Denver-based artist Thomas “Detour” Evans took a highly-unorthodox route to becoming a professional artist by first building a solid business foundation and then plunging head first into the art world. After successfully melding his MBA education with his tireless work ethic, healthy social media following and dedication to cutting-edge work, Detour has been able to quickly propel his art career.
With a roster of high-profile clients like David Letterman, Mountain Dew, the NBA and General Motors, coupled with a desire to always test and improve, Detour is poised to take his career to even greater heights.
In our conversation, Detour shares:
- how he successfully attracts new customers and corporate clients through social media
- his pricing strategy and why pricing can be a challenge for any artist
- why he’s writing a book dedicated to helping artists with the more opaque aspects of the art world
For people who aren’t familiar with your work, can you give a brief overview of who you are and what you do?
I basically just tell people I’m a full-time creative, mainly because it kind of encompasses everything and I don’t get pigeonholed into a specific medium or genre. I do interactive work, murals, studio work, portraiture, graphic design, photography and some videography stuff — so a little bit of everything.
A lot of artists we’ve spoken with have said their art degrees didn’t prepare them for the business side of their art careers. You earned a bachelor’s in Business Administration and Management in 2008 and an MBA from the University of Colorado Denver in 2012, but have no formal art training. Do you feel your education has been helpful for your art career?
Yeah. My MBA, my work ethic and some of the different jobs I’ve done really separate me and help me succeed. The business degree is very beneficial when it comes to organizing, figuring out business terms, what I have to look out for and strategies.
When I first started trying to figure out how to do art full time and what I wanted to strive to do in the art world, I stepped back and said, Okay, what do I envision myself as? And sort of tried to put together an artist business plan, saying, Okay, this is the artist I want to be, let me figure out five other artists I like and see what they’re doing. Let me see some of the strategies they’re using, the market they’re targeting or that they’re in, let me figure out the platform they’re on, cherry pick some of that stuff from all these different artists that I like based off of what I want to be in this art world.
All of that stuff is Business School 101, especially when it comes to the MBA strategy stuff. Are you a loss leader, are you a boutique, are you high-end? Because the same artist who shows in museums and sells for millions is not the same artist who will hang work in a coffee shop. So it’s kind of like, Okay, this is who I want to be and this is the route I have to take to get to where I want to be. I took pieces from all of the stuff I learned in business school and sort of applied it to the art world.
It was kind of unique because we’re not in New York or L.A. In those places it’s an established art scene where you have to kiss the hand or bend the knee, so to speak. But here in Denver it was small enough, but also large enough, to support an art scene where there weren’t territories that you can’t get in or gates that you can’t pass unless you have certain credentials. It was sort of open for me. I was in the right space at the right time and the business degree really helped out a lot.
I know a lot of artists who went the art school route and they focused mainly on the conceptual and theory sides of art. Sometimes they aren’t prepared to figure out how to make it [as full-time artists], especially in a world that’s changing all the time and where you have corporations getting involved.
If you go to Art Basel, it’s more of a corporate event now than anything. So you have to figure out how to navigate a world where you have all these different entities getting into the art world, plucking artists out, doing deals and contracts, shows and things like that.
You also need to know how to make it in this digital age where now the gallery or the museum wants you to already come with a [social] following first because it ensures them that people will come to your show or opening. Before, they used to discover the artist and build them up. So how do you navigate that? Because now that’s different.
I’d say it was beneficial for me that I focused on business first and then dove into the art afterwards.
It sounds like your time doing some marketing work for the Indigenous Education Foundation of Tanzania in 2014-2015 was the catalyst for going full time with art. How did you make ends meet in the beginning?
I mean, I really didn’t. It took me a good six months to start seeing some returns from it, which is a lot better than most. But still, it was a little iffy. It wasn’t until I started doing live art and getting into more of the public space that I started seeing people recognizing my work and pulling the trigger when it came to purchasing. I first started pricing my work to move and then, as I started selling consistently and frequently, I started raising my prices.
