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Interview with Artist Tom Fritz

Tom Fritz is a born and bred Southern Californian who grew up during the hey day of hot rods and motorcycles. Well-know for his Harley-Davidson art, Tom’s is set to exhibit his work at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, Pebble Beach CA, August 18 & 19.

Tom Fritz :: Artist
Tom Fritz :: Artist

Can you tell us about yourself and where you live and work?
Born and raised in San Fernando, California, I’ve lived my whole life within a 40 mile radius from there. When I meet people, they always raise an eyebrow when they say, “Oh, so you’re native?” Yeah – one of the last few. Maybe I should make a t-shirt…

My childhood was run-of-the-mill. I’d get hopped up on my minimum daily requirement of tutti-fruiti-colored processed corn every morning before I’d go off and rip the knees out my jeans on the blacktop playground, or slide-out in a shower of sparks on my steel-wheeled skateboard, or ram my giggle berries into the gooseneck of my StingRay. Playing football in the street, riding my unicycle, cap guns, bb guns, rock fights, riding in the back of Dad’s pickup… nothing out of the ordinary. On weekends, I’d spend a lot of time in the garage and workshop with my Dad. And my folks would haul us kids off to the races on summer evenings.

The one thing that stood out was that I was constantly drawing. At the time, a crisp, clean sheet of paper was a luxury, so I’d draw on 2 x 4’s, the inner lids of game boxes, the bottom of chair seats, my closet wall. Sometimes, my mom could scrounge the end of a butcher roll for me. Subject matter was typical; dinosaurs, fighter aircraft, motorcycles, tanks, race cars, trucks, machine guns, battleships. In school, I’d draw when I should have been paying attention to multiplication tables. It was a mixed bag – you were either showered with praise or getting yelled at.

Tom Fritz :: Artist

I was influenced by animation on TV – like the Hamms bear or the Hawaiian Punch guys, comic books, Time magazine covers, the Breck Girls, Van Kaufman/Art Fitzpatrick Pontiac ads, newspaper fashion illustration for Bullocks. Unfortunately, I was witnessing the demise of illustration in publications. In the early 70’s, I was the cartoonist for the high school paper. Weekends would find me suddenly dropping into dry-washes on my motorcycle near Jawbone. I was extremely talented at flipping over the bars. At 14, I’d be building an engine for my upcoming ’23 T-bucket build, or at 16, working on my ’56 GMC pickup. I was a paperboy, a pool-sweep, a chef de cuisine at Taco Bell, and a small-engine/vacuum cleaner repair technician. Later in the decade, when I was going through art school, I learned the substance of art – not just the illusion of it. I was exposed to the endless, expressive potential of paint. I learned the history of illustration and painting, and how to use it to make my images. At the time, I was living in my studio – an elemental garage in North Hollywood (part of the San Fernando Valley). I spent some serious time there, laying down many miles of scrawls, splotches, speckles, and mottles as I explored perception.

Tom Fritz :: Artist

The 70’s whizzed by into the 80’s. In 1980, I earned my bachelor’s degree in art. The 80’s quickly turned into the 90’s, and then on I went into the 00’s. Married to my best friend, Molly, and with two wonderful kids, Emily and Wesley, I was the staff artist for a Fortune 500 defense firm.

Part of the profit of the time I spent in my studio was that I was developing what I was about and what my work would look like. I was also aware that fine art was such a large, embracing stage that could accept practically anything that was presented with intensity and quality. Momentum was building and my images were obtaining power from a resonance with a community and its reciprocity of support. Folks seemed to be having a good time with them and some even reported finding them enjoyable in the company of a delicious libation.

Today, my home and studio are on the western boundary of the Santa Monica Mountains National Park. As I mix paint, I watch coyotes, bobcats, rabbits, roadrunners, snakes, lizards, hawks and quail chase each other around, doing their own thing(s).

Tom Fritz :: Artist

“The entire scene was incredible. We had it all out here. Lions, Irwindale, San Fernando. Saugus Speedway. Ontario Motor Speedway. Hot rods, supercars, low riders, vans, trucks. Motocross parks like Indian Dunes, Muntz, a wide-​open Mojave desert, and miles of fire roads. Every weekend you could name your poison. There were speed shops on almost every corner.”
– tom fritz on growing up in southern california

What’s your daily routine like? What time of day do you like to paint and draw?
My eyes usually open when the sky is first turning gray and I’m down in the studio shortly afterwards. I’ll take a break in the late morning and get my run in down the canyon. My runs are important – for whatever reason, I’m better able to focus on difficult passages and resolve them when I’m pounding out the miles. A quick shower, then it’s back to the easel. The painting pretty much tells me when it’s quitting time. I’ll break for dinner if my painting allows it, then spend the evening handling “business stuff” when my eyeballs are blasted. My day isn’t run by the clock, and the concept of “lunch hour” is missing. Sometimes, my painting won’t let me sleep, so I get up and go back to slashin’ and thrashin’. The only way I know it’s Saturday or Sunday is if the neighbors are home.

Tom Fritz :: Artist

Tom Fritz :: Artist

What was it like growing up in Southern California and being around cars and motorcycle?
The entire scene was incredible. We had it all out here. Lions, Irwindale, San Fernando. Saugus Speedway. Ontario Motor Speedway. Hot rods, supercars, low riders, vans, trucks. Motocross parks like Indian Dunes, Muntz, a wide-open Mojave desert, and miles of fire roads. Every weekend you could name your poison. There were speed shops on almost every corner. When I was little, my next door neighbor had a yellow ’57 Chevy that he would pull up to his house in a broadslide all the time. My other neighbor had a cool WWII Dodge ambulance he’d modified.

