Art Spotlight: Tom Reed

Written by Elise Olmstead

If he comes off as cocky, it’s all in good fun, because though Tom Reed may be a jokester,
his intentions come from a place of love. Willing to act as a warrior for his fellow artist
and infallible truth he finds within art, Tom stands as rigid as the acrylic stem of his
brush, but the love and care he has for the art community strokes as soft as a rounded
tip bristle. With a unmistakable style and just plain “good taste,” his artworks have become
a fan favorite amongst the circuit. When some festival coincidences–my favorite
kind of coincidences–brought him along our path at the exact right time to get an interview,
I had to grab the opportunity. When I kept missing him in the art gallery I thought
my opportunity had slipped away, but then I saw him in the crowd, jubilantly painting a
3-D project amongst his friends, other artists, his people. After an excited introduction
and embrace, he, myself, and Taco found a quiet spot to kick back and get to know each
other, and have perhaps one of the most inspiring and insightful interviews to date.*

*This online version includes a never before seen part of the interview where Tom, Taco, and Elise talk about their wildest dreams for the art world, musings on the current art scene, and more.

(Photos top and and above by Roger Gupta)


Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?

I grew up in Bay Village, Ohio, which is a suburb of Cleveland. It’s a boat town, soccer town, predominantly white kids.  We were very much middle class, before the middle class disappeared.  My parents divorced when I was eleven and they moved to different sides of town, in the same town, though! My dad moved to the opposite side of town and they elected to share us month to month.  And every Wednesday we would all eat dinner at the other person’s house…and every other weekend we would spend the weekend at the other person’s house.  It was like the most jacked up schedule, I was basically living out of a bag! When I was 17 I said, “I’m done with this!” and I decided to stay with my mom and then just visit my dad when I wanted to.

Were you creative as a child?

Yeah!  It had to be like, sixth grade when they had us do a project and what I made happened to be exceptional, and the teacher was like, “Woah!”  I was into music when I was young, too, so that gave me a push towards more creative endeavors.  My senior year in high school I took a drawing class with this teacher I liked a lot, and he taught me how to see.  He said that when you look at things, there are shadows and highlights, and when you squint your eyes they stick out much more to you.  So he taught me how to see things in order to draw them.  I had fun with that, but then got bored with it after a while, because I was looking at something and then capturing it with a pencil, but…who cares?  I could just look at it, it was the same thing as I was seeing.  So that’s when I was thinking that I would much prefer to make art that you can’t see with your eyes, that you would never see in real life.

When did you decide that art was what you wanted to do with your life?

I still haven’t.  I still have a 9-5 job as an art director for a print shop.

That’s cool, that’s still an artistic job at least.

Absolutely, but it’s not like…I ran away with the circus and I make a living selling paintings!  That would be a nice place to be, but I’m not there yet.  A lot of us struggle to get even close to that, to support ourselves by selling our artwork.  I tried it for a summer, and decided it wasn’t a viable option at that point.  I couldn’t support myself.  I went into it with my tax return money, quit my job, and ran away to festivals.  I went to 16 or 17 festivals and was a featured painter at each one of them, and I tried to sell my artwork there.  Some of it sold, but it wasn’t enough to support that lifestyle.  So I decided I should go back to the 9-5 thing and keep my art as a secondary.

Well, you’re just waiting until you get to that point.

If I ever do!  And it’s okay if I don’t.  It’s not my intention to just run away from the world and make artwork all the time and pretend that it’s going to support me.

So what is your intention when you make art, what do you want people to feel when they see it?

This might be kind of a dumbass way to say things, and I don’t think a lot of people would say it like this even though it really is like this…I want to make things that look cool.  It just so happens that other people think it looks cool, too. It’s very simple, and I don’t know what it is, maybe I just have good taste or something like that, but my art makes people happy.

What kind of subjects or themes do you have in your art?

