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 Thom Shaw  (1947 - 2010)

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Lived/Active: Ohio      Known for: painting, drawing, woodcuts

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Thom Shaw
Poverty's Paradise
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Thom Shaw (b.1947-d.2010)

Thom Shaw is known for his stark black and white woodcuts which graphically depict the horrors of inner-city life (Taft: Museum of Art).  He drew inspiration from the environment that he encountered as well as from his own personal struggles with chronic illnesses that plagued him during much of his life.  Born August 28, 1947 in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was the first of ten children born to Thomas Sr. and Alberta Shaw.  He worked at Cincinnati Bell as a graphic designer for 27 years beginning in 1965, but was also a professional artist during most of that time.  Thom Shaw married his wife, Jacqueline, with whom he had three children: Tresy, Alyn, and D’Etta.  He also had a son, Vayda, from a previous relationship (Obituary Search).  

As a child, Shaw watched an artist paint with shoe polish, and thought to himself that he could do that.  When Shaw was in the third grade, he drew a picture that so impressed his teacher and one of her colleagues that they offered to pay for him to attend art school, since his parents were unable to afford it.  By the time he reached junior high, his proficiency resulted in his work being banned from school art competitions.  One of his favorite things to draw at this time was comic book villains, since he had an affinity for the dark side of human behavior.  This darkness becomes prominent in his more renowned professional work.  After attending Hughes High School, he enrolled in various art programs to enhance his skill and began selling his works.  Shaw received a certification in painting and printmaking from the Art Academy of Cincinnati, as well as a Masters of Fine Art in Printmaking from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigann (Wilson).  Although Shaw wished to pursue a career path as an artist on Hollywood movie production sets, he instead continued to work as an independent artist (Thom Shaw).

Shaw notes that upon first entering the art world,  he regarded his work as unfulfilling: “None of the things I did really quenched my soul but I was doing them as a way of making money, getting shows and galleries to be interested in me. None of the things I was doing in the '70s and 80s really did much for me but I hadn't come to any realization of who I was as an artist” (Meyer).  At this time, his main works centered around large, colorful geometric abstracts that appealed to the general public (Brown).  In addition to producing these sale-able works, Shaw created black and white pieces that later brought him fame.  However, he felt that the black and white creations were too personal to show widely.  He used the medium of woodcuts to create these black and white images.  Woodcuts are a challenging medium to work in, since there is little room for error.  However, Shaw enjoyed working with the material known as masonite, a thin wood composite, because it was cheap, challenging to master, and offered him freedom within his creations.  This gave his works spontaneity (Thom Shaw).
The art world “discovered” Shaw as an artist in 1973, when Barbara Miller mounted a solo show of his work at the Miller Gallery.  The work entitled Debejamming series, was based on jazz influences, that many art patrons saw as pleasant abstract paintings.  His solo showcase was noteworthy because it occurred during a time when few galleries would touch art that exhibited a “black attitude” (Wilson).  Concurrently, he showed his woodcuts at the Closson Gallery in a more urban location in downtown Cincinnati (Brown).  

Shaw never passed up an opportunity to network in hopes of having his artwork recognized, so in 1976 he asked longtime Contemporary Art Center Director Ruth Meyer to look at his work.  Her intense probing concerning his artistic vision made him realize that he had not quite developed fully as an artist.  The constraints created by his nine-to-five job as a graphic designer coupled with Meyer’s analysis resulted in Shaw stopping work on his more personal woodcuts.  Consequently, he was occupied with drawings and paintings until the mid-1980s (Wilson).

In the 1980s while in Chicago to show art dealers his work, Shaw witnessed a gang fight. This event inspired much of his later work.  He grabbed a camcorder and began conducting in-the-field research, approaching different types of gangs and interviewing them about their lives.  This was during the era of Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X that brought a resurgent interest among gang members.  The influence of Malcolm X manifested itself in the attire of gang members who wore large X’s on their clothing.  In addition the gangs adopted Malcolm X’s motto “by any means necessary” and Shaw captured the gang culture and created the well-known woodcut series: The Malcolm X Paradox (Meyer).  This series garnered worldwide attention since it not only showed the breakdown of black families in the inner city, but also depicted the lack of resources available to them, which resulted in perpetual drug use and violence.
His style of social commentary in the Malcolm X Paradox series and other woodcuts is reminiscent of German Expressionism and eliminates any justification for the gang lifestyle. In one woodcut of the Malcolm X Paradox series, a mother holds her baby while trying to inject heroin into her veins (Meyer).  These controversial images and their implied messages brought Shaw popularity and criticism.  While a separate image in the series depicted a young man wearing a do-rag on his head with his back to a bullet-ridden brick wall, with countless firearms spilling from his mouth.  The parody lies with Malcolm X’s adoption of the Islam faith; a faith that promotes peace, yet his message was misinterpreted by the exact people he was trying to help.  Thus, Shaw’s social awareness is evidenced, since these images served to cast a spotlight on the social woes that Shaw identified.

