Thirty-five years is a long time to do anything, let alone sustain a career as a working artist – especially in a day and age where more and more people spend their time in a digital realm, where art does not always successfully translate.
Thomas Blackshear, in spite of the challenges that face many in this modern market, has managed to make a longstanding and prolific career. An artist who has managed to not only maintain but also thrive with a genre-bending career that runs the gamut from painting, to sketching, to sculpting. Throughout the course of his lifetime, he has become the most collectible African American sculptor on the retail market. So much so, that most folks have seen his work over the course of their lives, without knowing whose hands created it. Let us delve a little further into the man behind the art, and get to know our featured artist.
Artistic Style of Thomas Blackshear
Thomas Blackshear infuses true emotion into all of his works, which often touch on social themes that affect the minority community, the beauty of the African American culture, and even art that issue subtle challenges to the typical religious iconography portrayed in modern art. Whether in a postage stamp, a true-to-life painting, sculpture or other artistic format, Blackshear’s artistic genius lies in his exquisite detailing, and mastery of color. Tapping into these talents has allowed him to convey his message in a way that moves the audience, and goes beyond the surface beauty of the work.
While Blackshear touches on a number of topics in the expansive collection of artwork he has created, he feels most in tune with the Christian art he creates. He says the Christian art he creates is a calling from God. He sees it as a ministry, not just art or a job. Hearing how much certain pieces of his Christian artwork affects people affirms his dedication toward this style of art.
Early Years: Growing up in Atlanta
Blackshear was born in Waco, TX, but always considered Atlanta his first home, having moved there at an early age. Unlike most of the kids in his class who were out playing sports, drawing was the only focus in Thomas’ mind. That dedication to his talent paid off, as he was able to follow that interest in art throughout high school, earning him a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. After his first year at the art school, he transferred to the prestigious American Academy of Art, also in Chicago, graduating in 1977.
Early Artwork: Commercial Jobs
Unbeknownst to many, Blackshear worked as a commercial illustrator in the early part of his career, doing work for a variety of national companies. After graduating from the Academy of Art Thomas was able to apprentice with illustrator Mark English. Later he served as the head illustrator at Godbold/Richter studios in Kansas City.
Blackshear has worked with a number of nationally known brands, including:
- Lucas Films
- Universal Studios
- Disney Pictures
- Greenwich Workshop
- Milton Bradley
- Jim Henson Studios
For those secret nerds out there, you may find this little tidbit fun -- Thomas created the collector plates for Hamilton Group. With that commission he was responsible for painting the first series of Star Wars collector plates, as well as the series for Star Trek: The Next Generation. No lie there are a few of us here whose nerd hearts literally SOARED when we found out this news.
Having achieved success in the more commercial endeavors, Thomas eventually steered his career back towards fine art, and we are all so glad that he did. His artwork has the ability to resonate with a wide range of audiences, and have managed to open more than a few eyes to the true beauty that lies in the art outside of ourselves.
Postal Stamp Artwork by Thomas Blackshear
While Blackshear is most widely known for his sculptural work, he has also created iconic images for stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, including two sets representing important figures in black history. Many of the stamps bearing his work are now highly collectible. His work for the Postal Service includes:
- Black Heritage Series: The Black Heritage stamp series features several of Blackshear’s paintings, including those depicting Ida B. Wells, James W. Johnson, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and Asa Scott Randolph. He illustrated these original Black Heritage stamp images between 1986 and 1989. His most recent stamp art in this series, released in 2017, honors Dorothy Height, an influential civil rights leader who fought for racial and gender equality.
- I Have a Dream: Another project Blackshear completed for the USPS was the illustrations for “I Have a Dream: A Collection of Black Americans on US Postage Stamps.” The USPS commissioned Blackshear for the project in 1991. The book features 28 illustrations of famous African Americans.
- USPS Jazz Series: His work also shows up in the Jazz series, where three of his paintings appear on stamps. Those stamps depict Joe Louis, Thelonious Monk and Jelly Roll Martin. The interesting part about this is Blackshear eventually found out he is distantly related to Joe Louis.
- Classic Movie Monsters: Blackshear’s work for the USPS isn’t only related to black history. He also created artwork of classic movie monsters, including Frankenstein and the bride of Frankenstein.
- Classic Hollywood Movies Series: Blackshear contributed to another movie-themed stamp series based on classic Hollywood movies. His classic Hollywood movie stamp images include “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Stagecoach,” among others.
- Other stamps: Some of Blackshear’s other stamp art designs include James Baldwin, Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks.
The small scale of stamp art adds to the challenge of creating the designs. Blackshear captures the detailing and essence of his stamp art subjects with his supreme talents, making the stamps highly collectible.
