At a young age, he created drawings by tracing pictures from books as many times as it took for him to learn to draw the same pictures without tracing. He recalls, “I think my parents realized I could draw when I brought home a drawing of a cow that looked like a cow!”
Although Thomas was born in Waco, Texas, his dad was an air force pilot, so he moved often during his childhood, living in New York, New Orleans, and Atlanta.
But it was the book Stuart Little that really made Thomas into an artist when he read it as a seventh grader. In the book, the mouse Stuart uses his own creativity to make useful items as he searches for true happiness. “I could relate to Stuart in his tiny world,” Thomas says. “I made him shoes and clothes. He had skates and a little rug by his matchbox bed. I made everything just like it was in the book. The only thing I didn’t have was Stuart himself.”
Through his parents’ divorce during his formative years, Thomas found a deep faith in God’s provision and God’s plan.
“I decided to be an illustrator when I was in high school,” Thomas says. “To me, commercial artists knew how to paint. Plus, I had a fantastic high school art teacher, Curtis Patterson, whom I met when I was a junior. He was the first art teacher I developed a close relationship with. He took an interest in my work and gave me assignments that opened up my mind. It was Curtis’s encouragement that really helped me in becoming an artist. We’re still buddies to this day.”
Another experience helped form Thomas’ self-image. “Right up through my junior year of high school I was always considered the artist of the school,” Thomas remembers. “It had always been that way for me.” Then, students began talking about another artist in the school. “I kept hearing about this guy for a long time before I ever met him, then I finally saw this guy with a painting. I knew after just one glance that he was one of the best artists I’d seen in my life. I learned so much from meeting him. It was really a blessing. I was shocked,” he admits. “He was so good I couldn’t touch him and there was nothing I could do. Up to that point, I always had to be the best. When I met him I realized there would always be somebody better. I realized the best you can do is to just be the best you can be.”
Thomas and that younger artist in his school became friends. “I had to respect him just because of the talent he had and I learned a lot from him.” Still, talent alone, without determination, won’t make a person succeed. After high school Thomas would return home and visit his friend. “I started developing and learning as an artist when I was in art school, and I would come back home and show him my progress,” Thomas recalls. “I would ask him what he had been working on and he’d say, ‘Thomas, I don’t do that anymore,’ and it made me so sad.”
After high school, Blackshear went to the Institute of Art and the Academy of Art, both in Chicago. There, he refined his skills and eventually got a job as an illustrator for Hallmark Cards.
“One of my goals at Hallmark was to work with Mark English. I was thrilled when I was able to get into his class.” English and Blackshear were a good mix and soon English took Thomas on as his apprentice. When asked why he was so bent on working with Mark English, Thomas points out that English has “won more awards than anyone in the business with the exception of Norman Rockwell.” Even as a young adult, Thomas Blackshear II knew the importance of surrounding himself with examples of excellence.
With his career taking off, Thomas tried to reconnect with an old friend from his college days. Ami Smith was a budding writer and close friend at one time, but after college, they lost contact.
“I went to the Academy to see if anyone had a number for Ami Smith,” he recalls. “I was surprised to find that the Academy office had it! The thing is, it really shouldn’t have happened,” Thomas says. Ami had just moved back to Wisconsin and she couldn’t imagine how anyone could have had her number. “That’s why I felt it was a divine appointment,” Thomas says. “God brought us together.”
Ami had been going through a lot of struggles in her life, and during that visit to Wisconsin, Thomas was able to pray with Ami and help her understand how much God loved her.
In 1982, Thomas decided to become a freelance illustrator. It was exciting, but it was also a trap. Becoming overwhelmed with work and deadlines caused Thomas to cut off ties to friends and family. He found that he was working so hard that he didn’t have them time to “create the art that was inside of me.” He describes further, “When you’re in the middle of something like this you don’t realize what is happening to you. I realize now that I was really dealing with depression. I began to lose confidence in myself as an artist, and that’s the only thing I had ever really been confident about!” While attending a friend’s wedding, many old buddies asked Thomas what he had been doing. “I told them I was just working, working, working. I realized I had lost the joy I once had in my art. That was a revelation.”
