Q&A with Kansas City artist Thomas A. Gieseke - fantastical works explode across the canvas to unlock his fantasy

"My hope is that people will somehow miraculously become more curious about everything, that they will place a higher importance on education and learning. We seem to be living in an age where the comedy movie ‘Idiocracy’ is becoming a documentary. It’s like people are proud of their ignorance."

Thomas A. Gieseke: Art-e-delia Blues

Thomas A. Gieseke's paintings are playful and well-thought out in their insanity, presenting a keen eye for the craft belying psychedelic subject matter. Thomas, a Kansas City native brings together his imagined world with nuances of the native Kansas City natures capes to create intricate illustrations. By weaving the compositions of the Surrealist Masters Gieseke idolizes, like Salvador Dalí, with elements of Kansas City nature he explored as a child, Gieseke creates medium-sized acrylic paintings. These fantastical works explode across the canvas to unlock Gieseke’s fantasy. Gieseke brings twenty-five years of design experience to his illustrations. His long career has resulted in many collaborations with acclaimed artists. His achievements include cotreating the design for the happy meal box, a feature in the American Showcase of Illustration, and a successful west coast show in February of 2014 with the Copro Gallery.

Thomas says: “Oh, groan. This is the part on the website where I have to blabber about myself. Stuff like, “I was born in a log hospital and I had to cross the Himalayas every day to go to school.” (None of that is true, by the way.) I had a pretty decent childhood. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, December 19, 1952. Truman was president for a whole month of my life. (I don’t remember any of it.) I grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of KC. Most of my teen years were in the mid-60s, if you’re doing the math. Much of that time is engrained in my head and it has defined much of what I do now in my art. I taught myself to draw when I was a kid and have been self-teaching ever since. I had no real formal art training. After a stint as a welder in the U.S. Army, I attended the local community college and enrolled in their Commercial Art program. Everything I learned back then, how to prepare material for print, is now obsolete. Furthermore, I decided on the last day of school that I wasn’t going to be content being a paste-up artist. I wanted to be an illustrator. Getting that off the ground proved for some tough going for the first couple of years. However, I eventually managed to make quite a successful career in Illustration. I lucked out and worked with some truly talented art directors along the way. However, in 2011, that beautiful bubble popped. Due to a perfect storm of calamities; the internet, the economy, changes in advertising and cultural tastes; illustration pretty has much dried up. Since then, I have been going full tilt into gallery art. The skills I learned from illustration I have transferred to making paintings on my own. Like when I started out in illustration way back in 1977, gallery art, too, has been an uphill climb. Gradually, good things are beginning to happen, though. I’ve been lucky. I didn’t get here on my own. I thank my family- my wife Margot and my son Andrew- for giving me their support through the years. I am grateful for the many fabulous art directors I was lucky enough to have met and have worked with over my career. As I move into fine art, I express my gratitude to those galleries who have taken a chance on me and continue to promote me, including Copro Gallery and the Todd Weiner Gallery. And finally, I want to thank all of you who support me with your investments in my art as well as your encouragement.”

Interview by Michael Limnios       Artworks © by Thomas A. Gieseke

Where does your creative drive come from?

I’m not really sure. It’s something inside me. It’s like an itch. And I just have to scratch it.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from art?

Probably that there is so much art and so many different ways to make it. And as long as the art is genuine, there is never any right way or wrong way to make it.

What characterize your artwork's philosophy and mission?

Art doesn’t have philosophies and missions. Artists have philosophies and missions. I suppose mine is to be true to myself. The artwork is simply a reflection of that.

"Underground comic artists have had a great influence on me. 3 Roberts I can think of off the top of my head: Robert Crumb, Robert Williams and recently departed Robert Grossman. Acid art, not so much. Most of what I’ve seen doesn’t really flip my switch. More so than any of those, surrealists like Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Max Ernst have had more of an effect on me. And, of course, there are a slew of illustrators who have inspired me." (One-Eyed One-Horned Flying Purple People Eater. The incarnation of Sheb Wooley's 1958 hit tune. / Artwork by Thomas A. Gieseke)

What has been the relationship between music and art in your life?

I can’t say music has had much of a direct relationship with my art. I will say that there was that period in recorded music where records were packaged in gorgeous album covers. For me, that period was from the early 70’s to the early 80’s. Records came in 12” X 12” (30.48 cm X 30.48 cm) sleeves. I spent a lot of time looking at those covers. They were my art gallery. I used to stand in record stores for hours poring over record covers. I not only studied the art, I learned the names of the illustrators and art directors who designed them.

