Award-winning Ad Man turned Artist Tom Eslinger talks to Lee Sharrock
Tom Eslinger trained as a graphic designer at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design by a mix of Bauhaus-trained professors and Cranbrook Academy graduates and went on to carve out a successful 30-year career in advertising. Eslinger is a Professor of Communications at Columbia College, and his typographical design work can be found in the Design Collection of MoMA in New York City, and the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Collection.
When Eslinger left his role as a Worldwide Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi in London a few years ago, to move home to his native USA and pursue a career as an artist and academic, he took with the door to his office and his desk. The desk had once belonged to advertising and art world giant Charles Saatchi, and Eslinger had covered it in stickers referencing skater and music culture. The sticker-covered door was transported to Chicago where it was eventually disassembled, with parts of it being repurposed for artworks in his inaugural art exhibition in Chicago.
Eslinger’s solo exhibition ‘Stuck in My Head’, at the Center on Halstead in Chicago, features artworks created from laser-cut vintage album covers and hand-made stickers, inspired by uplifting song lyrics such as ‘How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people’ and ‘These are the days of miracles and wonder’. He finds inspiration in Pop Art, citing Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana and Robert Rauschenberg as influences, as well as the Punk aesthetic of Jamie Reed’s Sex Pistols album covers and Hipgnosis’s iconic vinyl artwork for seminal bands and musicians of the 60s and 70s.
Eslinger spoke to Lee Sharrock about the relationship between art and advertising, developing a thick skin during his time in the cut-throat world of advertising which serves him well in his new incarnation as an artist, and how he combines his knowledge of typography and craft to create one-of-a-kind artworks that tap into a feeling of nostalgia for music that transports people to a better place.
Lee Sharrock: Where did the exhibition title come from?
Tom Eslinger: These lyrics have literally been ‘stuck in my head’ for years. I wandered around my childhood home singing ‘how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?’ as a pre-school age kid and that lyric is in one of the pieces in this show. Music and visuals are completely interconnected in my life from my earliest memories. I find a lot of comfort to having musical poetry in my mind that pops up occasionally and brings the associated time and place and memories with it.
LS: You had a successful career in advertising as a global creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi before moving back to the USA and focussing on art. What skills did you learn in advertising that you use as a fine artist?
TE: Speed and craft immediately come to mind. When you have an idea that feels right, start making it! Working fast for nearly 30 years across different agencies and creative companies that specialised in different media (Framestore, FakeLove, Burson Marsteller) I learned how to work quickly in different media, express idea simply and then move on to the next one! At the end of the day, I was trained as a graphic designer by a mix of Bauhaus-trained professors and Cranbrook Academy grads at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the late 80s. I like to say I learned elegant messiness when you combine those influences. Laying advertising coursework and my minor in 20th Century Art History rounds out the engine of influences.
LS: If you could start your career all over again, would you have worked in advertising before moving into the art world, or focussed on your art in the beginning?
TE: Advertising first for sure. I was much better at it when I started my career and I’m a pretty commercially-focussed creator. I was self-conscious of the art I made in my early schooling and was relieved when I found the Macintosh computer lab and that I was good at typography, design and advertising. Later on the ideas I had in school, and that had influenced me from a young age, revealed themselves as I began creating outside of my day-job. I found the direction for my art through a career in art direction.
LS: Do you feel like art and advertising have a lot of similarities, so it makes sense to dip in and out of each discipline?
TE: The best thing about my advertising experience is that I can express ideas very quickly, see what I think of them and move into making them. I am entirely self-contained, and those skills came from learning printing and production in my advertising days. I think the best thing is that I’m not precious about ideas. Advertising is brutal, and as Wesley Snipes says in ‘New Jack City’ “‘it’s business never personal”. When you have ideas that you believe in torn off the wall during a business pitch you get a thick skin. I learned that I will always have more ideas and that getting other people’s feedback makes the work stronger.
LS: Your artworks are handcrafted and pay homage to Pop Art, music and Skater culture, and you use vinyl and memorabilia that you’ve collected over the years. You developed some sort of unique vinyl-cutting technique and combine it with typography and music lyrics that inspire you. Can you explain the technique?
TE: I start with a drawing by hand of the lyric and then I move it to Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to manipulate the sketch. Once I have a digital version, I manipulate it at actual size, print it and repeat the drawing process over and over until I’m happy. Then I figure out the color palettes and will go through my zillion stickers in my collection for color and shape inspiration. Once I have the color and tone started with the stickers, I am simultaneously going through my album covers collection to find the album images and shapes to work with the lyric, the stickers and vinyl and my idea. Then I fire up my laser cutter and start cutting the album covers, I create the under-painting on the balsa wood canvas and let the piece start to assemble and reveal itself. I love working exquisite-corpse-style: cutting and manipulating images in the stickers and album cover parts, placing them against another shape and how their placement against that shape or object creates a third, entirely weird and different visual. The not knowing where it will go is half the fun. In the final stages I will build up more cut shapes on top of the main composition and I will create custom stickers to place as little ‘easter eggs’ in the piece to give little direct signals of the song, the lyrics and how it affected me.
LS: Any tips for aspiring artists or creatives?
TE: I don’t take criticism personally – I take what I need and leave the rest. I had a boss that would always tell me ‘speed up to slow down’. For me, that means be deliberate in my planning and how I use my creativity and energy and spirit when I am working on a piece of art. When I am focused and stick to the vision of what I’m doing, I can make more ideas come to life. That being said, I also support making a sandwich and walking cartoons when the inspiration angels are taking the day off. Always be nice to yourself and other people. I always tell my students in my classes at Columbia College Chicago in Be nice. Genuinely kind and nice people in any creative business are like unicorns. Always strive to be in your unicorn era.
Tom Eslinger ‘Stuck in my Head’, Center on Halstead, 3656 N Halsted St., Chicago until 30th March, 2024. tomeslinger.com/stuck-in-my-head