I didn’t really make that much in the beginning at all. I had a little bit of savings when I came back from Tanzania, but I was, more than anything, just broke. I only had the support system around me, some friends and my friend Adam — who bought this building and allowed me to have a studio here for pretty cheap. It was also good that I had been doing artwork before that time because once I started doing art full time, people recognized my work. They were like, I followed you five years ago when you were in school doing art and now, you’re doing art full time and I see it changed — let me actually buy a piece now.
You know, the growth of Denver was happening— it still is now, but it really went gangbusters in ‘14, ‘15 when marijuana was legalized and the RiNo Art District started to change. Everything came together at one time and I was lucky to be in that timeframe so that I could jump into it. And I think a lot of other artists in Denver did the same thing during that timeframe because they saw that they could actually have people buy their work for the price they wanted to charge.
But yeah, when I first started out, it was really difficult. My early success was more so due to the support that I had around me and then just the right timing. A lot of times you can do everything right but it’s just the wrong timing. You know, if I did it in 2008, I’d still be broke. Right now the city is supporting art. There are lots of grants out, businesses are required to have artwork if they’ve done any development over, I believe, a million dollars and there are more art consulting firms plucking artists out from the community, so that helps too.
Did you take advantage of any grants or any of those sorts of programs?
Yeah, I wrote a few grants and I’m waiting to hear back from two of those. The Colorado Creative Industries Grants, for example, do grants for creative districts, artists, non-profits and other organizations.
Having grants accessible is great because without them, where will I find the money I need to do a project? I’d have to go to a for-profit sponsor or I’d have to do a partnership and give away some of the ownership of the work. So having grants is really, really important. I’ve done a couple and I always advise artists to look at those grants and figure out what works for them and to just apply. I’d say 5-10% of the funds that come through my studio are just through grants. That really helps out.
The last project I did for the city of Denver was the “Home Sweet Montbello” mural in a canal that was through the Denver Arts & Venues P.S. You Are Here Grant. I teamed up with council representative Stacie Gilmore of District 11 to get that grant. That was $17,500, which basically paid for my fee and all the supplies and materials that I needed. Without the grant, trying to raise a good 20 grand for a project like that would have been difficult, especially for a mural in a canal.
I also do sponsorships now, so a lot of the pieces I do are for corporations. I did a couple with Red Bull and a couple with Maven, a luxury car sharing thing through GM. So those paid me, as well. There are a lot of little things in between doing artwork or grants.
How did you land those gigs with the corporations?
A lot of that stuff sort of found me in a way, and I think those were through social media because I spend a lot of time marketing myself on there. They see that. And I put on my business cap so I know they’re trying to get into my network and I have a good following — not crazy, but a healthy following. They’re trying to tap into that and get me to post about those projects, so that’s why they come to me for a lot of stuff. There are a lot of dope artists who don’t get the same sort of attention. It’s all about understanding how marketing, social media and the idea of being an influencer plays a part.
The David Letterman project that I did, where I painted David Letterman and Jay-Z for the promotion of Netflix’s show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, was because they found me on Instagram.
And then sometimes it’s also because I’m on social media a lot and the interns or younger generation will see my work or follow me and they’ll be in a brainstorming meeting and they’ll throw my name out there as well. So that happened for the [“Play On”] NBA All-Star gig I got in 2017. I got to go to New Orleans to do the NBA All-Star Week with Mountain Dew because someone threw my name out there.
A lot of times I don’t have to reach the CEO or anyone like that. It’s just reaching someone who is in the room who can throw your name out there. So that’s why I spend a lot of time marketing myself on social media because you just never know sometimes where stuff will go.
What’s your strategy for Instagram? It seems like that is one of your main avenues for people finding you.
When I first started out in 2013, it was a slow, steady growth. That was before it got really crazy. Because it was just like, throw a photo on there and that’s it. So I got on it during that time, started posting up a lot of my work and started a little following.
