Head, Heart, Hand With Tommy Simpson

This special episode of TSBF features internationally acclaimed artist Tommy Simpson, whose award-winning work has been shown in more than 100 exhibitions in the U.S. and around the globe. Truly a national treasure, Tommy is that rarest of artists: He has worked in almost every artistic medium, including wood, sculpture, painting, prints, rugs, jewelry, and more. He’s also an accomplished writer and poet. In this wide-ranging interview, we talk about Tommy’s remarkable journey; the ways that fun, joy, and whimsy reflect and infuse his life and work; his wonderful views on creativity; and the meaningful and deeply satisfying life and career he has created across his 80+ years. He also shares his sage advice for anyone who would love to explore their world through creativity. Later in the interview, the talented artist Amy Firestone Rosen joins us for an informative Q&A with our in-person audience. This interview was originally videotaped live and in collaboration with Craft Alliance in Saint Louis, MO.

If you love hearing inspiring, uplifting stories about the lives and work of amazing artists, click the <play> button above. You’re in for a treat!

The Backstory

In October 2021, I received an unexpected call. The caller’s name was Jennifer Scanlan, and she was (and is) the Deputy Director of Craft Alliance in Saint Louis. I had been a big fan of the Alliance for several years, but had never had the pleasure of meeting or talking with Jennifer. I was exceptionally intrigued and excited.

Jennifer was interested in exploring the possibility of collaborating on a video podcast (a first for both of us) in association with an upcoming exhibition in January 2023. After several emails back and forth, we met for coffee to talk about the Alliance’s next exhibition featuring the internationally renowned Tommy Simpson. As we sat down to chat, she pulled out a black, leather, three-ring binder and began gently leafing through the pages. Each page was neatly encased in its own plastic sleeve and contained an individual image of one of Tommy’s amazing pieces, along with a brief story about that piece. The body of work represented in her black binder would comprise Tommy’s exhibition in the main gallery. I was captivated and immediately said, “Yes!”

As time drew closer to the exhibition, I learned about a second artist whose work would be featured simultaneously in “The Commons,” a long, wide corridor in the center of the Craft Alliance building, adjacent to the main gallery and Tommy’s exhibition. That innovative, St. Louis artist was Amy Firestone Rosen, whose work combines handcrafting with computer design, fiber objects and digital imagery. Her exhibition would be titled “Dancing on the Ceiling.” Jennifer and I immediately agreed to invite Amy to join the conversation during the latter part of the program.

The Interview

During our delightful interview, Tommy and I talk about a wide variety of topics. At 80+ years of age, with more than 60 of those years spent as a successful working artist, Tommy has so many great stories to share. As you will hear, the conversation kicks off with how Tommy’s life as a child and young adult has shaped the artist he is today. In the process, we learn about the many mediums in which he has worked and the two houses he has built from the ground up, including the windows, doors, staircases, furniture, and artwork. Additionally, we explore the ways that his work as a writer and poet are reflected in the whimsical blend of words and images that comprise a part of his body of work.

Throughout this inspiring interview, we explore Tommy’s fascinating take on creativity and the ways that “mind styling” by significant others (e.g., parents, teachers, professors, gallerists, and even other artists) can adversely affect the lives and work of an artist. We also discuss practical steps that artists (and creatives) can take to avoid becoming jaded and cynical across the course of their careers. You will love Tommy’s charming stories, and his deep conviction that each of us is creative and can exercise that creativity in an abundance of ways: from music, dancing, painting, pottery, and basket weaving to gardening, woodworking, and furniture making.

Toward the end of the interview, we invite Amy Firestone Rosen to join us for an excellent Q&A session with the audience.

Fun Facts

  • Tommy’s love of art began at the age of 5 or 6, when he started painting wildflowers on 5X7” canvases along with his great aunt—with homemade pie and ice cream as his reward
  • Bought and restored a 1948 Lincoln convertible with his father at the age of 16, for the crazy price of ~$80
  • Made Christmas ornaments for Vice President Walter Mondale and his wife while they were in the White House
  • Created wooden plates and a vase with flowers for an ad in Playboy magazine
  • Currently in the collections of several major art institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, the Boston MFA, and more

Cool Links

Video Interview with Tommy +  Amy at Craft Alliance
Tommy’s Website
Short Documentary about Tommy Called Living in a World I Created
Tommy at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
30 More of Tommy’s Art Pieces on Artsy

Amy Firestone Rosen’s Website

Quotes by Tommy

“Instead of focusing on positioning yourself in a marketplace, see how your mind thinks, what you feel about it, and do something that makes it fun for yourself and enjoyable and livable.”

“That’s the process of creativity: Something comes into your head, you put your being into it, and then you use your hands to resolve it—either writing or talking or playing a guitar or gardening. And it’s in all of us, I think.

“Nobody paints like I do, which is wonderful, and the worst thing that ever happened is nobody paints like I do because nobody knows what the hell you’re doing….”

Deb Gaut

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