process, and just a lot of hands-on sort of skill. But then it really got into a lot of the soft-skill areas of being an overall creative — because a lot of people that I know that get a lot from my posts are people from all backgrounds, so not just visual artists. Writers, comedians, actors — people who need advice in general.
A lot of the advice that I give nowadays can be translated into other areas of life, so having those tips that are a lot more broad, but a lot of the same things that I talk about. I would say it ventures into a lot of the nuances of being an artist. You don’t have to be a creative or an artist to really get something from that. Those are the tips that I sort of lean on more so today, because they reach a lot more people and you can use that in your studio practice and outside your studio practice, as well.
What sort of resources would a reader find in Be The Artist?
I did a ton of interviews with working artists and creatives, people who knew about the topics I was writing about. A lot of the insight is from myself, but then you have insight that comes from other individuals that you know, that you can find on Instagram, who are really, really experts in their own field.
The structure of the book is like [this]: The left side is more the text, and the right side is more the space where people can doodle and take notes. I thought that was super-important, to make it feel like a workbook, where you’re able to write into it.
So the right side has space to doodle, space to take notes, and then a section called “Your Googles,” where, some of the different sections have search terms that are relevant to that topic. So if I’m talking about something, I want to include search terms that you’re able to go to Google and look up, and that helps artists, and just people in general who read the book, learn how to research things for themselves.
The art world is not a cookie-cutter sort of thing, so you have to be adaptive in your local area or base it off your practice or the people around you. Learning how to research and figure things out yourself is one thing that I really wanted to do, so this Google search-terms section is something that I made sure I included in a lot of the different sections.
There’s quotes and homework, too — exercises you can do to help understand the topic a little more. And there’s questions to help you go over some of the things that I was talking about or reflect on some of the things I was talking about, and try and translate that to your own practice.
I even added reading and resources in the back. So in the couple last pages, I have a ton of resources that are available in terms of podcasts, documentaries, books, blog postings and other sorts of websites and organizations that artists can lean on or go to, to help add value to their practice or find residencies, studios, grants, podcasts that a lot of artists listen to.
It’s not all art-related. It sort of spans in terms of the type of content, but every one of those are, I guess, content that other artists have digested to help with their practice. So when I was doing interviews, I talked to individuals about what they listen to or are taken to in terms of just, like, podcasts or documentaries, movies and things like that. I added those to the resource section. Now people are able to say, "Oh, I didn’t know this website existed" or "I didn’t know this existed," and they go check things out.
There’s a lot of resources out there, but sometimes you don’t know that they’re there. And I think that section will really help out. It’s a lot of relevant types of content, especially the podcast stuff, because it’s fairly new. So a lot of times you just don’t have that in a lot of other art books that they hand out in school, but finding it in this book is like, now I have a resource that I can listen to every week.
Were the artists you interviewed personal friends of yours, or people you reached out to?
Some personal and some that I reached out to. One of the artists is Birdcap, and Birdcap I met about four years ago. Really, really great individual, amazing muralist, travels a lot, really unique style and voice when it comes to his work. He knows a lot about street art and traveling, spent a while in Korea teaching and doing art, so he knows a lot about being an artist. He does it full-time, and he just grinds a lot. He’s out of Memphis, Tennessee. So we talked a lot. He’s excited about giving insight to other artists for the book. So some of that you’ll read in the quotes, and different parts of the book, and then you can actually look him up and say, "Who is Birdcap? Who is this individual?" It’s not just someone giving random advice. It sounds good, but he’s actually someone that is giving sound advice that he uses today.
So it’s really relevant to where it’s someone you can look up on Instagram, and follow, and see if they have recent shows or upcoming shows as well. It’s a mix of people I know like that, and then other people that I don’t know but really look up to, like this other artist, Craola, out of California. He’s a really dope artist. One of the parts that I had him dive into is art and parenting. So, like, how to be a full-time creative, but also, when you have a significant other or you have responsibilities, what does that look like? How does that go? So it was a little bit of everything.
Not everything is just on art, [but] everything that surrounds being a full-time artist that a lot of people don’t think about — just getting it from his perspective. I’ve been following that guy for like fifteen years, and just seeing his work...and he has a wife and kids, so how he has managed that over the years is something people really want to know about. He’s just like Birdcap; he’s currently doing a lot of different projects. He’s active, people know him, so it’s not just like getting quotes and interviews from people who are a lot older or obscure, where you just don’t see them at all. It’s like trying to make sure when up-and-coming and emerging artists, artists that want to read and take their work to the next level, read this book, I want to make it feel as relevant as possible, [so I tried] to have quotes and perspectives from people that are actively doing a lot of work today.
Would you say the advice in your book is specific to the Denver art scene, or more universal?
It’s universal. A lot of the stuff I wanted to talk about in the book is broad enough to where you can use this advice or this perspective and apply it to your practice, even if you were in Minnesota or Japan — or anywhere, I’d say. Or any sort of skill level, whether you’re coming out of high school and you’re trying to figure it out, or if you’ve had a good fifteen-year career and sort of plateaued and are trying to figure out how to navigate this new art world with social media and Instagram. All these things are now just as relevant, so [it's] how you sort of take your career and reinvent yourself after years, and everything in between.