Throughout the 1980s, Shaw had many solo exhibitions.  This exposure brought him increased recognition and fame within the art world.  However, his work also elicited negative criticism.  Some writers argued that his work’s harsh depictions glamorized gang activity and reinforced images shown by the media.  In response, Shaw stated that he wasn’t trying to do either.  Rather, the purpose of his work was to show the breakdown of society.  He hoped his depictions would serve as the medium through which society would see where it needed to change (Taft: Museum of Art).  He never apologized about his desire to rise to the top through an unfaltering commitment to networking, nor was he remorseful for the brutality of his work.  Negative reactions also came from some of the other black artists.  They were perturbed by Shaw’s refusal to sign his name to any petition that tried to appeal to the Cincinnati Art Museum to feature more local artists (Yount).

Although some of his contemporaries were irked by his persona, Shaw worked with an arts collective group which featured: award-winning photographer Melvin Grier, painters Gilbert and Joyce Young, and multimedia artist Bing Davis.  Each creator worked independently but they joined together to showcase their art collectively as “good art, black art” (Wilson).   

His big break came in 1994 when the New York Times called Shaw the “standout” in the group of artists featured in an upcoming exhibit at the prestigious Studio Museum in Harlem.  In 1996, Shaw became the first local black artist to ever have a solo showcase in the Cincinnati Art Museum (Wilson).  The next year, however, he was diagnosed with heart disease which led to quintuple bypass surgery.  Years of health problems, most notably diabetes, had taken their toll.  In 2005, he lapsed into a coma caused by a severe neck infection brought on by kidney failure.  In efforts to raise money for his hospital bills, fellow black artists held an “Art from the Heart,” a three-day exhibition in which thirty-seven artists contributed works for sale.  The black art community put aside any personal quibbles with Shaw and came together to support one of their own whose work they admired.

As a result of his health problems, Shaw began to portray himself in some of his works (Dobbins).  He exposed himself as a fragile person with an opening in his chest that revealed a childishly small heart, in the woodcut entitled Idle Time for Decision Making (Brown).  His work towards the end of his life centered around hospitals and the frailty of the human body and spirit (Morris).  In another series of woodcuts entitled Life Stories, Shaw graphically delineates the scourge of chronic illness.  In one of the self-portraits in the series he even attached two of his own x-rays that showed a man in a hospital bed with tubes penetrating every conceivable portion of his body.  These experiences were all too real for Shaw and reminded viewers of their own mortality.  Sadly, in 2009 Shaw had his right leg amputated due to a flesh-eating bacterial infection.  He continued working after his surgery, thanks to the encouragement of his friends who even brought him art supplies in the hospital (Wilson).  The following summer, Thom Shaw died on July 6, 2010 from diabetes complications.

Thom Shaw never feared to look at himself or society through his art, and his self-portraits exhibited a brutal honesty about the hellish health battles he fought for much of his life. His contribution to the art community was vast.  He was a founding member of the group Umoja, which mentored incoming black artists at the Art Academy.  Umoja also sought exhibition opportunities for deserving black artists in the greater Cincinnati area.  He served as the Duncanson Artist in Residence at the Taft Museum.  His meticulous woodcuts showcased the world as he saw it, and vividly represented in the unfiltered depictions he created.  The use of sharp contrast between black and white vividly represented this unfiltered content.  Shaw said about his technique: “I enjoy working in black and white because of its starkness and the contrast it represents. There is no room for gray; life is a series of black and white events and therefore it becomes an eyebrow raiser” (Taft: Museum of Art). Shaw’s unique perspective will ensure his position as one of the outstanding modern black artists.  

Works Cited:
Brown, Daniel. "Thom Shaw: Life Stories-360 Degrees." Aeqai (April 2009): n. pag. Web. 22 Feb 2011. " <>        
Brown, Daniel. "Thom Shaw, Cincinnati Artist, Dies July 6 . ADUMBRATIONES. Aeqai, 07 August 2010. Web. 26 Feb 2011. <>.
Dobbins, Geoffrey. "Thom Shaw's Beautiful Ugly Truths." WireTap. WireTap Magazine, 31 Aug 2009. Web. 28 Feb 2011. <>.
Meyer, Ruth . "Thom Shaw: Anger and Art." Over-the-Rhine. iRhine , 16 Nov 2003. Web. 22 Feb 2011. <>.
Morris , Matt. "Life As Art: Thom Shaw." CityBeat, 03 Aug 2010. Web. 23 Feb 2011. <>.
"Obituaries." Obituary Search. The Enquirer, 16 July 2010. Web. 23 Feb 2011. <>.
"Thom Shaw." Taft: Museum of Art. Taft, 2005. Web. 24 Feb 2011. <>.  
Thom Shaw. Perf. Shaw, Thom. Huntington Museum of Art: 2003, Film.
Wilson, Kathy. "Dead Man Working." CincinnatiMagazine, 01 Mar 2009. Web. 4 Mar 2011.   <>.
Yount, Dan. "VERSATILE ARTIST WAS KNOWN FOR STINGING SOCIAL COMMENTARY." Cincinnati Herald 17 July 2010: B1. Print.
Written and submitted by Alex Edelmann as an art seminar assignment at Marshall University, March 9, 2011

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