There’s no artwork on the walls where Thomas Blackshear lives. He says he didn’t want to hang his stuff in this little “rinky dinky” apartment on the south side of Colorado Springs.
He’s used to his old place, the house Blackshear and his wife bought and filled with art when they moved to Colorado Springs 25 years ago. It was lost four years ago in the divorce, what Blackshear, a man of strong faith, calls the worst hell he’s been through. Things feel more normal over at his art studio, where he paints sought-after scenes of the West.
Things haven’t always been like this. But things are far from bad for the man whose flurry of paintings and figurines are fiercely loved. Here’s just one example: The Killers felt so connected to one of Blackshear’s pieces that the rock band borrowed it for their latest album cover. Frontman Brandon Flowers told NME magazine that the piece “became a member of the band” and inspired several lyrics.
At nearly 65, Blackshear has lived the kind of life you almost have to break up into chapters. He has stories that make hours pass. Stories about different cities. Changing careers. Blessings and lessons. Strange miracles. Heavens and hells.
He has stories about rock bottom. And great highs. Like getting the phone call in December from the Society of Illustrators. When Blackshear woke up in Atlanta after a red eye flight, he learned he was going to be inducted into the acclaimed society’s hall of fame. Other inductees include Norman Rockwell and Charles Schulz, the man behind the Peanuts cartoons.
“After I picked up my mouth from the floor, I sat there in shock,” Blackshear said. “I never thought that would happen to me.”
It seemed like a long shot, since Blackshear technically left the illustrating industry 30 years ago. But his work — for clients like Disney and George Lucas Studios and Universal Studios and National Geographic — left a big impact.
It’s fitting that the news landed in Atlanta, where Blackshear was born and so was his love for art. Looking back, he’s sure God gave him the gift. He says his mother noticed “something different” when Blackshear was 4. He drew a cow, and it really looked like a cow.
In school, he was the kid always drawing. He filled pages with monsters and dragons and fairies and characters from fantasy movies. “Things of wonderment,” as he calls them, have always inspired him. And still do.
Everyone called him the best artist they knew. That was until Blackshear’s senior year when he met a student who was a year younger and, Blackshear thought, a lot better. He says he learned a lesson: “I realized that I would never be the best, but I will be the best I can be.”
That’s what he’s tried to do since. Get better. That’s why he attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago and why he moved to Kansas City to work at Hallmark Card Co.
He wasn’t making cards, but designing ornaments and party favors. More importantly, it was a chance to meet the famous illustrator Mark English, also a Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame inductee. English hired him as his apprentice, making Blackshear plenty famous in the illustrating world too.
“I was on cloud nine,” Blackshear said. “I learned so much from him. I always say he had more talent in his little finger than I did in my whole body.”
As a freelance artist, big jobs came his way. California called. Blackshear moved out there with dreams of doing special effects for “Star Wars” movies. But he got busy with movie posters and assignments for National Geographic magazine and Coca-Cola.
He wouldn’t necessarily say any of his movie posters are worth mentioning, even though many made the marquee. Like one for George Lucas’ movie, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” starring Jeff Bridges. And one for “Legend,” which starred Tom Cruise.
That was in his late 20s, when his dreams were coming true. And he was making big money. But on the inside, he was crumbling.
He entered a three-year depression he calls a “deep funk.” He didn’t enjoy the grind of illustrating anymore. He didn’t like art that much anymore.
“It was not bringing me the joy I thought it would,” Blackshear said. “I lost the love for it. Nothing mattered.”
He’s not sure why the funk took over him. But there’s a story about when it left him.
“I know exactly what happened,” he says.
An old friend was visiting and looking to relocate to California. While she complained about the little annoyances of moving and job hunting, Blackshear struggled to care.
“I told her, ‘I’m sorry for what you’re going through, but nothing means anything to me right now,’” he recalls. “The only thing I got left is the faith to believe Jesus is going to get me through this.”
As he spoke those words about faith to a friend, he said something happened.
“That thing just came right off me,” Blackshear says. “That funk I just couldn’t get rid of was instantly gone.”
He started crying, feeling the relief of “being free again.”
Blackshear believes in these spiritual moments. At several times in his life, Blackshear has felt his faith push him in certain directions.
He felt the push to leave illustrating. So he did.
“The truth was it was the best decision I could ever make,” he said.
It opened up new chapters, like moving to Colorado Springs and getting into collectibles. He designed themed plates and other items for collectors of “Wizard of Oz” or Star Wars memorabilia. They still go for hundreds of dollars.
He’s the creator of the No. 1-selling line of Black figurines in the country. He designed the figures to “portray the beauty, elegance and dignity of African-Americans,” according to a website that sells them. His little statues take the form of soldiers, angels, kids playing, a couple dancing to the disco and another couple on their wedding day.
He’s proud that the figures have “touched the hearts and soul of people.”
“Nobody had done anything like it,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that Black people could have a figurine line that they could be proud of and that everybody could relate to.”
Blackshear is also the creator of more than 30 stamps sold by the U.S. Postal Service.
And he’s the creator of many top-selling Christian-themed prints. His most famous piece shows Jesus holding a crying man wearing a purple T-shirt and blue jeans. It’s called “Forgiven.”
“There’s a story behind that, too,” Blackshear says.
For about a month, he says he was looking for inspiration. He prayed and fasted, hoping for an idea to spark.
It happened at a church service.
“While I was singing, God downloaded this image in my mind,” Blackshear said. “I always say that I did not create ‘Forgiven.’ It was given to me.”
When the print went on sale at book stores, there were stories about people falling over and crying when they first saw the powerful image.
“That’s all God,” Blackshear said.
He has his faith to thank, too, for getting through the last few years.
“There was no way, without my faith in Jesus, that I would’ve made it,” he said. “I’m so glad I am past that.”
He’s also moved on to a new career as a Western artist.
His bold and colorful pieces show “something you haven’t seen before” in the genre, he says.
This is just his latest chapter, after years of highs and lows. Soon, he plans to move into a new house, maybe back home to Atlanta, and display some of his artwork again.
For now, he’s celebrating a win. In early October, he tuned into the virtual hall of fame ceremony and he talked in a speech about his love for art.
That love, for him, is one thing that will never change.