If you were around the Spokane art scene in the late ’80s to early ’90s, you have probably seen Tom Froese’s work; a pioneer back then, Froese simply created, rarely, if ever, thinking about the audience. Rather, he let his imagination rule and his pencil (or whatever tool he happened to have in his hand) lead. “When I am art working, I lose myself,” he says. “With a blank board, the images start to reveal themselves to me by my pencil.” And the revelations are unique: intricate drawings of mostly human figures doing strange and personal things in places never before seen like “The Panhandler” waving around pans in a place that may or may not be a kitchen.
Froese grew up in Spokane. He attended Northwest Christian and sang in bands. He considered being a psychiatric social worker and went to Spokane Falls Community College to study music and take remedial classes. He got a job at Eastern State Hospital, started taking nursing classes and had a bit of an emotional breakdown after which he began drawing and asking himself: what is art and why does it feel so good? He started studying art history to perhaps answer his questions, and he ended up with a BFA from Eastern Washington University with a minor in art history, through which he learned about Dadaists. “I became obsessed with the Dada movement that began with people who were disgruntled with society,” he says. “They were the punk rockers of their time.”
And so, he made art, immersing himself in the task by getting a large studio at a place called 123 Arts where he built things akin to Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau (1933) and Cabaret Voltaire (Zurich, 1916): large installations that consumed space and performances rooted in experimentation. He brandished spray foam, wood, found objects and paint, conducted a punk rock choir, led rowdy discussions, threw food and beat on coffee cans. When he wanted a break from working loud and big, he started drawing again, meticulously creating a collection that he displayed at the Spokane County Dump (1989) and then left it there. “It was cathartic,” he says. He then moved into another large studio space and had a show, after which he was invited to do a solo show at the Gallery of Art at Eastern Washington University, which led to invitations from the Cheney Cowles Museum, the Spokane Art School Gallery, the Chase Gallery and more. He was invited to participate in themed exhibitions and fundraisers alongside the best in Spokane at the time, and his work sold quickly.
And then he came face to face with an enemy—himself. “I really was my own worst enemy back then,” he says. “I was disgruntled with the scene and mad at the world. So, I quit making art.” Local legendary artist Harold Balazs tried to talk him out of it. “I spent time at his studio. He was ready to take me under his wing, but I was feeling crushed by some personal issues and no, I don’t regret my decision to quit making art and leave Spokane; I just wonder what would have happened had I not made that decision.”
Froese moved to California where he raised a child and bought and sold vintage items. He returned to Spokane a few years ago and opened a vintage shop in the Garland District called the Rusty Ruby where, behind the counter, he draws for hours at a time like he did 20 years ago. “To me art is about the process of doing rather than the end result. It’s especially exhilarating when I discover something new. It is also kind of spiritual during meticulous long periods of routine work.”
Recently diagnosed with bladder cancer, he mentions that the condition will most likely find its way into his work, no doubt in strange and personal ways.
His latest series is a tribute to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s 200th birthday, which includes found art reimagined with Frankenstein. The exhibition is at Object Space Gallery, 1818 ½ E. Sprague Ave. and will conclude with a reading of the book and a party on October 26 and 27. Visit Tom Froese at the Rusty Ruby, 606 W. Garland, for more information.