For one of the few times in 36 years the Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival has chosen something without a Tetonscape for its signature painting.
And the artist? He’s one of the few having a banner 2020, from being chosen for the Fall Arts Festival’s poster artist to being inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.
The Fall Arts poster artist for 2020 is Thomas Blackshear out of Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the first Black artist to hold the year’s famed brush.
This year’s piece, “Hunter’s Watch,” features a Native American with bow and arrow standing in a cluster of leaves. It’s a strong deviation from the landscapes, animals, cowboys and mountain scenes that have been cornerstones of the Festival’s previous designs.
Blackshear was chosen by the event’s committee last fall, as is traditional. Committee member Madison Webb, who is auction director for the Jackson Hole Art Auction, said the group was drawn to his “innovation.” When the members saw his final painting, they loved it.
“It’s immediately iconic, eye-catching and memorable,” Webb said.
One of the valley’s biggest events of the year, the Festival draws thousands of people to town in a normal year. 2020, of course, is anything but.
Each year a committee chooses an artist to create the signature poster. The choice is made almost a year in advance.
For his part, Blackshear was “blown away” to receive the call about his selection last October but wanted to get to work.
“I was like, ‘What do they want from me?’” the amiable Blackshear, 64, said from his Colorado home. “Come on, you know, I do quite a few things. What do you want me to do?”
And they told him an Indian, and he said OK. He had to finish a piece by late January, from conception to completion.
“I had to figure out an idea, and I had to do it quickly,” Blackshear said. He knew, too, his work time would be interrupted by a Christmas trip to see his family in Atlanta.
His first inspiration came from a friend’s sculpture of a branch of the biblical Tree of Knowledge. Blackshear always liked the way the leaves were done in the sculpture, so he used that as inspiration for “Hunter’s Watch.” He brought leaves to the foreground, then put a Native American looking through the branches. He also considered how much of the man’s body to show, ultimately ending the image at his knees.
That hunter’s image was partially inspired by a painting the famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth did of a tracker, Blackshear said.
As for the identity and tribe of the hunter, Blackshear said it’s a common question. The man is from his imagination, a combination of many and an identifier to none. It’s more “romance” than realism, he said.
“Because of that I like to say he’s a member of the Blackshear tribe,” the artist said.
His body of work spans more than 35 years, although he has turned to what he calls “Western Nouveau” in the last three and a half. (“I was very excited they would even consider me,” he said.)
He describes himself as having three main styles: representative (or realistic,) stylized (or exaggerated) and decorative (or somehow intense). The Fall Arts piece is all those combined, including glimmering gold leaf paint on the hunter’s jewelry and shadowing on the leaves deep into the canvas.
Blackshear designed the first “Star Wars” collectors plate, and also did “Wizard of Oz” and “Star Trek” plates.
“I got a name there,” he said.
From there, in 1995, he created figurines, including his “Ebony Visions” line. He has created 30 U.S. postage stamps, including a commemorative stamp book called “I Have a Dream.” Other stamps are portraits of Joe Louis and, for a jazz musicians series, Jelly Roll Morton and Thelonious Monk.
He has also done stamps commemorating James Cagney, “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Beau Geste” and “Stagecoach” for series on Hollywood legends and classic movies.
As an inductee into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame he will join Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, Charles Schultz, N.C. Wyeth and other artists chosen for their body of work and contribution to the field.
That recognition has taken Blackshear by surprised. He left illustration years ago and turned to fine art. He thought he would no longer be considered for a society as famed as this.
He recounted the story of finding out: He was in Atlanta after an early morning flight, sleeping at his brother’s house until 3 in the afternoon. He saw messages from the Society of Illustrators, called back, and a woman said he had been chosen to be an inductee.
“My mouth hit the floor and it took me quite a few minutes to pick it back up,” he said.
He told her he was shocked, that he had left illustration years ago and never thought this could happen. She told him the group had been following his career all along.
What’s more, Blackshear’s mentor Mark English is in the Society. One of his fellow inductees is Drew Struzan, a famous movie poster artist (“Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “Indiana Jones”), whom Blackshear admires and knows.
“All of the top people I’ve ever admired are in there,” he said.
Blackshear graduated in 1977 from the American Academy of Art in Chicago and from there worked for the Hallmark Card Company in Kansas City, Missouri.
He became a freelance illustrator in 1982 and has been self-employed since.
His biography includes many gold medals and “best of” titles. In 2006, he had a one-man show through the Vatican in Rome. According to his biography, it was there he unveiled his painting of Pope John Paul II for the 25th anniversary of the Pope John Paul II Foundation.
Blackshear’s paintings are displayed at the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas and the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia. In Jackson his work is represented by Trailside Galleries. This is the first year Trailside has hosted the Fall Art’s Festival artist.
“Hunter’s Watch” is expected to be auctioned during Festival’s QuickDraw, which will be held online this year. The auction for the original signature painting of the Festival usually exceeds $25,000.
In addition to Western Nouveau, Blackshear has a robust collection of realistic-style religious paintings, including one with Jesus holding a white man in one painting and an identical Black man in another. He has created images of angels, both Black and white, and an intense almost movie still-life painting of King Kong. President Barack Obama was also the subject of a painting.
Blackshear plans to come to the Fall Arts Festival. He will have new work to show at Trailside and will be at the QuickDraw when his piece will be auctioned.
For more on Blackshear see ThomasBlackshearArt.com.