A lot of the stuff I wanted to talk about are the nuances that aren’t discussed a lot. Like art and parenting, or how to network, or how to get into street art. Because it’s not really taught in school, how you navigate that area or how you figure out which projects to take on and which to set aside.
I’m still learning, so I had to learn that as I go along. Like, okay, how do I value a project? How do I write a proposal to where my chances increase? How do I get my application at the top of the stack when it’s in front of a selection committee? A lot of those things are things that you just don’t really talk about, because you’re just so busy, but this book tries to almost tell you a lot of the “whys” behind some of those things. Because when you know the why behind a selection committee, or why you did or didn’t get a grant, you start to analyze and adjust your actions. They can be slight adjustments, to where before you were getting rejected all the time, but now you start to see a little bit more yeses because of something you changed, because now you know the why behind some sort of committee or grant or gallery, in terms of why they select artists or don’t select artists. It’s trying to open up as much dialogue as possible when it comes to the art world and the topics that are relevant nowadays.
How would you say that creating art professionally, for a living, is different than making art purely as personal expression?
When you’re full-time, you’re relying on the income or the ecosystem of the art world to pay the bills. It’s a lot different sometimes in terms of projects that you take on or the projects that you accept, the areas that you go into. When you’re doing it on the side, you don’t have that much time. So you’re just doing the art that you want to do or feel good about — whereas when you’re doing it full-time, now you’re trying to expand as much as possible. You’re trying to get into various avenues of creating work and then figuring out, okay, how can I make this sustainable and increase the longevity of me creating art full-time as long as possible.
So there’s a few differences when it comes to the full-time and part-time practice. But for me, going full-time was sort of different, because now I have all day to really focus on creating art. So a lot of the opportunities that I couldn’t take on before because it was part time — I was going to school and doing some other stuff — now I’m able to capitalize on a lot of those. Things like spending a month in another country for an art residency. If you have a regular job, that would be very difficult to do. But if you’re full-time, you want to do that, you want to grow as much as you can as an artist, so you see it as an investment in yourself and your education and exploring your practice and getting outside the box. So you’re able to do things like that. And then, part-time, it’s like money isn’t as big of a concern, but when you’re doing it full-time, it’s, "Now I have to really home in on finding grants, finding funding to help me support a project and grow a project.” There’s a lot of different areas that become a lot more relevant when you’re going full-time as opposed to part-time.
If you could give one piece of advice to up-and-coming creatives, what would it be?
There’s a lot of advice, but I would say the one thing that I always tell artists, especially people who are part-time and are thinking about jumping, or they’re still in school, is definitely just start now. Because I’ve been doing art almost my entire life, and it wasn’t until I was like 29 that I decided to do art full-time. But I lean on everything that I was doing when I was in third grade and fifth grade and high school and college and post-college. I lean on all of those experiences to do the work that I do today, and to navigate the art world today.
Everything from me going to business school, to trying to be an event promoter and things like that, I use that in my practice today. So [for] any artist or anyone who wants to get into that creative field, I would say start as soon as possible. You don’t have to do it full-time, but doing it as soon as possible, you’ll start to grow and figure out how to find your voice and shape that style that you want to develop over the course of time. Because it’s very difficult when someone says, “I’m going to do this job full-time and then move to part-time, and then just jump into full-time art.” It’s very difficult then to get that momentum. But if you start now, and then you sort of know when you need to transition to full-time, it’s a lot easier because you have that momentum. Then when you’re jumping into full-time arts, it’s like, I already have clients, or I already have shows booked or things like that.
So I would say, if anything, start as soon as possible in terms of what you want to do, and find exactly how to do that. Because it’s going to be different in every creative practice, everything from being a musician or being a full-time sculptor or whatever, but find a way to start it as soon as possible, and you’ll know when you can transition to full-time afterward.
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You have a couple of appearances coming up, including at RedLine on Friday.
Yes. It’ll be sort of like the artist talk/panel roundtable discussion. That’s going to be sort of like a book signing, but it’s going to be more talking about why I wrote the book, and then actually diving into the book, into the different sections that people want to ask questions about.
I invited some of the people that I quoted in the book out to be part of that discussion. People will be able to hear, not just from me, but from a bunch of other individuals about some of these nuances and soft-skills topics that they want to know more about. Everything from how to get partnerships or how you write a proposal to get grants and things like that. So I’m going to have a bunch of people there just giving advice, but also, any individual who wants to come be a part of that discussion or add to that discussion is welcome as well. So we’re trying to have more of a community type of feel when it comes to just the arts community in Denver. That’s what that event is all about.
Thomas Evans's book Be the Artist: The Interactive Guide to a Lasting Art Career is available on Amazon for $21.95. He'll host a roundtable discussion of the book at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, 2350 Arapahoe Street, Friday, February 21, from 6 to 9 p.m. Evans will also make appearances at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street in Boulder, on Tuesday, February 25, at 7:30 p.m., and at the Museum of Art Fort Collins, 201 South College Avenue, on Wednesday, February 26, at 6 p.m.