But really, I think it’s more about engaging other people. I also discovered how I could find influence from it in my studio practice. Engaging with people is sort of how I got started. Not just throwing up a picture and waiting for people to give feedback, but actually going out there and commenting on other people’s stuff, actually engaging them. A lot of people who I consider friends now I found on Instagram. I’ll throw opportunities to them as well.
I invited this one artist from Atlanta, Fabian (who goes by @occasionalsuperstar on Instagram), to a mural festival here. We’d only known each other on Instagram because I commented on his stuff a lot. Situations like that are really where a lot of my growth happened. And then from there, I’m just making sure that if people comment or like my work, I engage with them because they made the initial step. They’re already looking at my stuff, let me engage with them.
You can ask a lot of artists a thousand questions and you won’t get an answer back, but with my work or social media, you can throw a question at me and 90% of the time I’ll get back to you at some point. So that’s why my direct messages are always full, because people will ask some random question like, I saw on your Art Tip Tuesday you said you use Behr paint to protect your work, can I get some in Canada? I then actually go out and see if it’s sold in Canada. Because when you do that, people really remember that type of thing and they’ll tell their friends about it. They’ll say, This artist is really good, I follow them and they also answer back, and they give good insight. They then start to share.
A lot of artists don’t share much of their behind-the-scenes stuff, so a lot of the times you’ll only see the end product on an artist’s social media. But really early on I was showing people everything. I would have a good five posts on one piece — me actually building the canvases, putting down the sketch, painting and the time lapse of me painting it. A lot of that stuff really worked out. But now my time is limited, so I’m not always on Instagram all the time, creating content or, if I do a painting, sometimes I don’t remember to record myself, so I lose that. Or the projects that I do now are a lot bigger, so they just take a lot more time to do and there’s sometimes a gap in the content that I’ll post.
Before, I was doing almost a painting every other day, so it was constant posting and content creation, whereas now it’s kind of like, I’ve got to do this mural on this canal and it’s going to take three weeks. So, Okay, what can I do to showcase this canal that won’t feel boring to people? It’s a little different dynamic. Everyone is on Instagram now and there’s a plethora of things to look at and video. It’s getting really complicated. I’m focusing more on the Art Tip Tuesdays and posting content that I really, really like rather than trying to focus too much on just trying to create content. That’s really what I try to focus on now.
I’m always trying to find other platforms to do some promotion — even Reddit, I did that a couple of times, finding different forums that are specific to maybe a particular piece that I’m doing. When I did an Anthony Bourdain piece, I wasn’t only posting it in the art section but also posting in “Kitchen Confidential” for the cooks, because they love Anthony Bourdain. If I do a jazz piece, I go to the jazz Reddit forum and post that as well. So they really responded to those pieces well.
Pinterest, I’m not too much on Pinterest anymore. Tumblr, but it’s more of an afterthought. Facebook is still really good, sometimes, with the Facebook Groups. Especially with the older generation — 40 and over — I’ll find them more on Facebook than anything else.
Trying to find new platforms, different avenues. You just never know nowadays what works and what doesn’t work.
Going back to your “Art Tip Tuesday” series, can you tell us a little more about why you spend time creating those videos and how they’ve positively impacted your business?
I want to be the artist I wanted to meet when I first started out. I had a lot of questions like, How do I use this spray paint can? How do I prime a canvas? How do I stretch a canvas? How do I do this and that? Like I said, a lot of artists don’t like to share that stuff. Or it’s knowledge that you would have gotten in art school. Art Tip Tuesday is a good little source of information for everyone.
A lot of times when I first started trying to figure out how to do things and learning from other artists around here, I would post that stuff — especially the process stuff — and other artists would contact me and be like, Hey, you’re using that paint, why is it so thin? Why are you spreading it around like that? What tool are you using to spread it around?