Lately, for the past year or so of my life I’ve been doing black acrylic lines in the background.  Once I get that drawn out, I lay oil pastel color on top of it.  When I make a piece of artwork it’s usually something based out of my sketchbook.  It’s something that I’ve drawn just sitting in the corner of my house, or in the back of the car on the way to a gig or whatever, I’m just sketching a sketch…and it turns into something awesome.  I’m like, man, I’m going to turn this into a six foot wide painting! And it started out as this little three inch wide drawing.  Recurring themes…for a while I was doing a lot of eyes, body parts, boobs (laughter).  Things that are pretty.

Tell me about the first time that you live painted.

It was in 2010, and I had seen someone else doing it and thought it was cool and wanted to try it.  So I bought a ticket to a show, brought my easel and a board, and wedged myself as close to a wall as I could, and proceeded to make the worst live painting I’ve made in my life.  It was December 2010, at Broccoli Samurai opening for Big Gigantic at the Grog Shop in Cleveland.  It was before Big Gigantic was big and gigantic!  It was back when they were approachable, those guys love me and we send emails back and forth sometimes.  Anyway, I was scared out of my mind!  I didn’t know what to do with myself, I was looking down at my shoes and kicking my feet and walking around a lot, doing nervous “Hi’s” to people, because I didn’t have any friends back then…

I have to preface that with this: I went through my 20’s, and slept through them.  Quite literally.  I had a job, and I would just go to the job, then go home, flip through the TV for a while, and then go to bed.  And on the weekends, I was lucky if I saw one person outside of work.  I had no friends whatsoever, I was a total loner.  Right around when I turned 30, that’s when I saw someone live paint, and it was also when I rediscovered my passion for festivals and this type of music.  I had always been listening to it, but it was never a destination to go to.  So I started going to shows again, and that’s how I met that live painter. She was like “Dude, you should totally live paint.”  The very next show was that Big Gigantic show, and I painted there.

Do you also make paintings at home or in a studio? What do you prefer?

Yeah I do!  Oh man…that’s a tough one.  I dig hanging out at home and taking my time on a piece, like taking a month on it, whereas when I paint live it’s like…how much can you get done in one night? Or, how much can you get finished before the music is up?  Not to say that’s a bad thing, it totally motivates you to bang out some really awesome artwork fast.  Whereas at home, I can go make a burrito or go get lost on Pandora or whatever.  When I’m painting live, I know that there’s people watching me and there’s a certain amount of expectations when someone sets up an easel in front of a bunch of people.  They start to think you might make a painting…(Laughter)

What kind of music do you like to paint to the best?

When I was 13 my mom let me go to the Grateful Dead show at Buckeye Lake.  And then in ’94 I went to see them again, when I was 14.  In ’98 raves entered my world and electronic music, I don’t know what it was about it, I just really liked it.  It was cool to dance to, it was progressive, it had cool steps to it.  So in ’99 and 2010 I started getting into jam music again, like Grateful Dead and Phish, those types of bands, but I was also into house music and stuff like that.  Those two crowds never matched up, they never went to each other’s shows.  Then years later, these festivals came out!  You had the jam bands playing, and the DJ’s playing, too, so you had ravers going, and hippies going at the same time.  And I was like, “Perfect!”  It was the perfect marriage of the things I liked the best.  So you ask me what I like, I like jam bands, electronic music…I do very little nostalgia, I don’t go back in time.  I’m not a Led Zeppelin or a Pink Floyd head.  I like them, but I don’t bump them in my car when I drive around.  I’d rather listen to something I’ve never heard before.

What music feeds you creatively?  Like, what music can you really get down to paint to?

It’s not about the musician that’s playing, it’s the scene. Whatever’s happening around me at that time and is feeding into that scene, is what I’m feeding off of. It’s not about this band, or that band, it’s just the collective energy of the people that are around me.  It’s like a Red Bull, when everyone starts throwing down, I could be laying on the ground dead tired, and I would jump up and start working.  I don’t know what that is, either.  When you drink caffeine, you get peppy.  But this is like a different thing.  It’s like a contact buzz.

I’m sure it’s the same with musicians, that’s what they feed off of is the energy.  It’s like asking a musician, “What art inspires your playing,” or “what venue?”

