Democratizing Art: Thomas “Detour” Evans Honors Jazz and Hip-Hop Icons

“Jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America,” jazz critic Stanly Crouch wrote just weeks before President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. “Talent knows no limitations and is not color-coded, from the top of society to the bottom. When musicians accepted that, the way jazz was played proved to be democratic and the social vision of jazz became a revolutionary version of democracy.”

Perhaps it was jazz’s rift on democracy that first inspired Thomas “Detour” Evans to make portraits of jazz legends like Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. Jazz’s emphasis on improvisation — its ability to transform both the melody and the social and political context in which it was created, along with its capacity to bring together diverse audiences for the sheer love of the music — has been one of the genre’s most compelling achievements. Hip-Hop echoes these sentiments, which Evans’ honors in portraits of Hip-Hop legends like Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck-D, DMC and Lauryn Hill. “You love that music, you have to integrate,” Evans says, recalling the jazz era. “It’s hard not to bridge a gap when it comes to artwork and music.”

 “Miles,” by Thomas Evans.  ©  All Rights Reserved.

“Miles,” by Thomas Evans. © All Rights Reserved.

Like the jazz and Hip-Hop artists he painstakingly portrays, Evans brings a kind of virtuosity to his work, rendering his portraits in stunning, surreal life-like detail. Working with oil, acrylic and airbrush, he creates images that emit energy, vitality and creative willpower, capturing the life force of the musicians, artists and break-dancers.

Evans’ canvasses aren’t ordinary canvases, either. He makes them by hand using carpentry tools and embellishes them with elaborate fans of broken, painted records. “The airbrush on canvas was a little flat, so I started adding different things … like broken records. A lot of jazz artists got their music out across the nation through records — through all different types of communities. It didn’t matter what your background was.”

Evans further incorporates music by rigging his paintings with speakers. On the back of his canvases he places an amplifier and jack. Viewers (whom Evans refers to as “the audience”) can plug into the paintings and play music, which literally reverberates beneath the canvas in the same way Evans’ works are interactive. Audience engagement is an important theme in Evans’ work. Evans is also developing a technique that will enable people to touch the canvas and play different sounds. “Bringing the actual touch and feel on to the canvas is my next goal,” says Evans. “I want people to touch it, communicate with it and make it their own so it’s a different piece for everybody.”

By placing the painter and the audience on equal footing, this audience engagement brings to mind modernist and post-modernist ideals about “the death of the author.” By evoking audience participation, Evans’ paintings break the hierarchy existing between the artist and the viewer — one in which the artist is the owner, creator and proprietor of the work and the viewer is a passive consumer. In Evans’ paintings both the viewer and the artist are authors, imbued with privileges the title entails. Evans’ work promotes equality not only through its material, but also through the viewer’s engagement with the painting, honing in on a unity between content and form, creating a self-sustaining, participatory attention edifice.

Evans plans to take this participatory aesthetic to the nth degree, imagining an entirely new kind of art show that’s both engaging and cross-genre. “What I want to happen is that, when you go to my show, you have concerts, you have performances, you have this, you have that, and it’s all based off of what’s on the canvas,” says Evans. “That’s really where I am focused now. Not trying to focus on selling the actual pieces, but giving that experience and having people talk about it.” Evans’ vision will literally make art a show — not for passive viewers but active audience members.  

At first, Evans didn’t plan on becoming an artist. As the child of a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army, Evans moved from city to city. Having lived on the Ramstein U.S. Air Force Base in Germany, his youth was marked by world travel, but also by a sense of rootlessness. Like many military children, Evans longed to make meaningful connections with the friends he made along the way, and to find a sense of connectedness, Evans turned to art, which gave him a means to relate to and communicate with others. “That’s why I really focused on art,” Evans recalls. “Moving around, you have to find new ways to meet and interact with people.”

Currently, Evans is working on new pieces depicting the protests taking place in Ferguson, Missouri over the police shooting of Michael Brown. In one painting, a masked protestor is boldly framed by the Facebook symbol. In another, a protestor wearing an American-flag t-shirt stands inside the Twitter icon, throwing a Molotov cocktail.

 “the-revolution-will-be-tweeted,” by Thomas Evans.  ©  All Rights Reserved.

“the-revolution-will-be-tweeted,” by Thomas Evans. © All Rights Reserved.

Evans intends these works not as overt statements about social media, but rather as conversation starters. As Evans notes, social media has the power to bring attention to topics mainstream media wouldn’t otherwise cover. But Evans worries that the ability to voice one’s outrage in 140 characters or less has encouraged protester passivity. “When [injustice] happens, are you just going to retweet it, or are you going to be out there on the front lines?” he asks.

What rings true throughout Evans’ work is a demand for meaningful, active engagement — not only the audience’s engagement with art, but also citizens’ engagement in politics. Shakespeare once wrote, "all the world's a stage," and perhaps nowhere is this more true than in Ferguson, Missouri. Evans’ social media paintings ask us to put down our phones and actively stand up for justice and equality, implicating the audience on the stage otherwise known as the world.    

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