Thomas and Ami kept in touch, and fell in love. Thomas describes the first inklings that his feelings for her were more than friendship. His friends told him, “Just pray for her. If God turns her heart, you’ll know it’s meant to be. That’s why I know we were truly brought together by God.” They were soon married.
But Thomas’s artistic challenges continued. Feeling trapped by his workload and in the depths of despair, Thomas told Ami that all he had left was Jesus. As he heard himself say those words and realized what he was saying, he added, “and Jesus is all I need!” With that, the depression seemed to lift off like a dark cloud breaking apart in the sun.
By this time, although still quite young, Thomas Blackshear had created a phenomenal amount of work. He had made over 140 illustrations for Lucasfilm, Universal Studios, Anheuser-Busch, 7-Up, Paramount, Smirnoff Vodka, Coca-Cola, Milton Bradley, Disney, and National Geographic. Thomas credits his success to God. “I couldn’t do it without him,” he says. “So many things that have come my way during my career are blessings from God.”
Jerry Pinkney, one of the few well-known black illustrators, gave Thomas a call. “(He) called to tell me that he was working on a series of stamps for the U.S. Postal Service,” Thomas recalls.
“He was looking for someone to finish the job because he wasn’t able to. That was a blessing from God. I didn’t ask to do the stamps, I was just given the job. “
Thomas got many other jobs, but then the Hamilton Collection commissioned Thomas to do a series of four collector plates. This commission was important because it would give Thomas more financial freedom, which would lead to more creative freedom as well.
Thomas remembers well when the Hamilton Collection first called and asked if he could design a plate for The Wizard of Oz. He had been flooded with work from other clients and was up late almost every night. He had promised his wife Ami that he would not take any new commissions until he finished some commitments he had already made. Thomas told Ami about the Hamilton Collection calling, and told her, ““I don’t think I can take it.” But she surprised him by saying, “Take it, Thomas! This is what we prayed about!”
Looking back, Thomas says, ““The thing that I keep seeing is that everything that has happened in my life that was successful was given to me by God. He led me to it through an open door. All my success and talent is from God. He gave it to me.”
Now Thomas has a prolific career as a collectible artist. He creates projects such as Christmas tree ornaments, plates, figurines, and limited edition prints.
Still, Thomas Blackshear II had a vision beyond the incredible success he had already attained.
“I always knew I wanted to create Ebony Visions,” he says. “As an artist who happens to be black, I had distinct ideas about what I’d like to see in the line.” The elegant, compelling figures he created for the collection are a blend of both Art Nouveau and African culture, which Thomas calls “Afro-Nouveau.”
Interestingly, the line was not created exclusively for an African American audience. As Thomas says, “The collection reflects not only my visions as a black man and the unique visions of black people, it represents visions we all share, regardless of the color of our skin. Emotions like hope, love, tenderness, faith, and serenity know no boundaries.”
An attitude of praise and gratitude permeates Thomas’s life and work. “Everything I’ve accomplished is only because of what God has done for me,” he says. “All I’ve done is taken the talent He’s given me and worked at it.”
On February 18, 1998, Thomas and Ami got a new “commission.” After several miscarriages, Elisha Thomas Blackshear was born. Ami described her feeling about being a new mother. “Every day I’m in awe of his fragile beauty…his bright, trusting eyes that look up at me, his dancing smile when I kiss his little feet, the perfect curve of his soft, tiny fingers…” As a talented writer, artist and designer herself, Ami has found her focus shifting since Elisha was born. She writes in her journal every day and creates memory albums recording Elisha’s precious childhood days. “I like to write poems, thoughts, and record all the sweet things that happen from day to day.”
“I can see now how God had a plan for things to happen at certain times over the course of my lifetime,” Thomas says. “It was God who gave me my talent, who has blessed my life with love and joy, and opened up all the doors. All I had to do was just walk through.”
Thomas Blackshear Online: http://www.blackshearonline.com/
To view past profiles on Artists Work B.e.n.c.h, click below:
Dr. He Qi
Laura Kramer (Psalm 23 Jewelry)
Vincent van Gogh