Thom Shaw: Dead Man Working

Diabetes. Infection. Amputation. Artist Thom Shaw has had it all. And illness has only made him more prolific—and provocative—than ever.

Cincinnati is woefully small for black artists. It’s not that everybody knows everybody else; it’s that everybody knows everybody else’s business. Case in point: Back in November 2005, when Thom Shaw fell gravely ill shortly after being named the Taft Museum of Art’s Duncanson Artist-in-Residence, the news crackled across the black grapevine at gallery receptions, jazz shows, even the grocery store. Everyone was concerned. For two decades, Shaw, a world-renowned printmaker, had battled a succession of illnesses exacerbated by diabetes. But that fall, he slipped into a coma caused by a severe neck infection brought on by kidney failure. He came close to death…then got a reprieve. Last May, concern for his health bubbled across the local scene again when an infection of flesh-eating bacteria led to the amputation of his right leg. And yet, less than two months later, Shaw fastened on a mocha-brown prosthesis and headed back to the studio. Super-animated Batman fight sounds seemed to hang in the air, narrating the resilient artist’s fight to live: KAPOW! KIDNEY FAILURE…BANG! DIABETES…TAKE THAT, MORTALITY!

It was time for Thom Shaw to get back to work.

I can feel the heat and hear the pumping reggae beat of Steel Pulse long before I cross the threshold of Shaw’s studio in the Essex artists building in Walnut Hills. Shaw’s old-school sound system, its turntable perched precariously on top, is cranked way up. He wears a khaki baseball cap emblazoned with Just A Chip!—his daughter’s cookie company—dark jeans, sneakers, and a green fleece Izod jacket. My last Shaw sighting had been in July at Art From the Heart, a multi-artist silent auction organized to help him deal with his mounting medical bills. Bug-eyed and frail, Shaw had ambled about, declaring, “I ain’t out! I ain’t out! I ain’t goin’ down!” Now, days before Christmas, he looks like a man reborn.

Shaw and I have known each other for nearly a decade and I am an unabashed fan of his work. He greets me and immediately asks if I am having “a heat situation.”

A heat situation?

He means menopause. Typical Thom Shaw: cheerfully devoid of an internal dialogue filter.

Shaw’s art is also unfiltered, letting his (and society’s) rough interpretations of blackness shine through. His stark, meticulously detailed large-scale ink drawings and woodcut prints are his signature: black-and-white, 40-inch by 60-inch or larger, with the heavy shading and bold lines employed in comic books and graphic novels. Shaw’s work is recognizable, collectible, and valuable, sometimes fetching upwards of $10,000. But most important, it is incendiary—encrypted with narrative, social commentary, pop culture references, and personal meaning. It can also be fearlessly funny. Imagine if early DC Comics or Mad magazine had a jones for confronting black stereotypes. Shaw’s elephantine black penises, white women under siege, discarded syringes, dead-eyed beggars, and black boys in sagging jeans can make viewers cringe—or nod knowingly.

And now, with Life Stories, his solo show opening March 27 at Main Street’s Art Beyond Boundaries Gallery, he’ll tackle his health. “That’s my way of kind of easing back into the fold,” he says. In the print “The Day After the Day Before,” an homage to his 1997 quintuple bypass, Shaw has drawn himself splayed on a mattress, a phalanx of tubes protruding from his flesh like roots out of a rotting potato. “I couldn’t even shit without using a tube,” he says as we look at it in silence.

If ill health is his current inspiration, then he’s got a lot to cull from. After the diabetes diagnosis came heart disease in 1997. And with each illness, he’s put himself back together again, his acid-free rag paper his “bandages.” Five hours a day, three days a week he hunches over large folding tables painstakingly inking in drawings in strokes so dense and exacting they appear painterly up close, a single bold black swipe from afar.

Shaw seems most alive when he is working in his studio alone—just him, his pens, his music, and his imagination. Intermittently, his health battles have given his art its subject matter. He seems pleased by this; no artist wants a dry well. But his art, leaning against every wall several feet deep, also seems to be closing in on him. It makes me wonder: Doesn’t he see that it may be a metaphor for his demise?

Perhaps. Nearly manic artistic production is but one way to reconcile mortality. It’s the Thom Shaw way, anyway.

During my first studio visit in mid-December, he told me about the nightmares he used to have. In one, he was hit with a hammer and thrown into a car trunk. Right before the culprits dumped his body, Shaw struggled awake and tried to let someone know about his intolerable pain, only to slip back into his nightmare before he could utter a word.