Paintings by Thomas Blackshear
Blackshear may be known for his figurines, but he has many paintings to his credit as well, many of which are very well known. Blackshear uses his mastery of color to produce brilliant, detailed images that can’t help but move you. He is also a master of using light and dark in his paintings.
Some of Blackshear’s most prominent paintings include:
- Forgiven: This religious painting is perhaps the most recognizable of Blackshear’s paintings. He originally painted Forgiven in the late ‘80s for DaySpring greeting cards. In the image, Christ holds a man in his arms. The man holds a hammer and a spike to represent the idea that Christ always shows mercy, despite our sins.
- Coat of Many Colors, Lord of All: Another Christian image, Coat of Many Colors, Lord of All, depicts Jesus Christ wearing a robe of fabrics and flags from around the world. This colorful robe, with the colors representing our sin that He takes on, covers a white robe underneath, which represents His pureness.
In just these two examples alone, you can see how Blackshear not only creates powerfully beautiful artwork on a purely aesthetic level, but he also weaves powerful messages into his artwork. To look at his work and not be moved by its detail and imagery, would be nearly impossible.
Figurines by Thomas Blackshear
Blackshear first broke into the retail figurine market with a subsidiary of Lenox, known as Willitts Designs International. The company approached him to create a line of figurines with an African-American theme. Thomas agreed to create the series with the onus that he could take the somewhat “safe” images that Willits had provided and alter them to be more reflective of the culture he was so proud of. Stalwart in his belief that the ideas originally presented by the company would not accurately represent African Americans, Thomas initially walked away from the deal. Despite the initial resistance, the Willits heeded Thomas’ suggestions, and in the end, were able to create the line “Ebony Visions”, which by the end had over 200 figurines in the line – including “The Storyteller” which is still his most sought after piece of all time.
With an art style, affectionately coined “Afro-Nouveau” Ebony Visions became the go-to in African-American figurines. Moreover, the line also changed the whole look for the retail art world. For the first time in a modern retail setting, African Americans were viewed as living pieces of art on a wide scale. In the end it became about more than just selling figurines, it became about inclusion.
More Facts About Thomas Blackshear
- Blackshear received the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators, a very prestigious award in the illustrating world.
- He has been featured in many places, including The Living Canvas, Ebony/Jet Showcase, “The 700 Club” and The Saturday Evening Post.
- You can also find his work in “The Society of Illustrators Annuals” and “Outstanding American Illustrators Today, Volume Two.”
- Many original pieces of Blackshear’s artwork appeared in a special exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in the early ‘90s before touring the nation.
- He feels that constantly learning, finding inspiration and remaining a student are essential characteristics for any artist.
- Blackshear is a comic book nerd, though don’t ask him to pick a favorite (BATMAN)!
- He finds great inspiration from Gustav Klimt. Other inspirations include Alphonse Mucha, Dean Cornwell and artists from the Golden Age of Illustration.
- The artist received the 2013 Distinguished Alumnus Award from the American Academy of Art.
- Blackshear’s painting of Pope John Paul II appeared at the Vatican in 2006 in a one-man exhibition.
- He created a figurine and a portrait of President Obama. He completed the painting just before the 2012 presidential election.
- He currently lives in Colorado Springs.
- Blackshear’s artwork consistently increases in value over time. Many of his pieces become highly sought after, particularly once they are retired, and regularly fetch significantly more than the retail price on the secondary market.
Blackshear’s Little Pilot Series Pays Gentle Homage to the Tuskegee Airmen
Blackshear’s artwork graces many types of art, but African American Expressions is proud to partner with this renowned artist on a limited-edition series of figurines honoring the Tuskegee Airmen. The Little Pilots series features baby angels sitting on clouds and wearing World War II fighter pilot helmets. Each angel’s diaper honors the Tuskegee Airmen with detailing that represents “The Red Tail Brigade” nickname given to the pilots.
Why is this series so highly collectible? The fact that Blackshear created the artwork is enough reason for people to grab up these Thomas Blackshear African-American figurines, but that’s not the only reason. While he normally uses a sketch-to-sculpt method, Blackshear carved the figurines in this series freehand, something he hasn’t done in years.
Artist proofs of the angel figurines didn’t even make it to the shelves before they sold out. Add in the limited-edition nature of the figurines and the expectation of increased value over time, and you have a series that is highly collectible.
Limited-Edition African American Expressions Figurines
Thomas Blackshear is not only a talented artist, he is also an inspiration. Despite his success in so many different art forms, he remains a humble man with an amazing spirit who constantly wants to learn. He follows his passion for Christian art, and he inspires anyone who sees his work with the emotionally driven images he creates.
You can find inspiration in Thomas Blackshear’s work by choosing your own pieces for your home. We offer a wide range of African-American figurines from Blackshear and other artists, as well as different print options of some of Blackshear’s paintings. Browse our selection to find the perfect pieces to surround yourself in the African-American art that represents your culture.