How do you become a successful artist with high-profile commissions from Netflix and an informative new book? For a straightforward answer, you could ask Thomas Evans, known in Denver and in artistic circles around the world by his professional moniker, Detour.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s been a process of learning how to navigate the art world the way I want to, without going strictly down the traditional gallery or museum route.”
A conversation with the artist revealed that, true to his chosen name, he took an uncommon approach to building his career as an artist: “I went to CU Denver to study business and was doing art on the side. When the Democratic National Convention came to Denver, though, I started getting more requests for my art. I moved from airbrushing campaign t-shirts to painting on canvas. That work kicked off even more work, and eventually led to things like doing a show.”
Amid these creative endeavors, he still found time to finish his MBA, which he credits for helping him develop a strategy. “Having a business background helps, even though you still can’t know until you’re in it. You still have to figure out how to fall, and how to deal with everything that can go wrong.”
Finding the right approach
Much of Detour’s work exhibits a signature palette of vibrant colors, a technique he refined during his early days doing live art shows. “I didn’t really have time to mix colors for true flesh tones, so I started using paint straight out of the tube. I had maybe four hours at the most, so my work started getting more colorful. The first piece I did like that ended up being one of the audience’s favorites.”
“It’s a lot of experimentation, like a business’s R&D department.”
The explosion of commercial development and night life culture in RiNo also helped Detour put his name on the map. “My friend opened a restaurant at 27th and Larimer, at the epicenter of what RiNo was five years ago, all the clubs and night life. I started hanging art there and in Meadlowlark Kitchen and in Cold Crush; I had places to show my work where people came naturally, rather than in a more formal space like a gallery.”
“After a year or two of just grinding—doing live art, putting art in the restaurants—I started getting into murals and street art. I learned how to scale up my work to be on walls, and that’s when a lot of stuff started to gain momentum, because even more people were seeing my work. And my studio was right in the neighborhood, so people could come meet me anytime they wanted.”
Embracing social media
“Instagram and social media really helped out, too. Five years ago, there weren’t as many artists on those platforms as there are now, and I was able to create a niche for myself in terms of the type of artist I wanted to be. I would do time lapse videos and show people the behind-the-scenes, how to do the work that I do. Many artists don’t like to share that.”
“I started answering questions people asked in the comments section because I wanted to interact with other up-and-coming artists. At first it was a lot of technique questions, but then became more about the soft skills and about creating a career. How to approach a gallery, or how to improve business communication skills. Whenever I meet another artist, the first thing they say is how much they appreciate Art Tip Tuesdays. I haven’t missed one in going on four years, now. And that’s where the book came from.”
Drafting a how-to for other professionals
“I loved the idea of writing a guidebook about the nuances of being an artist and achieving a sustainable career. It explores a lot of things that weren’t relevant even just five years ago, like how to pick your platform, which depends on each person, their artistic medium, and how often they can curate that platform. How to get sponsorship. How to get over rejection, which a lot of times is just a numbers game.”
“Teaching artists why it’s a numbers game helps artists understand that they shouldn’t get discouraged if they miss out on a residency or a grant award. Maybe it was a competitive year, or maybe recent art was too similar. Maybe the sponsor wants to change it up a bit. I want other artists to understand all of these factors so they can be successful in their own careers.”
“During times of good economy, it’s easy to make art. But there’s always going the be a time when the roller coaster goes down. As an artist, you can’t always rely on bringing in money with your art. You have to diversify your income so it’s not just all art, all the time.”
Planning for the future
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing in five years, but Denver is definitely where I want to stay. I want to help grow the arts culture here, to help Denver have the same impact as Chicago, Miami, or the LA arts scene, where we’re pushing out world-renowned artists all the time. That’s what I see for Denver and my future.”
If anyone can see a way to get there, it’s Detour.
Images courtesy of the artist. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.