POSTED ON MAY 1, 2013:
Finding Thom Self
Love of music inspires art
C C O O U U R R T T E E S SY Y O O F F A A S S T T U U D D I I O O
I guess we are a studio."
Thom Self introduced himself and his partner, Ian Robinson, with the quizzical, I-guess-so sort of attitude that belies the fact that they are two of Tulsa's most recognizable artists.
Indeed, the two walked into the Mercury Lounge -- which provides them with most of their work -- and immediately were greeted by half the patrons. At 3pm on a Tuesday.
Self and Robinson maintained this humble style throughout their interview, frequently allowing the conversation to wander to other subjects -- and were as quick to praise someone as to tell a story making fun of them.
Self and Robinson make flyers for bands playing at the Mercury Lounge, the Cain's Ballroom, or really anyone else who pays them. As their work has become more well-known, they've begun selling their designs on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other items at Ida Red, a boutique specializing in local apparel.
"We're always trying to find new things to dabble in," Self said.
With some 1,150 poster designs under their belt, Self and Robinson's art has become ubiquitous in the downtown music scene. But they have remained fairly elusive. They give few interviews. They don't call attention to themselves, letting their work speak for itself.
But at last, Thom Self was found.
Finding Thom Self meant hearing his life story -- and the numerous people who have had an impact on him.
Self has a graphic design background and used to work for the Tulsa World as a retail ad designer. He said it was an intense environment in which he had to build ads to specification on tight deadlines. "It got to where I hated Christmas," he said, referring to one of the busiest times of the year for advertisers.
But there was an upside to the gig that made him hate the happiest time of the year. "It made me fast," Self admitted.
Self grew up in Cement, a town in southwest Oklahoma with fewer than 1,000 people. He also spent some of his childhood in the Texas panhandle.
Though he holds a degree in graphic design from OSU-Okmulgee ("a fine educational institution," he chuckled), Self credits his early interest in drawing to his mother.
"I was a hyperactive kid in a Pentecostal church," Self said.
Because the church services weren't really his style, his mother let him draw pictures during the weekly Sunday proceedings. Recalling these times, Self said he enjoyed drawing pictures that weren't quite church-appropriate. Some of the ladies at the service, for instance, would chastise him for drawing things they regarded as devilish. "I was like, 'Book of Revelation!'" Self said, recalling the final book of the Bible, notable for its demonic imagery.
Courtesy of A Studio
In the 1980s, when Self was in high school, his artistic talents came in handy. Classmates used to say, "Hey, draw the Van Halen logo on my folder," Self said. He was happy to oblige.
This intersection of art and music would become a theme in Self's life.
About nine years ago, Self began collaborating with Robinson.
As most good partnerships do, it started with booze.
Self was still working at the Tulsa World at that time, but he made his own art on the side. He decided to display some of it in a gallery run by Ian Robinson.
Robinson is a comic book artist by profession. A native Tulsan, he and Self enjoy an easy friendship that comes from years of working together on projects both are passionate about. At one point during the interview, the two drifted off talking about a potential business deal, but were just as comfortable talking about the old days of Tulsa music.
Robinson is particularly proud -- almost nostalgic -- of the early days of his partnership with Self. "That was when underground art was actually underground," he said of the time he opened his studio -- sometime around 2004, when downtown was just beginning its revival.
Originally called Space, it was soon changed to A Studio. There was an inconclusive discussion about when the name change occurred.
Self's art show was the second scheduled at Space. The first was a display of the art of a man in his late teens who Robinson called "arrogant." Neither he nor Self could remember the kid's name, but Robinson described him as someone who thought he was hot stuff, "but couldn't paint."
In fact, this artist had such a high opinion of his work that he was "trying to price his stuff at $10,000," Robinson said. He said the painter was a nightmare to work with and that he required Robinson -- who he treated like hired help -- to do most of the work in setting up the art show.
As Self's own show approached, he saw the stress Robinson was going through. He wanted Robinson's help to hang his show but wasn't sure how to ask.
Eventually, he asked the only way he knew how. "I walked in with a bottle of Maker's Mark and said, 'Do you want to hang my show?'" Self said.
The two soon discovered that they shared an artistic vision, and the collaboration was born. Or, as Robinson put it, they said to each other, "We should start doing some stuff." Today, Self does most of the graphic designs while Robinson does the illustration.
That bottle of Maker's Mark began a new phase of Tulsa artistic history.
Well, that and "the guy that lived above the gallery," Self said.
The studio's upstairs neighbor was Paul Lindstrom, who assisted in building out the bar before the Mercury Lounge opened. But Robinson and Self just knew him as "Big Paul." He invited the pair to hang out at the place.
Self became a regular at the Mercury -- he still is -- where he connected with Shane Stewart of Electric Rag Band.
Self's relationship with ERB proved fateful, as he and Robinson have now done more than 60 gig posters for them. But it had an inauspicious beginning, with Self begging. "Come on, Shane, let me do a poster for you," Self recalled saying.
Eventually, Stewart relented and Self designed his first gig poster for the Mercury.
Courtesy of A Studio
Unfortunately, the posters were never displayed. A new bartender happened to have been hired that weekend and he either forgot or didn't know about the project. "New guy never hung 'em up," Self said.