What was your first motorcycle? What do you ride today? 
My first ride was on the back of my Dad’s cushman. I must have been maybe four. It was a warm summer evening, and I was wearing cut-offs. It didn’t have a pillion, so he rough- ut a piece of plywood for me to sit on. I’m still pulling plywood splinters out of my thighs…

My first motorcycle is my 1969 Honda Z50 Mini Trail. I still own it, along with others from different periods of my life. I don’t have the dirt bikes since they were thrashed, and of course, I don’t have the one that was stolen.

Today, I have my choice of 6 bikes, depending on what kind of riding I want to do. I perform all of my maintenance on them. My ’78 Honda CB750 is still a kick-in-the-pants to ride.

Tom Fritz :: Artist

You’re known for your paintings of Harley-Davidsons. What’s it about Harleys that you like?
Primarily it’s the way light wraps itself around objects that fascinates me. The hardware I choose to depict goes a long way to “setting the tune” for each painting, however it’s mostly incidental. Harley-Davidson motorcycles have a rich, multifaceted history that resonates well with the passions of many, and compared to other brands, they’re more abundant and accessible, so I use them.

What is your creative process? How did you determine the subject matter for your work?
May sound weird, but I feel more like the subject matter chooses me. As far as process… sometimes I guess I’m more sensitive to inputs. I’m never at a loss for imagery to paint; I’ve never had a “dry spell”. Sometimes a simple compositional “scribble” will suggest a subject. Other times, it could be an environment I find myself in, a unique lighting situation, or an experience. Or, I could be at a show and run across a certain vehicle… I don’t really have a step-by-step process.

It’s like walking down a dark alley at night. I never know when or where something’s going to hit me.

Tom Fritz :: Artist

You really capture the moment in your paintings. Do you take inspiration from old photos, or are these moments from memory?
It could be a combination. Old photos certainly inspire, but I rarely use them strictly for my image. I think the best image is to be found 5 seconds before or after the the photographer released the shutter.

Think about it. Laws of physics don’t change. Rules of light don’t change. And we haven’t changed mannerisms in the past century. We all still stand, lean, and sit the same way, use our hands the same way, turn our heads – that hasn’t changed. Clothing styles, architecture, the way we all looked before we polished off too many cheeseburgers … those things change, so you have to make them appropriate for the image. I apply my observations and experiences, and project them through time.

Tom Fritz :: Artist

You started off working for Fortune 500 defense firms. What was that like and what did you learn?
One of the first things I learned is that there’s something unsettling about having a time clock mandate when you’ll start or stop creating. It’s just plain wrong.

I started out in a bullpen developing a technical hand with a Rapidograph and ellipse templates. In the evenings, I was putting in long hours freelancing for various commercial accounts. Fortunately, I wristed under some pretty demanding art directors early in my career – strong entities who kicked my butt. I was soon hired away, laying down color and design for yet another defense contractor. My studio was a hallway closet of all places (which led me to conclude that art doesn’t really care where it’s made), and it was then that I started to lock down on what I was really after in an image.

“The energy, culture and fascination of Speed. An event that can only happen in a few places on the planet. An event that exposes you to a brutal, minimalist terrain where visual disorientation dominates and spatial relationships disappear.”
– on the allure of bonneville

Mostly though, I found myself creating art in a situation that conspired to take me out of myself. Filtering and processing my ideas through accountants and mid-level incompetents left me with only a percentage of my vision. To cope, I’d return to my home studio at night and get back on the high wire, painting the scenes ignited by my passion – only to be thrown back into the mud the next day. One day, I noticed that I liked the dress code in my studio a heck of a lot better, so I left the corporate scene and never looked back.

I see some of your hot rods are based in the Bonneville Salt Flats. What is it about it that draws people? 
The energy, culture and fascination of Speed. An event that can only happen in a few places on the planet. An event that exposes you to a brutal, minimalist terrain where visual disorientation dominates and spatial relationships disappear. They don’t charge for parking and there’s no gate fee.

Tom Fritz :: Artist

What artists influenced you the most?
Names have never stuck well in my head – sometimes I call my son the dog’s name, and vice versa. Images are easier to recall – check my grades in Art History… I’m gonna miss some, but here goes: Renoir, Daumier, the fluidity of Tiepolo’s line, Manet, (especially his later works where he was influenced by the avante garde Impressionists), Degas, Monet (his color contrasts), Delacroix (for his expressive use of juxtaposing complementary colors), Morisot, Sargent (esp. for his highly economical, confident, and accurate brushwork). Van Gogh. American Illustrators: Remington, Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, Leyendecker (composition and awareness of contour and silhouette). Peak, Forbes, Fuchs, Heindel. Rockwell (narrative). Hard to say who influenced me most, though.  

Tom Fritz :: Artist

What are your favorite places to visit for creative inspiration?
A quiet mind. I find I’m most receptive there. Although I enjoy finding it most in the Sierra Nevada, I can also visit it here in the studio when I kill the phone or while stuck in traffic on the 101.

What are you working on now and what are your upcoming plans?
At this moment, I’m in the midst of my annual crush for the Automotive Fine Arts Society Show at Pebble Beach. Afterwards, I have a handful of commissions I’m committed to complete, and after that I’ll start a series I’ve planned for Harley-Davidson’s 110th. Plus anything that happens to sneak in from the side which demands investigation.

Tom Fritz :: Artist

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