I bought Freddie King’s ‘Burglar’ album, solely for the chance to analyze Peter Palombi’s gorgeous airbrush rendering of King’s hollow body Gibson guitar on the cover. I finally played the record and thought, “Holy shit! This music is great!” Peter Palombi inadvertently turned me on to Freddie King.

Record covers, for the most part, are gone now, of course. Even the CD covers which used one ninth the area of record covers are now going extinct with downloadable digital music. This is, for me, sad to see. I loved the relationship art and music had in that period.

How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music can lift my spirits every bit as much as looking at art. However, it does very little to help me make my art. In fact, so many times I will turn off music or any other external sounds so I can strictly concentrate on making the art without distraction.

What do you miss most nowadays from the art of past?

I was an illustrator for the bulk of my career. Illustration is dying because print is dying. I loved being an illustrator. It was problem solving with a gun pointed at your head to meet a deadline. I thrived on that kind of pressure.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

My hope is that people will somehow miraculously become more curious about everything, that they will place a higher importance on education and learning. We seem to be living in an age where the comedy movie ‘Idiocracy’ is becoming a documentary. It’s like people are proud of their ignorance.

"The best stuff comes from that itch that needs to be scratched. There is something inside an artist that affects them so profoundly that they have to scribble it down. You can always tell when the artist has been affected like that. The work is so profound and honest." (Artwork by Thomas A. Gieseke)

What touched (emotionally) you from Kansas City Blues & Jazz Festival?

Oh, my! It was an orgy of great music. So many varieties of blues and jazz. I heard some old favorites, but I also discovered a swarm of musicians that I’d never heard before and have become a lifelong fan of theirs since.

Are there any memories which you’d like to share?

The Kansas City Blues & Jazz Festival was fantastic. I volunteered my art for them, plus helped them out as an all around volunteer. As such, I got VIP passes in return. It was so much fun to meet with some of the musicians backstage and talk with them about music. My old army friend from Cedar Rapids, Iowa would drive down and we’d immerse ourselves into the whole stretch. After the festival each night, we would go to the jams at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. We’d stay up until past daybreak every day during that time. At the end, we were exhausted, but it was good exhausted.

How has the underground comics and acid art influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Underground comic artists have had a great influence on me. 3 Roberts I can think of off the top of my head: Robert Crumb, Robert Williams and recently departed Robert Grossman.

Acid art, not so much. Most of what I’ve seen doesn’t really flip my switch.

More so than any of those, surrealists like Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Max Ernst have had more of an effect on me.

And, of course, there are a slew of illustrators who have inspired me.

Which has been the most interesting period in your life?

It’s all been interesting. Honestly. That’s like asking me what my favorite color is. I paint with all of them.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Do your best. Don’t hold anything back. (From my dad.)

"Music can lift my spirits every bit as much as looking at art. However, it does very little to help me make my art. In fact, so many times I will turn off music or any other external sounds so I can strictly concentrate on making the art without distraction." (Future Coal / Artwork by Thomas A. Gieseke)

What is the impact of visual art, comix, and music to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications? 

The best stuff comes from that itch that needs to be scratched. There is something inside an artist that affects them so profoundly that they have to scribble it down. You can always tell when the artist has been affected like that. The work is so profound and honest.

Where would you really want to go via a time machine? What memorabilia (records, illustrations) would you put in?

Hard to say. I really like staying in the here and now. But, if I were to go there, I would go back to the 70’s and 80’s and move out to Los Angeles so I could have taken part in that music/art scene if only for a brief while. I’ve met a number of art directors from that time and they have said they would have used me in a minute if I had lived in LA. That was the problem back then. There were no computers, no fax machines, not even Federal Express. You had to physically *be* there in order to do that kind of work.

Honestly, though, I drove out to LA in 1978 with the guy I was sharing a studio with. We had hoped to show our portfolios and get that kind of work. However, while we were there I spoke with an art director at Warner Brothers who told me those assignments were more often than not a colossal pain in the ass. Everybody and their dog wanted to throw their 2 cents worth of input into a project. He was the one who told me I would have to move out there to get record company work. He did a good job in de-glamorizing it.

In the end, I decided to stay put in Kansas City.

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Artwork © by Thomas A. Gieseke

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