There are some bands that I can get down to, that I more easily find my footing with. Like the band Vibe & Direct, they kind of made me an honorary member of the band.  They called me up all humble and stuff like, “Hey Tom…we…we wanted to ask you if you would…if you would be a member of our band?”  (Laughter)  Immediately tears are streaming down my face and I’m like “Of course!” like someone just asked me to marry them.  Vibe & Direct have shown me nothing but love and they are a fantastic band that’s coming up on the scene.

What kind of music do they play?

It’s like this psychedelic R&B.  It’s like if Al Green took acid…and hung out with Shpongle.  I don’t know if I’m hitting the nail on the head right now, but they do their own thing.  It’s a party vibe.  I don’t know, it’s one thing if you’re in a band talking about how great your band it is, but it’s another thing when this random artist is screaming about how great a band is! (Laughter)  What else you got for me?

Why do you think art is necessary?  For society and for you?

It’s like this uplifting thing! If you are having a shitty day, no matter what walk of life you come from, if you look at this mash of color it just makes you feel better. You don’t know why but it’s just like a sigh, like “Ahh…I guess my day wasn’t that bad.”  For me it’s important because it’s important for me to express myself, these feelings that flow out of me, it’s important to express that on a large scale.
When it comes down to it, before I did this…I had no friends.  I had no one encouraging me or supporting me, saying “Yeah, Tom, you’re good, you’re a good person, you should keep going.” Then when I broke into live painting I had a million people around me cheering me on, calling me every day just wanting to talk.  I didn’t have that before.

(Taco) Was that awkward?

At first it was very awkward for me to transition into that, yes.  I went from a place where I had no friends and I didn’t talk to anybody, to a place where there were people constantly trying to ask me questions about things.  I mean, I love it.  The fact that I’m a beacon of light in the middle of a party or a show, for a person to walk over to me and ask me a question, it makes it so worth it.  And 9 times out of 10 they actually like what I’m doing, too.

(Taco) I consider you a torchbearer on the live art scene right now…

Really?  That’s the first time I heard that!

(Taco) Yeah, man, I do anyway.  A lot of people look up to you.

Have you seen the other artists here at Rootwire?  I am humbled here. Last night I was painting next to Adam Psybe and Stephen Cruze; I was working on my artwork and the whole time out of the corner of my eye, I was going to school.  I was watching them just being schooled by these amazing artists around us.  A lot of them, nobody’s even ever heard of, but they impress the hell out of me.  They’re showing up, throwing in their work, just like I do, with full confidence that they’re going to succeed, for this crowd of people, who are cheering them on and begging them to do something awesome.

(Taco) What is your advice for other aspiring live artists?

Practice.  Keep at it.  Buddy up with somebody that’s already on the scene.  Or if you go it alone, you’re going to be buying tickets and getting into shows, bring your easel.  Eventually someone is going to notice you and invite you to a show.  Extension cords? (Laughter) You can never have too many extension cords.  Don’t lose yourself in this scene. Don’t lose the thing you started with by looking at the person next to you, don’t mimic their thing, let it flow from you inside.  Let that idea you have, mixed with the technique you pick up, mix that with stream of consciousness while you paint live, and you will come up with lightning in a bottle every time.


(Taco is speaking for the rest of the interview) Do you think that we’re ever going to have people like yourself, up on the stage with the musicians and treated on the same level as them?

I had a dream about a festival with live painters, and the stage had risers built in and around it as almost a sculptural element, fanning around the stage.  There were little catwalks where you could climb up to your stand and paint there, so you were now infused the light show and the band and the music.  So you ask me that and…ah man…I hope so, dude.  I really hope so.

One of the things that I would really like to do is have a live art tour: 5 live artists, 2 bands, 15 shows in the fall, and 15 shows in the winter.  An actual tour.

It’s awesome and it’s ideal, the only obstacle is making sure that everybody’s bills are paid and everyone’s covered.  You have to make a certain amount of money to sustain yourself in this system that we’re operating in.  We have to sustain ourselves somehow.

I’m looking for multiple sponsors, like maybe an art company, or a paint company…

That’s not going to do it, you need sponsors like Whole Foods, something organic, anything that puts money towards hippies and festivals.  Everybody else doesn’t give a shit.

I could even reach out to the venue.

