Artist in Profile: Dean Tomasek

East Nashville musician is making art his priority

  • As he quaffs contentedly at the Village Pub & Beer Garden, East Nashville artist and musician Dean Tomasek is lending perspective on his beginnings in Chicago, the various states where he spent his childhood and teenage years, and his arrival in Nashville before he reached 20. To help calculate how long he’s been playing bass and creating art in Music City, Tomasek gives an exact number when asked how old he is.
         “But you don’t have to include that in the article,” he says of his age. “I mean, you can if you want, but … .”
         What does it really matter, right? Let’s just say Tomasek is well north of millennials and at the southern fringe of boomers. He’s old enough to impart wisdom but not so old as to impart it grumpily.
          “Art, luckily, is one thing most people get better at when they get older,” he says, looking every bit the ageless rock & roller with his long curly hair, well-worn hat, and tattooed arms.
         “Most of the best painters were at their best right before they died — or after they went crazy right before they died,” he continues. “I think a part of it is you learn so much about technique. Every time you paint something, you learn.
         “With music, you’ve probably figured it all out by the time you’re 26 or 27. There’s only so many notes. But with art, there are so many colors, so many ways to look at things.”
         Tomasek has been looking at things through an artist’s eyes since he was old enough to hold a pencil, drawing dinosaurs, monsters, and the like as a preschooler and later filling in margins of his high school science and math notebooks with all sorts of cartoons. He went chasing after music in his early teens, learning to play bass under the tutelage of Kiss, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith.
         Nashville has given Tomasek a place to make a living at both of his vocations. And even though art has pulled through as his main line of support — his day job, as it were — it was his passion for music that plucked him out of the mountains of Wyoming and placed him in the Recording Industry Management program at Middle Tennessee State University. He lasted a semester.
         “I knew I was either going to go to New York, L.A., or Nashville,” he says of his destination after graduating high school. “I just wanted to be in a band. I knew some guys that were going to school at MTSU, and we were going to meet up and start a band. We were going to learn the ins and outs of the music business. But I didn’t realize you had to take math and biology and all that other stuff before you could get to the music.”
         His misconceptions about college notwithstanding, Tomasek did make a go with the band part of his pursuit. Taking on the stage name of Dean James, Tomasek helped to form the Nashville glam rock band Valentine Saloon in the late 1980s along with William Jewell, Henry Meyer, and Billy Baker. The group played for about 10 years, releasing a couple of albums on Pipeline Records and touring with bands such as the Ramones, Warrant, and W.A.S.P. Valentine Saloon had a loyal following and occasionally gets back together for reunion gigs.
         “We played all over the place and opened for everybody,” Tomasek says.
         Tomasek later had five-year stints with Bare Jr. and Will Hoge, touring steadily as well as spending time in the studio. He has also worked with Spoonful, Garrison Starr, Tommy Womack, and Warren Pash, among several others. His music has taken him across the world, from Canada and Mexico to Germany and Spain, and on a couple of cruise ships for good measure. Tomasek is currently a member of the group Leroy Powell and the Messengers, for which he contributes not only bass riffs, but also designs the band’s posters, album covers, and other pieces.
         It may have been music that lured Tomasek to Nashville, but it’s his work as an artist that has helped sustain him. As the years have peeled away, Tomasek has come to realize he’s more of an artist who also enjoys playing music. He believes it has to do with ownership, with painstakingly tending to a creation until it bears not only his name, but also his soul.
         “I used to be the musician who does art, and now it’s kind of turned around the other way as I’ve gotten older,” he says. “Spending a decade being the side guy playing bass, not really making any decisions or having any input creatively, had a lot to do with it. After doing that for a while and just being an artist occasionally but mostly being a bass player on the road playing for other people, I decided to make art the priority because it’s the only thing that’s mine.”
         Of course, Tomasek’s been pursuing his art all along anyway. It’s given him the nourishment he requires for his creative craves, and it’s helped to pay the bills to boot.
         “When I moved to Tennessee, one of my first jobs was working at a sign shop,” he recalls. “This was back before vinyl letters started to be used on windows and doors, so I was hand lettering business names, addresses, phone numbers. And I was designing signs for people.”
         Tomasek also did work for Gary Musick Productions for 18 years, designing and painting custom sets for business meetings, theme parties, cruise ship shows, and plays. He spent a year painting sets for the Tennessee Repertory Theater, as well.
         He now stays busy doing freelance work, with commissions rolling in to a steady beat. Tomasek prefers painting portraits over any other job he may do, and he’s increasingly getting requests to paint peoples’ children and, especially of late, their pets. He is particularly proud of a collection of portraits he did a few years ago called “Outlaws,” which featured acrylic on canvas paintings of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and others. The originals sold out some time ago, but he still recreates them on commission.
         “If I’m painting Waylon Jennings, I’ll paint until it looks like Waylon Jennings,” he says. “If it looks like Waylon Jennings’ cousin, that’s no good, nobody wants that.”
         The demands for Tomasek’s works are many. He stays busy doing CD covers, posters for bands and events, menus for restaurants, and illustrations for books and magazines. He has recently been designing sets for country music performers, and of particular note is a set he created for a benefit concert by Hootie and the Blowfish. “I do all kinds of things like that, anything to make a buck and keep me from getting a real job,” Tomasek says with a smile.
         The bassist became something of a piano man earlier this summer. He was commissioned to do a psychedelic painting of a piano for Grace Potter as part of her 2015 tour (which lands at Ascend Amphitheater on Oct. 10). Concert attendees are invited to play the Tomasek-designed instrument at the preshow “Magical Midnight Piano” promotion and post photos and videos to Potter’s Twitter account.
         In stark contrast to the magical world of colors Tomasek created for Potter is the plain and simple black piano shell he constructed for Dolly Parton for a tour she launched in late July at the Ryman Auditorium. Made from plywood, it is used to encase an electronic keyboard and made to look like a baby grand on stage.
         “I’ve done a number of pianos or fake pianos for people,” says Tomasek, who attended Parton’s show at the Ryman. “The one I did for Grace Potter, we came up with the concept together. I had a vague idea, then she showed me some pictures and said to just run with it. For Dolly, I just painted it black and tried not to screw it up.”
         Perhaps the black of Dolly Parton’s faux piano shouldn’t be considered plain and simple after all. Tomasek closely values every color the way he does every friend or loved one. They’re the lifeblood of any artist’s creation.
         “I was talking to someone who said they want a painting with only earth tones,” Tomasek says. “I started thinking about that and thought, well, that’s every color. Every color out there is in nature and the earth, the brightest of blues and the most vibrant greens and craziest reds.
        “Nature itself is so beautiful, and nothing we can make up is going to be better. It’s the same thing with colors. There is no manmade color that’s not in nature.”