Artist Tom Dewar grew up in a landscape full of old dead cars. His father, a car shop owner, often tinkered with two 1950 Fords, a 1947 Oldsmobile Rocket and a 1922 Dodge with original wood-spoked wheels, all of which sat out on the family's four-acre riverfront property on the outskirts of Great Falls. His dad's primary car was a 1941 Ford Convertible he bought in high school and it was always the family's main mode of transportation.
"He restored it in the early '80s and we took a couple of trips to Disneyland in it and drove it all over," says Dewar. "I never really thought much of it when I was growing up. Now I realize it's not a normal childhood to have a bunch of dead cars in the yard or to use old ones for regular transportation. And it's why I've always loved old cars."
In fact, Dewar drew old cars when he was in kindergarten. Even after he went off to school at the University of Montana for printmaking, old cars continued to be a main focus of his work.
"UM's where I mostly learned the trade of printing," he says. "I learned different printing techniques and it usually involved some sort of car or engine or car parts in various states of decay. Or, sometimes, something shiny, new and hot rod-like."
Dewar moved to Seattle in 1999, but his three years in Missoula left an indelible mark on the artist, who was a regular at the old Jay's Upstairs rock shows. Some of Dewar's most cherished poster art was created for Missoula events and bands, including stylized flyers for the likes of Volumen, the International Playboys and the Oblio Joes, and several posters for the annual local music extravaganza, Total Fest, that incorporated his signature classic car imagery. This week, Dewar presents a show and poster sale at the Badlander that shows his more recent work, including a new linocut print project featuring Seattle's famous Dick's Drive-In—and more classic cars.
Dick's, founded in 1954, is well known for serving greased up bags of fries, burgers and hot dogs to devoted fans, including a contingent of the garage and indie rock scene. There are now six restaurants in the Seattle area (one in Spokane) and Dewar has drawn two locations and plans on eventually illustrating all of them. For this project, he drew the drive-in with pen and ink, and then printed the images in four different colors. And, as would be expected, he drew the drive-ins as they were in the late '50s and early '60s, populated with hot rods like a 1932 Ford Five Window Coupe, 1932 Ford Victoria and 1936 Dodge pick-up.
But Dewar has also veered away from just cars, recently taking up a portrait project on Evel Knievel. Dewar's interest in Knievel comes from personal history, as the motorcycle daredevil and Dewar's father were longtime friends. The duo used to compete in hill climbing, in which motorcyclists start at the bottom of a hill and drive recklessly to the top.
"You haul ass to the top of it and people usually flip over and tumble all the way down," Dewar says. "It's a pretty dangerous thing. My dad was the only guy to win the Billings Hill Climb eight times consecutively in his class—and that was in the '60s."
Knievel remained friends with the family even as his career started skyrocketing. Sometime around 1970, Dewar says, a couple of years after Knievel's big 1967 crash at Caesar's Palace, the stuntman passed through Great Falls and stopped by the Dewar household. Dewar wasn't born yet, but he's heard the story so much that it's almost lore.
"He wanted to borrow $30 to stay at the Motel 6 but my dad wouldn't loan it to him because he thought he'd never see it again," says Dewar. "He offered to let him pitch a tent in our yard and Evel opted to sleep on our trampoline."
Knievel stopped by again, eight years later when he was even more famous, to visit with the family when Dewar was just an infant. As Dewar got older, he became intrigued by the stuntman.
"I have this sort of loose personal connection with him," he says. "I just think he was so crazy. I've never met him really, but I was obsessed with him. That's where the inspiration for my Evel series is coming from."
Dewar's only recently allowed himself to focus again on his own artwork full-time. He used to make a living, in part, from running a screen-printing shop that made T-shirts, posters and stickers. The business grew and changed location throughout Seattle over the years until a couple of years ago he became burnt out on it, closed the doors and sold all the equipment.
"Now I'm back to designing and printing my own art," he says. "That's much more fulfilling than printing Little League jerseys or tracking down some shitty band who owes me money."
He's also been able to focus on evolving his style by trying other types of printing. For instance, he recently revamped his studio to work with block printing in which the ink image comes through from the negative space carved out from wood or linoleum.
His recent work has Dewar inspired to branch out to other personalities and series immortalizing more landmarks. One print he'll be showing in Missoula features the Great Falls Select Brewery near where he grew up. The brewery is extinct now, but in its heyday the beer company provided strong ad campaigns on the heels of prohibition's repeal. Dewar highlights the era in the print with a 1967 GTO sitting right outside the brewery. The car theme, as always, remains present.
"In the spring and summer a lot of cool classic cars come out of the woodwork in Seattle—stuff you'd never see in Great Falls or in Montana," he says. "I think as far as the cars go, I'll always be influenced by that in my work."
Tom Dewar shows and sells his prints at the Badlander Thursday, Dec. 17, at 7 PM. Free.