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'Toons of the Times

Artist Tom Foster pulls it together.

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You may not know Tom Foster the artist, but chances are you know Tom Foster's art. Locally, he's been producing cartoons, posters, portraits, and cityscapes for over 30 years, but 2005 could be Foster's best year yet.

His artwork shows up on the big screen twice: as background in Ira Sachs' new film, Forty Shades of Blue, and as animation in Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's new documentary, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: "Cowboy" Jack Clement's Home Movies. His latest self-published collection of drawings, Memphis Music Posters and Other Memphis Music Stuff, is due in late August. And the forthcoming album by the North Mississippi Allstars features Foster's cartoon version of the band on the cover and the studio sketches he made of the group inside the CD's booklet.

So, who is this guy? Foster is "the oldest surviving continually working Memphis music-poster artist," he says with a smile and not with conceit inside the kitchen cum studio of his house in Cooper-Young. "For what that's worth."

What that's worth? A lot, to judge from Foster's body of work and body of friends, among them: musician/producer Jim Dickinson (father of Luther and Cody Dickinson of the Allstars) and wrestling "king" (and co-cartoonist) Jerry Lawler. Equally important, Foster's a Midtowner to the core. And he's been one since day one - literally.

He was born at Methodist Hospital Central, grew up in West Memphis, and came of age in the late 1960s, a teenager with a driver's license eager to cross the river to see rock shows at the Overton Park Shell (Moloch, anyone?), hang out, meet people, and by Foster's own description, "do hippie stuff."

That's how, by the early '70s, he came to know Dickinson and Lawler, Barbarian Records founder Jim Blake, and music writers Stanley Booth and Robert Palmer. That's how he was on the front end to illustrate those tabloid time capsules of the underground Memphis music scene, Atlantis, Tennessee Roc, and Strawberry Fields. And that's how he made subjects of and friends with musicians Alex Chilton, Sid Selvidge, and fabled all-girl group the Klitz. It's also why he continues to illustrate posters publicizing shows by bands such as the Joint Chiefs and Zippin Pippins. More than a Midtowner, Foster's a solid Memphis music fan, "alternative" division.

He got his artistic training at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of Memphis and Memphis College of Art before taking the professional route as a courtroom artist, then art director for WMC TV-5, then graphics coordinator for the U of M. But by the mid-'90s he was ready to break free and free-lance (when he wasn't dealing antiques). He made posters for Midtown's annual "Hell on Earth" Halloween party. He designed business cards for Legba Records. He continued collaborating (going on 20 years) with Minneapolis cartoonist Ken Fletcher. He worked with the Flyer's John Branston on the original "Midtown Is Memphis" bumper sticker. He did cartoon strips for The Lamplighter newspaper. He also got back into his own artwork (Midtown scenes mostly), and he pursued his abiding love for Shakespeare and the culture of Japan. That decision to go his own way Foster doesn't regret to this day.

"I tried to be a team player," he says. "I gave it my best shot. But things never really clicked. When I started self-publishing my work in books, everything started falling into place. I became my own quarterback. I discovered that I like to be the one calling the shots."

For Foster's fans (and they include college students from as far away as Japan), his drawings re-released in book form come as a welcome sight - and a reminder of his work's volume and variety: architectural studies, blues figures, and rock posters in Midtown Sketchbook (2005); gesture drawings and portrait sketches executed inside Ardent Studios in Barbarian Sketchbook (2003); and in the comic-book vein, spaced-out critters ("Furry Animals on the Edge!") in the "Brixoi" series illustrated with Fletcher (1993-95) and Toad Frogster, Foster's signature cartoon invention, a quarter-century old but with his own edge intact, to judge from his satirical "frog's eye view of the future" in Memphis 3001 (first printed in 1979 and oh how little local politics have changed). If there's a problem at all, it's getting a handle on it all. Foster knows it.

"My work ... it's convoluted. It's taken 30 years. But between the art and the music, you can see the threads, see it pulled together," he says while flipping through the drawings in one of his books, rapidly recalling dates, faces, venues.

"As for the music, I've tried to document it. Maybe I never outgrew it. And as for the art, I don't care if people like it. I just like doing it. I'm 53, and I'm having a good time. It's weird, but it's making sense. In the end, it's just me trying to figure out what's going on."

Tom Foster's Memphis Music Posters and Other Memphis Music Stuff will be available in late August at Gary's Antiques, 2158 Central Avenue. And look for Foster's artwork on display at the New Daisy when the North Mississippi Allstars debut their new album, Electric Watermelon Blue, on September 9th.

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