I got those questions and started to individually respond to people, but I just got too many. So I was like, Let me just do an art tip video. I did one I think late 2014 or early 2015. Basically it just went from there because people liked it, responded to it and came to my feed just for that. And it really just grew and I got a little more involved because it went from me doing just the picture and trying to do an explanation about it to a huge paragraph. I did quick 15-second videos and then one-minute videos. And now I can do my IGTV a little bit longer, up to ten minutes, and then post it up. So I was trying to figure out how to cater that information.
I started doing a lot of technique videos — this is what I use, this is what a fan brush is and this is how you use it, this is how you hold it and things like that. Then I started doing tips on the nuances of the art world and how to go about navigating the art world. That’s when I found a really good response to everything. People come to my Instagram just for that, so that’s why I started working on a book.
Dealing with rejection or dealing with isolation in the studio, that’s something people don’t talk about. I have a ton of books over there [points at stacks of art books in his studio] and none of them talk about that subject. So figuring out, Okay, this is where I want to engage artists when it comes to mental health.
One of the last Art Tip Tuesdays I did was about being a full-time artist and having a family or kids. That’s never talked about in any of these books. So it’s saying, What can I do on Art Tip Tuesday to bring that discussion to the forefront? Actually talking about that topic and then talking about how important it is to have a support system.
I interviewed this really great artist, Craola from L.A., who I’ve followed for a good 15 years. He does really great work. I talked to him about how he handles the business side of stuff and his wife does most of that. So it’s okay having a significant other or a partner or a support system that can carry some of the load for you. That’s something I can put in the book when it comes to surviving as an artist. Stuff like that is what really resonated on Art Tip Tuesdays.
Your book is coming out in February 2020 and will be called Be the Artist: The Interactive Guide to Building a Solid Foundation for a Lasting Art Career. It sounds like you’re really trying to see what’s missing in the art world and trying to address that in your book, is that right?
You really did your research.
Yeah, so I’m trying to figure out more of those topics for the book that aren’t really transparent and trying to unearth some of the conversations that artists don’t have. Figure out how to be as helpful as possible, but not do the same thing as a lot of the other art books and art educational tools.
I talk about cloud sharing in there, which is never really talked about but it’s something that a lot of artists sometimes forget they have as a resource — using your Google Drive to share folders or share your images and things like that. Or the difference between theft of an idea or just borrowing ideas. It’s hard to have those types of conversations with an artist sometimes.
The book will be sort of like a concise journal, about 200 pages, so it’s easy to carry around. I’m intimidated by some of the books where it’s like, This is 500 pages?! They’re great because they have everything about everything, but I don’t want to look through that. I’m not going to read or carry that thing around. Many times they only offer cookie-cutter information, just changed around a little bit.
On the left side of my book will be the text and on the right side will be this thing called “Your Googles.” “Your Googles” will be topics or phrases that I want you to Google instead of entering hard links to websites. That way the links won’t die, so you’re able to carry the book around for a while. I met with Google in Boulder and they liked the idea of having a book use their search engine as a resource without having a digital platform, and they helped refine some of the phrases. I’ll also include artist answers from interview questions I do with them based around different topics.
You’ve got your hands in a lot of projects. What’s your approach to managing your time so you can still do all your art and the videos?
I’ve been getting better about putting stuff in a calendar and trying to space things out more. I guess my number one tactic or defense now, to help me keep a good schedule, is turning down a lot of projects or activities. To stop doing things that clutter my schedule so that when I’m up in the studio, I only have a couple of things to focus on.
Really, it’s just the calendar and everything in my head. It’s not the best thing, but I’m so hands-on and every day is different and you never know where it’s going to take you. I could get a call later today about Beyoncé wanting me to paint her portrait or something, or someone wants me to do a mural. So now I’ve got to move shit to the side, now I’ve got to reschedule because it’s a good paying job and I can reach a whole new market, so let me figure that out.