“Then the dream shifted gears,” he recalls. The doctors told Jacqueline, his wife, that they’d found the problem: crack cocaine. “‘I knew that nigga was acting strange,’” Shaw says, mimicking his wife. In the dream, Jacqueline returns to his bedside with her next husband, a deacon from church. And here’s where Shaw’s nightmares and reality cross: Later, when he was awake, the deacon actually paid him a visit. Shaw looked at the man and said: “You again.”

This limbo state went on for months in 2005, when Shaw’s kidneys failed and he was transferred to East Galbraith Nursing Home, where doctors thought he’d live out his days in hospice care. He beat the odds, but the victory was tenuous. “It’s quite possible all that [nightmare] stuff was a figment of my imagination,” he speculates. “I used to write a lot of Gothic comics in the ’60s. My parents never understood it. For them, they just thought I was acting strange. If my friends came by and said, ‘Thom, let’s go,’ I’d say
‘I ain’t got time for that.’ I’ve always had an infatuation with the dark side.”

Though certified in painting and printmaking from the Art Academy of Cincinnati and armed with a master’s in fine art in printmaking from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, for 30 years Shaw worked as Cincinnati Bell’s lead graphic designer. In 1995, when Bell downsized, he accepted the company’s buyout offer in order to work on his art full-time. He left corporate life behind easily; the Cincinnati Bell job was “something to do to feed my family,” he says. (He and Jacqueline have three children: sons Tresy, 44, and Alyn, 36; and daughter D’Etta, 37; Shaw also has a son, Vayda, 39, from a previous relationship).

But even while he was working for the phone company, Shaw obsessively plotted his artistic ascension. He networked like it was his job, showing up to every opening he could find, inviting gallery owners to his studio and asking—always asking—how to break into the art market. This was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Shaw was painting abstracts and before he turned fully to printmaking and drawings. “Cincinnati has a lot of good artists,” he says. “A lot of great artists. I used to wonder, ‘How will I ever get anybody to pay attention to Thom Shaw with all that talent?’ ”

In 1976, at 29, he invited then–Contemporary Art Center (CAC) director Ruth K. Meyer to see his work. Meyer accepted the offer and interrogated him, asking cerebral, probing questions he hadn’t considered and could not answer. “Of course, I wasn’t even ready for the CAC, but I had to see where I was at,” he says. It’s a prime example of Shaw’s untrammeled ambition to be recognized, shown, and collected.

And that started in 1973, when the Miller Gallery in Hyde Park gave Shaw his first-ever solo show. “We literally discovered him and that makes me feel good,” says Barbara Miller. Now retired and battling cancer, Miller remembers the visceral response she and her husband had to Shaw’s drawings and lithographs. “We weren’t what you’d call a ‘snob gallery,’” she says. “We were fairly new in the art business and we liked his work so much we wanted to give him his first show in a real gallery. [His art] showed the black attitude, which no gallery would touch during that period. It was black images of the black man. It was just good, solid art.”

Shaw took the Metro to the opening and remembers riding the elevator to the second-floor gallery with patrons abuzz about “this new black artist the Millers had discovered.” None of them realized they were standing next to him.

The hustling and hard work paid off. Beginning in the early 1980s, there were steady solo exhibitions in Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Chicago—and he saturated galleries here. A self-described “trailblazer,” he was getting his foot in doors heretofore shuttered to other equally fine black talents. “I was the first to show in the [Cincinnati Art] Museum, in the CAC,” he says. “I’m kinda like a trailblazer. I wondered: What were these black artists doing all this time?” His art centered on what could be called black pathologies—drugs, crime, disenfranchisement—and he didn’t soften his themes just to keep the mainstream invitations coming. Nor did he pacify the black artists angry because they couldn’t “get in.”

“Back in the day, artists would try to put together petitions toward the [Cincinnati] Art Museum,” he says. “They were so frustrated with these venues because they wouldn’t exhibit local artists.” He never signed his name to any petition and to this day doesn’t apologize for it. “I know some of these artists were jealous—‘He wouldn’t sign these petitions and look at him, getting these shows,’”  he says now.

His big break came in 1994, when he was invited to be part of Curator’s Choice: The Hale Woodruff Memorial Exhibition at the prestigious Studio Museum in Harlem. The New York Times pointed to him as a standout among the group. By then, he had turned exclusively to woodcuts, printmaking, and drawings, and he was exhibiting work from a new series called “The Malcolm X Paradox.”

“The next thing you know I get a call from Kristin  Spangenberg”—CAM’s curator of prints since 1971—“saying the Art Museum wanted to have ‘Paradox,’” he says. “And I said, ‘The whole damned thing?’” The series—20 large-scale woodcuts, 10 of which the museum now owns—was exhibited at CAM in 1996. It was monumental and historic, marking Shaw as the first local black artist to ever have a solo show at the museum.

After Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X came out in 1992, the ‘X’ image entered the American zeitgeist, appearing on T-shirts, hats, and other accoutrements as a symbol of black power. It marked its wearers not only as supporters of Malcolm X’s violent “By any means necessary” mantra, but also—wrongly or rightly—as gang bangers and crack dealers. In “The Malcolm X Paradox,” Shaw depicted these gun-toting young black men as shirtless and gaunt, with lifeless stares, their eyes small black x’s, hair in cornrows.

“[The series] was an observation of something I witnessed in Chicago,” he says. “Young African-American males used to wear these shirts with the giant ‘X’ on them and they were beating the shit out of each other. It really wasn’t about gang violence so much as it was the breakdown of the black family.” The “Paradox” exhibition changed Shaw’s life and career. “A lot of people all over the world saw it and I got a lot of mileage off that show,” he says proudly.

As upfront and unapologetic as Shaw is about his drive to get his work noticed, he hasn’t been making art in a vacuum all these years. Melvin Grier, the veteran Cincinnati Post photojournalist and award-winning photographer, has known Shaw since the 1970s, when they were both part of an arts collective called Mixed Media. (The painters Gilbert and Joyce Young, and multimedia artist Bing Davis were among its other members.) “It’s sort of like a jazz group,” Grier says of their work together. “We’re independent of each other but we came together for a common goal—to present our art. Black art.”

Despite this soulful exchange, Grier says he doesn’t really know Shaw, a feeling echoed by many in the black arts community. “Thom and I don’t have this buddy-buddy relationship,” Grier says. “I’m not up on everything he does.” Still, when Shaw was hospitalized in 2005, Grier went to see him: “I took him a sketchpad and told him, ‘You need to get to work,’ just to lift his spirits.” And last May, when Shaw learned his right leg would have to be amputated, Grier, the Taft Museum of Art’s Yvonne Thomas, Dennis Harrington of the Weston Art Gallery, and Jymi Bolden of Art Beyond Boundaries Gallery organized Art From the Heart, a three-day exhibition in Over-the-Rhine. Thirty-seven visual artists contributed work and ultimately raised more than $12,000 for the Thom Shaw Benefit Fund.

“What was important about it to me,” says Grier, “was that it was something African-Americans put together for another African-American. It shows that people will come together to benefit somebody and it says something about Thom’s stature in the community.”

Ellen Price, a printmaker and Miami University art professor, contributed a lithograph to Art From the Heart. “I keep feeling that he’s really relevant,” Price says of Shaw’s work. “If he had the right agent, the right connections, and could live in New York City for a year, he could be having a show not just at the Studio Museum in Harlem, but at The Museum of Modern Art.” Her relationship with Shaw dates to the moment she saw “The Malcolm X Paradox” and knew she had to invite him to Oxford. “I was pretty blown away by the intensity of the pieces,” she says. “They portrayed a lot of in-your-face urban violence and it showed a lot of irony, with young people wearing these ‘X’ pieces.” In 2000, he hung a solo show in MU’s Hiestand Galleries and did a two-week printmaking residency. They’ve been friends since.

“He’s the kind of person you get to a deep level with because he cuts through the bull and gets to the emotional, spiritual, and the intellectual very quickly,” Price says. In the past few years, she says, “Thom’s changed quite a bit…from someone who is more confident to someone who’s more aware of his fragility.” She thinks his work is becoming more spiritual, and she recognizes in his exploration of his own fractured health an examination of the fragility we all experience.

“Thom’s earlier work was about people,” she says. “This [new work] is sort of looking out instead of looking in.”

Price is dead-on: Shaw is now fully cognizant of himself in relation to other people. He knows he’s missed some things by being focused on his art and career. “I very rarely saw my family and I regret that now,” he says quietly during my last studio visit. “I actually saw my kids grow up in Polaroids.”

Art got most of Thom and his family got what was left. “To really love him is to understand him,” his daughter D’Etta tells me. “My father was really kind of an absent father. He was married to his art. He was at the studio—eat, sleep, and drink studio. It was really my mother who raised us.”

D’Etta has watched her father survive two decades of grave illness, knowing he may have sacrificed his health for his art. She now seems nonplussed with the fact that he sacrificed his family for it, too.

Still, on our last visit, Shaw is neither melancholy for his past choices nor melodramatic about what lies ahead. “I really don’t even look at the future,” he says. “I think the future will take care of itself. I’m able to come to the studio and work and I’m able to drive myself. When I was a younger man I worried more about the future. Now I’m more concerned about now. My being sick put a whole other perspective on things.

“Man! I had some plans,” he says, eyes sparkling. “Now I gotta regroup.”

Originally published in the March 2009 issue.

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