When telling this story, Self and Robinson laughed sardonically. That new bartender was Reggie Dobson, who now owns the Mercury.
Nevertheless, Joshua Martin, who owned the Mercury at that time, saw the work, was impressed, and asked him to do more posters. Self laughed as he said he still remembers Martin that night in a tweed suit. But he can't complain too much: "Eight and a half years later, I'm still doing things [for the Mercury]," he said.
Self and Robinson now make a good deal of their living making these posters and selling them as merchandise. The 1,150 gig posters the two have done don't include the CD art they've made for various groups, as well.
Self is the confessed "front man" of the duo, though he was adamant that Robinson be included as well.
Still, Robinson pointed out that the bands who want them to do art approach Self when they play at the Mercury. "[Thom] kind of sits like a drug dealer at the end of the bar" and lets bands approach him, Robinson said, laughing.
Their work has gotten both local and national attention.
"Gig posters aren't really an industry," Robinson said. He added that artists who do gig posters in other cities hold up Self's and Robinson's work as examples of art done well. Both men said that Scrojoe, an artist who is best known for doing gig posters in California, was one of the first to express approval of their work. That meant a lot because it came "from someone we looked up to," Self said.
Self and Robinson claim to be the only gig poster artists of their caliber in town. Self said he even made up a nickname for his friend and himself: "T-Town Thom the Poster Pimp."
Going forward, Self and Robinson are looking to expand the ways their images are sold.
"I'm trying to push him towards the books," Robinson said, adding that it could be lucrative to put their work in a coffee table book. Another avenue could be a digital comic book, a medium Robinson said is beginning to gain traction among independent comic book artists.
Courtesy of A Studio
Self, however, wants to expand their merchandise, specifically mentioning jigsaw puzzles as a potential way forward.
But it's not just about the art (or the money). The music scene at Mercury is what has sustained the work. Frequently, during their interview, conversation drifted to music and bands that have come through the Mercury to play.
Self fell in love with music as a young kid. "I was intrigued by my uncle's record collection," he said. But because he grew up in such a small town, he never had the opportunity to see music played live. "I was hungry for it," he said.
When he started college in Chickasha, he gravitated toward the other music geeks. "Most of the kids were also from small towns in Oklahoma.... College was our chance to find each other."
And his love for live music took off. Self recalled seeing Metallica open for Ozzy Osbourne in Tulsa in the mid-1980s.
He also began frequenting record shops that dotted the Tulsa landscape at the time. Eclipse on 6th Street and Mohawk Records and Tapes on S. Sheridan were two favorites. "Mohawk [is] one of those places you don't have [anymore]. It was a real record shop," Robinson said.
Self said he used to try to stump Mohawk's owner -- a man named Paul (not Big Paul) -- by ordering obscure German albums. Paul always managed to remain un-stumped. Self remembered thinking at the time, "Ugh. I'm going broke."
Combining music and art as he's done at Mercury was a natural fit for Self. "I've always been into music because I can do stuff and listen to music at the same time," he said.
Robinson admitted that Self's love of music helped him get more into the local music scene. "[Thom] accidentally got me into it," Robinson said. Before he and Self began collaborating, he primarily listened to "old-school jazz, instrumental music." Not really the vibe the Mercury attracts.
Now, however, he's every bit as knowledgeable about rock music as Self is, taking just as much pleasure in telling stories about clients' shows.
To find inspiration for their posters, "[a] lot of it is listening to the music, going to [a band's] MySpace," Self said. Sometimes he and Robinson latch on to a lyric, a song name, or even an artist's previous work.
The music scene that has sprung up around Mercury has also inspired Self and Robinson -- even as it has provided them with work.
COURTESY OF KEVIN PYLE
One client, for example, is Andy Frasco. He comes through Tulsa -- and the Mercury -- periodically, often with a different lineup that Self described as "like the U.N." Frasco is Jewish, and his band frequently includes blacks and Asians. One time, he brought a Russian man who "didn't even speak English," Self said.
One poster Self and Robinson did for Frasco draws on this multiculturalism. It depicts Superman with four arms (like the Hindu god Kali) and sporting an afro.
In fact, Self and Robinson have done several posters for Frasco, and the afro makes multiple appearances. "You end up developing series and themes," Robinson said of repeat customers.
When Self and Robinson began their partnership in the mid-2000s, the Tulsa music scene left a lot to be desired. They've noticed a dramatic improvement in recent years -- especially at the Mercury Lounge. "Bands that are way too big to be playing down here love to play here," Robinson said.
Self agreed, noting that bands that play at the Mercury become fans of each other. "I really enjoy it when a band is playing and musicians come to listen," he said.
Robinson was quick to credit Self for doing his part to promote local music with his flashy, creative posters. "The Tulsa music scene would not be what it is without Thom," he said.
You know how you never notice that anyone in town drives a Toyota, and then you buy one, and suddenly, it seems like every car on the road is a Toyota? Now that readers have found Thom Self, they'll notice a lot more of these posters dotting the musical landscape.
Courtesy of A Studio
Eyes peeled, boys and girls.
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