John Toms’ physical presence is striking. At 6-foot-5, his dark, shoulder-length dread locks – with a little silver of age and wisdom – frame his body in a gracefully beautiful aura that is at once both imposing and inviting. At galleries, festivals and art shows in New York City, the Bay area, Atlanta, Chicago or Denver, Toms’ spiritual energy and charisma, much like his towering height, has a way of captivating everyone who is drawn to his fine art.
His fascinating work ranges from acrylics, water colors and graphite drawings to highly original 3-D combinations of blended sculptures and paintings. Most recently the 57-year-old artist has been venturing into a brave new digital world that merges his intriguing fine art into phenomenally beautiful merchandising creations like coffee mugs, notecards, T-shirts, hoodies and sweatshirts. After more than 30 years as a fine artist, Toms is regenerating his career and finding new life and direction through his sons, Bryan Toms and Dante Toms, who are bringing computer graphics and online digital marketing skills to his life’s work.
For Toms, the road toward becoming a nationally-known artist has been an unlikely path of adventure, self-discovery and emotional liberation. His art itself reflects a desire to share his African-American roots and culture in many expressions – sports, love and sensuality, family and children, with more abstract elements that are tied to broader social, spiritual and political questions. And yet Tom’s work is appreciated by people of all backgrounds and races, and that universal response leaves him overjoyed, perplexed and grateful – so much so that Toms is reticent or unable to describe his creative work as “black art.”
“I’m not sure I have an answer for that,” Toms says, with a genuine sense of curiosity. “I haven’t figured that out. What is ‘black art’? If what I do is ‘black art’, but Hispanics and whites buy it and love it, then I’m not sure if I should even call what I do ‘black art.’ “
John Toms’ mother, Geneva, moved his family along with her mother to the Mile High City in 1958, when he was only 1. Toms’ grandmother Hazel Goode, was a very energetic and resourceful woman and opened a beauty salon in the back of their house on 34th and Vine Street. With just a few salon chairs, Toms remember a joyful home environment in Five Points where business was booming and life was full of colorful conversations from women who were constantly in need of his grandmother’s services.
After graduating from high school in 1975, Geneva Toms pushed her son to make a choice between going to college, getting a job or joining the military. On a lark, Toms – who had demonstrated remarkable drawing and artistic talent at an early age – created some drawings for a fashion program at Barnes Business College, hoping to go on the school’s fashion trip to New York City. A counselor told him to apply to the Colorado Institute of Art, where the admissions office was impressed with his talent and he was immediately enrolled. Toms’ mother found a way to get grants and loans and suddenly Toms, at 17, became one of only three black students – and the youngest learner – on the school campus.
“The other two students, they weren’t really black; they weren’t comprehending my experience from the hood,” Toms says, with hearty laughter. “It was a great school, and it taught me some things. I was pretty much labeled a maverick and a rabble rouser during the time I was there, because I always went against the grain.”
During his first year the institute started a study abroad program in Europe, and Toms was determined to be one of the first participants. The cost was $2,222, and Toms painted houses and took on odd jobs to earn the tuition he needed, and with help from his mother, he achieved his goal and left with the group in the fall of 1976.
It proved to be a life-changing experience. Toms remembers dropping his jean jacket from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, to see how it would fall. He also remembers climbing the Eiffel Tower, and hearing the words of his French teacher, Ms. Dillard at Manual High School, as they came back to haunt him. Ms. Dillard had warned Toms about failing his French class, but to no avail. Toms saw himself as a black kid from the projects with limited possibilities, and with plenty of rebellious teenager attitude, he pushed back, saying, “What am I going to need French for?”
“John, one thing you always need to remember is, never say ‘never,’ ” Ms. Dillard replied.
The ironies were inescapable. Two years later, Toms found himself standing on the Eiffel Tower, and all he could say was “bon jour” and “au revoir” and count to 10. As a light went on in his head, he felt like kicking himself; even 40 years later, Toms still regrets his narrow mindedness and lack of motivation. Ms. Dillard’s words left an indelible seed in Tom’s thinking that profoundly changed his outlook and approach to people and circumstances.