Everything is sort of up in the air month to month, for the most part, other than maybe a couple of projects. So it’s really hard to keep a schedule and that’s why I haven’t had an intern or an assistant here because I don’t know what I’m going to do from day to day.
You mentioned that time was one of your biggest sacrifices, especially in the early days when you’d spend 12+ hours a day working. Is that still the case or is that something you’re getting a handle on?
It’s still the case. With any artist it’s kind of like, if they could live in their studio they probably would. It’s not like work because you want to create.
To create, you have to do a lot of labor. I made those [points at canvases in studio] but I don’t like the size anymore. So now I’ve got to make new canvases which means I’ve got to go out and buy some more wood. I also don’t know what I’m going to do with those canvases, I’ve got to figure that out. That still happens to me to this day.
I’m trying to get better and evolve as much as possible. There’s just so much competition out there now — you’re competing with people from everywhere, not just your local market anymore. I’ve got to compete with people in Europe, Asia, New York and Miami. So I make sure I’m always cutting-edge and my work is refined. I’m always working on new bodies of work or getting stuff out there. I spend a lot of time in the studio just trying to figure out what’s next.
Yeah, your work is so incredibly varied. Since you’ve got interactive pieces, fine art paintings, murals and sculptures, is your creative process the same or different for each medium?
There’s a core to a lot of the stuff that I do. I do a lot of incremental improvements and experimentations along the way. Everything branches off of the previous body of work or another piece I’ve done. Same thing with my murals, they’re derivative of my studio work.
Every piece I do is trying to improve on the last, little by little, rather than just trying to go really far out there and just crazy. I do that sometimes, but it’s mostly incremental experimentations, improvements and refinement that I’ll do. It’s like I’m working in a space that’s sort of comfortable but gets me outside of what I’m used to.
Gravity: Gravity is one of the first sculpture pieces that I ever created. It was actually the first piece I created when I first got accepted to the RedLine Artist Residency program. The piece was for the exhibit “Nice Work if you can get it.” It talked about the life of an artist and all the struggles artists go through throughout their daily lives. –Thomas “Detour” Evans
Right, pushing the creative boundaries but not too much.
Yeah, I have to rely on the work to pay bills sometimes. I make sure I get time to experiment and be creative but also that my work will be accepted by the client too. I kind of reserve my wild experimentation time for passion projects where I don’t have a timeline, a certain deadline or a specific client. That way, it’s an “if I fail, I fail” type of thing and there’s no consequence from it.
How much time would you say you set aside for personal versus client projects?
I’d say maybe a week out of the month.
Okay. And can you talk about where your income is coming from?
Most of it comes through sales of pieces. A big chunk also comes from big projects and mural projects.
The mural I did for Montbello was a good chunk. The month before that I went out to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to do a mural that was about the same price. Before that it was a commission for a client whose husband plays for the [Denver] Nuggets, so that was a big project.
I’ll have big projects that will be a good-sized chunk and then sort of sprinkle in some of the smaller commissions — anything from $5,000 to $15,000 for the smaller projects.
And from there it’s sponsorship stuff, speaking engagements, prints and licensing. My print sales come from Meadowlark Kitchen [a restaurant in Denver], usually 1-4 times a month depending on the season, and from online. This organization called Alliance of Artists Communities licensed my work (a picture of my sculpture) for their flyer. Another organization that does art licensed my work to do their catalog cover. I even did work for the publisher. They liked my work and viewed some other stuff and they were like, Oh, we like this stuff for another book we’re doing, can we license it?
Those are the main revenue streams that I get. I’m trying to figure out where my skills and best attributes lie, which is more so in the studio. So just trying to make sure I focus more than anything on getting revenue through my studio stuff.
Hopefully the book will be another platform for me, too, raising my profile a little bit, doing more stuff on college campuses and speaking. I’m trying to make sure I diversify a little bit rather than keeping everything in one pot.