It’s a pie in the eye idea.  And…I’ll leave myself out of this because I have a regular job, but I have a lot of friends that are trying to support themselves off of just art, and they’re grinding it out.  They have to compete with somebody wanting to spend $10 on a beer versus $10 on a print.  They have to compete with that.  Budweiser is making money over there but not this lowly artist over here.  We have to deal with obstacles like..even tonight…the stage manager came over and said “You’re going to have to put something over your lights, they’re too bright.” I’m like, “Well, yeah, you might need to put something over your stage lights because they’re too bright and they’re washing out our paintings.  How about we just meet in the middle?” and the guy shook his head and walked away.  It’s not to be cocky, I just want there to be a place for us here, without the threat of external things putting us down even more.  Like, we’re broke ass artists! C’mon.  We’re not making any money, nobody’s getting rich out here.  And someone comes and tells us to turn down our light.  Is this a “Music and ARTS” festival? Because “Music” and “Arts” are in the same size font on the flyer.

We went through that at the tea party, because we had a 140 foot wide art gallery in the main field, and the vendor coordinator said “You’re blocking the vendor’s view of the stage, this is an obstruction to the main field.”  I literally got on my radio and was like “Elise, do we own a music and arts magazine?  So this is a music and arts festival, right?”

I get it, like I threw an “art and music” show where the art was the focus and the music was the secondary.  It didn’t have a very awesome turn out.  But when you throw a big band, a popular touring band on the bill, tons of people come.  So I get the dynamic.  I tried it the other way and it didn’t work.  Not to say that it can’t work.  I just tried it and right now it doesn’t work.  People want to go see bands.

It might eventually evolve into that, though, and we would like to see that.  We always put artists on the cover of our magazine instead of the bands.

We’re an art magazine cleverly disguised as a music magazine.

It’s not to be like, “Oh, I should be as popular as Beats Antique, I’m such a good artist I should have as many fans as them.” It’s not going to happen.  It’s not like I’m going to throw an art show, and everyone is going to come see me and…oh, Beats Antique is playing on the stage, too.  It’s never gonna happen.

My dream is to try to get the art community that’s out there, which is a large community, and a well-funded community…

Oh really?  Send some funds my way. (Laughter)

Well, the gallery art, the highbrow art, that’s funded by these art collectors.

Well that museum art…like the paintings that are in museums being sold for $30,000, I’ve found that typically they have a friend in the art world that introduces them to all of their rich friends, and the rich friends buy the artwork.  That’s how I’ve typically seen it work.

Well, for example, take Audrey Kawasaki, who is considered low-brow art, she’s selling her original pieces in galleries for $20,000 apiece now.

Well, yeah, so did Basquiat.  He jumped in Andy Warhol’s boat and Warhol promoted the shit out of him and people wanted to buy his artwork.  It just so happened that his stuff was edgy and weird and different…and cool.

So how do we get these same people under the same roof?

You got me there, bro.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about how to get the folks that are art appreciators into my gallery space to support my dream.  You got me, man…I don’t know how to get them there.  I could drop flyers off at their mansions.  I don’t know how to get them to my show, though.

I think that if we got more magazines and more media involved…like what Juxtapoz magazine covers…

Nah, they only cover LA and New York, though.

Yeah, but do you know who owns Juxtapoz?  Vans does! Vans shoe company.  So it’s really a bunch of skate heads at heart.

I don’t think it’s get more media involved, I think it’s finding a way to bridge people that want to buy art for a lot of money, with folks like me.  All of these amazing artists…who only WE get to see.  We’re the only ones that get to see them. They’re not out in the world, they’re not on a large scale at all.  That’s the mystery of it all…

I wonder if it’s a pipe dream that I’m chasing.

I’m not going to discourage you Taco, I think you’re doing a great thing.  I’m just going to warn you to keep your dreams small at first.  Don’t get discouraged when your big dream doesn’t work. That just means you have to redesign it and keep moving.  But you reach these little milestones in the meantime, all these little waves.  Then there’s that big ass wave that comes finally, and you surf the shit out of it!  You get on the fucking cover of Surfer Magazine!!

(Laughter) We love you, Tom.