“I was young and from the hood. Being young and from the hood and being young and from Cherry Hills are totally different things,” Toms explains, with an emotional resonance that is still very much alive from 1976. “The person who grows up in Cherry Hills – he already perceives the possibilities of being over there (in Europe). A guy, black male from the hood – that isn’t even in his mindset.”
The trip took place over three months, with time in England, France, and an entire month in Florence; after completing their projects, the students traveled to other countries and absorbed as much of the local cultures as they could during their free time. Toms had an epiphany at the Tate Gallery in London, when he saw “Autumn Cannibalism,” his first Salvador Dali painting; it forever transformed his orientation to art and his sense of his own creative possibilities.
“After I saw that piece at 17, it blew my mind. I saw the “Mona Lisa,” the “David,” the “Pieta” and the Sistine Chapel, but that piece right there – “Autumn Cannibalism” – I’m done!” Toms says emphatically, adding that he bought a book – one of three he took home from Europe – about Dali.
“Salvador Dali was the one that changed my life. Some Europeans will look at my stuff and they’ll say you’ve got some Dali influence. Reading that book, I learned not to take in other artists. I look at other artists, but I don’t break down their work or analyze them. My art, it comes right from my head and my heart. I just want it to be as raw as possible.”
After returning to Denver with Salvador Dali and the flame of “Autumn Cannibalism” burning in his mind, Toms was determined to try his hand at fine art. His mother bought him some watercolors and introduced her son to Denver’s renowned black sculptor Ed Dwight, who had built his art studio in an airplane hangar. Toms looked up to Dwight as a mentor, and watching him at work in his studio environment created an opening for seeing new possibilities.
Toms organized his first art show a few years later, in 1980, at Rick’s Café. He sold 17 of the 22 originals he had on display, and he knew he had found his calling.
In the coming years, when Toms needed money, he would do an art show. He learned some of the ins and outs of publishing fine art prints through from a local distributor, Keith Gold, while Larimer Square art dealer Chuck Butcher helped Toms organize his first gallery display in the early 80s. Through the 80s and 90s, Toms gradually built his reputation, traveling between Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, cultivating relationships with dealers and other artists, and participating in art shows and festivals whenever possible. As his artwork grew in popularity, Toms found many celebrities and collectors attracted to his work, including George Duke, Roy Ayers, Dianne Reeves, Al Jarreau, Howard Hewett, Queen Latifah and the Du Sable Museum of African American History in Chicago.
Despite frequently traveling back and forth between major cities and the fluid lifestyle of a fine artist, John Toms always kept custody of his sons Bryan and Dante, and raised them as a single father. The bond they share is deep, as ancestral ties and family talent are evolving along with Toms’ art, particularly since Dante, who studied graphic design at Arapahoe Community College, took the initiative to transform Toms’ fine art digitally into new print products as well as coffee mugs, T-shirts, hoodies and sweatshirts.
“They’re taking my sundial mindset into the digital world!” says Toms, adding that Dante is a superb artist in his own right. “It’s funny because we’re doing a lot of logos and book covers, children’s books. Dante is pretty amazing by himself, and I’m not just saying this because he’s my son. We take pride in our creativity, and it’s personal.”
The merchandising side of Toms 3-D Art was started in the spring of 2013, with help from Tim Mills, a photographer who attended Colorado Institute of Art with Toms during the 70s. Merchandising has proven to be a big boost for Toms; for events like the Taste of Colorado, Juneteenth and the Denver, Los Angeles and Atlanta black arts festivals, merchandising has surpassed Toms’ fine art sales in less than two years. With growing sales from the new e-commerce web site Dante created in July, Toms and his sons intend to sell and distribute large quantities of their products, in a way that will help bring the magical enchantment of fine art into ordinary homes.
Toms 3-D Art coffee mugs are $10, T-shirts are $20 – $30, notecards are $3. Toms 3-D Art can be found online at http://www.jtomsart.com.