I know you discuss pricing in some of your videos, but can you give more insight into your pricing strategies?
Yeah, so pricing is always difficult because sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason for what someone will pay for a piece. It’s like, what I’ll pay for a piece is different than what you’ll pay for a piece. It’s hard to figure out what price point is good for you during that time, during that show or for the market who comes to see your show.
For the most part, it’s always making sure that you account for supplies and time. You also need to figure out: Is it a one-off piece, a commission? Who am I talking to — is this a corporation or an individual? Will this person buy one piece and leave and I won’t see them again or will this person be someone who will be interested in collecting more of my work? Is this an institution? Where am I in my career? Do people know my work? How much have I commanded for a piece before? Sometimes that matters, sometimes it doesn’t. Really, it’s an on-the-spot sort of decision you have to make.
A lot of my small pieces will be $3,500 and up. My commissioned stuff is $5,000 and up. And then bigger projects, especially if they have some installation piece that is really involved, will be $15,000 to $20,000 for my base price. So it varies, especially because my work varies a lot.
There are a lot of factors that play into pricing, but I always tell artists that there is no cookie-cutter way to gauge it. Do as much research as possible about your market because that will really help you out in terms of making sure that you price your work correctly.
What have been some of your failures or challenges and how have they informed your work?
I didn’t get into The Studio Museum in Harlem, which sucks. That’s one of the really good residencies. And then trying to figure out, Is my work right for that space? That’s something I’m always trying to figure out and battle.
Everyone wishes they progressed a little bit faster, but sometimes I’m like, is that a failure? Not progressing as fast and not being able to do shows in other cities as fast as I want to. I do murals in other cities and states, but I want to be on a different scale. To have more of a presence out in those different cities than what I have now. I’ve got to realize that I do a bunch of stuff and sometimes that keeps me handcuffed to the studio.
Some people will look at your body of work and think, Wow, his work’s amazing, he’s doing so many things. What would you say to those people, to help them understand how you’ve gotten to where you are?
Just putting in the work, the grind. The hours are what really matters.
I’ll experiment and it may not go right. There was an open call for artists, I applied, I got on the shortlist and I had to do a presentation and compete against, I think, four or five other artists. And what I was trying to do was just experiment. I thought, I have this opportunity, if I get it, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t. So I was experimenting with plexiglass, but it didn’t go well and, in the end, I didn’t like the way it came out so I threw it out. But that whole plexiglass failure got me to the idea of actually doing a die cut on wood and I ended up presenting that and got awarded the project.
I can always revisit that stuff and be like, Okay, what did I do wrong and how can I change it up? But that plexiglass experimentation — it was just the process of grinding it out and putting in the hours.
And what are some of your biggest successes?
Getting a studio, that’s a big success. That’s sometimes hard for a lot of artists to get.
Getting into RedLine was a big one because RedLine is really an established institution around here. Mainly because a lot of [those artists] went to school for art, they studied art and they have these backgrounds that say “I’m an artist.” Whereas mine, I did business and a bunch of other stuff, so getting into there was a good accomplishment.
And then getting into the Denver Art Museum was another one. Just being able to have my work in the museum feels really good, especially less than five years into my career.
Those are big accomplishments that I really, really hang my hat on. And for each one I evolved and got better because of the people I was around and the confidence that I got in terms of “my work is good enough.”
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Alliance of Artists Communities – international association of artist residencies
- Art Basel – art shows in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong
- Be The Artist – Detour’s book
- Colorado Creative Industries Grants
- Craola – painter
- Denver Arts & Venues P.S. You Are Here Grant
- Fabian – painter/muralist
- Indigenous Education Foundation of Tanzania
- Maven – car sharing through GM
- Mountain Dew
- My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman
- Red Bull
- Reddit – online communities and conversations
- RedLine Contemporary Art Center & Artist Residency
- RiNo Art District
- The Studio Museum in Harlem