Tom Grubb’s artwork is most notably recognized for its mixture of mediums and kind juxtaposition between nature and technology, and furthermore between history and the future—his life could be most notably recognized for the same. A teacher, a soldier, a sea captain, an artist, and an art director all in one lifetime—he truly is a divine blend of mediums. As a child, Tom’s mother encouraged him to always take time to look at the moon and stars through the trees in the forest, and, even now, as an accomplished man his eyes have never diverted far from the heavens of his youth. He has allowed his artwork and his life experiences to form a symbiotic relationship that have made him successful as both a person and an artist. He is unassuming, accessible, and most refreshingly unpretentious and his artwork reflects this aura.
Tom’s love of art began early and continued to flourish through high school. He tried many different art forms, but in his late adolescence he grew tired of simply replicating other people’s art. He desired to create something uniquely his own. Even at a young age he knew that he needed life experiences to draw from for inspiration and time in which to develop himself as a person, so that he could later thrive as an artist.
He attended Appalachian State University and graduated in 1970 with degrees in Political Science and History. During breaks from attending classes at college his father got him a job in a textile factory. It was at this time that he became interested in how the color threads in a loom represented the spectrum of light, blending primary colors together to produce secondary colors. He explored this concept later on in life with his site-specific bamboo and rope sculpture installations. After graduating he relocated to Florence, South Carolina where he taught math and art. In 1971 his teaching career took on a new subject when he was drafted during the Vietnam War. He spent two years at Fort Bliss, Texas, as an instructor in missile technology. In 1974 he returned to teaching math in the public school system in Elizabeth City, NC from 1974-1978.
His time as a teacher is still evidenced in his work, because he seeks to broaden people’s thoughts through his artwork by inviting them to perceive their place within space and time. He seeks to create pieces that can be admired by a variety of eyes. For the observer familiar with star charts and space perception there are hidden details and intricacies for the skilled eye to admire. However, for those who are merely observing from a surface level, they can appreciate the textures, mixed mediums, and interesting use of rare objects. He meets people where they are—a true mark of a teacher.
In 1978 he resigned his tenure as a math teacher and went to the docks in Wanchese, North Carolina. He signed on with a fishing boat headed north to the Georges Banks to fish for scallops, and his journey into the Atlantic and into another world began. His time spent on the ocean was unlike any other experience in his life. He viewed the stars and sky through the riggings of the ship and experienced motion continuously for two weeks at a time. During the summer of 1979 Tom was moved from the deck and promoted to First Mate. He ran the ship when the Captain was off watch. In the wheelhouse he would navigate and plot the course of the ship. He became a Sea Captain during his third year at sea and with this promotion came the added responsibility of the safety of his crew in such a hostile environment. It was this time in the wheelhouse where his mind began to view everything through the eyes of an artist, and later his artwork would reflect these defining moments as a First Mate and Sea Captain.
During one of his breaks from his trips out at sea he began coordinating with the Master’s Program at East Carolina University. He was enrolled in the program and was to begin in the fall, but when classes started he was still two hundred miles out at sea. Obviously, he was late for school. The staff at East Carolina had not yet met him and they later told him that they had no idea what this fisherman would bring to the School of Art. His time spent at sea working with ships and seeing the stars gave him the source material for his art and filled him with a sense of wonder at nature, God, and the universe. He had achieved the life experience he needed to create his signature artwork. His time at East Carolina allowed him to reconnect with his artistic side, and while he was no longer at sea a lot of his experiences set sail through his artwork. He graduated in 1983 with a Master of Fine Arts degree.
After completing his graduate studies he went to work as a visiting artist at Robeson Community College and Fayetteville Technical Community College from 1984 to 1988 through the North Carolina Visiting Artist Program. During this experience his teaching and art coalesced, and it did not go unnoticed. In 1987 The Arts Council of North Carolina chose Tom to receive the North Carolina Visual Artist Fellowship for his work in the arts. In 1988 he received an Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County emerging artist grant. He was also awarded a Southern Arts Federation/NEA regional fellowship for sculpture in 1989.
He was the Executive Director of the Fayetteville Museum of Art from 1990 through 2010, and prior to that he was the interim director and artist-in-residence at the Museum. He has been, and continues to be, a driving force for change within the arts community. His passion for art has inspired him to fight tirelessly to see that artists' rights are protected and exhibition facilities are available to showcase contemporary art.
Tom can be found creating artwork in his home studio and experimenting with new technology. He received the National Endowment for the Arts project grant for his sculpture “Star Gate 2003” in 2003. He created another piece, “Sprint Voyager”, which was made for the Festival of Flight in 2003. His work has been exhibited and is in collections and museums in the United States and abroad.
Tom’s vision as a young man has come to actualization. Combining elements found in physics, astronomy, navigation and sacred geometry to create his works of art he is constantly exploring the unknown. Plans for the future include two bamboo and rope site- specific installations, one which will be suspended off the top of buildings in a metro area and the second to be a free standing monumental sculpture which will incorporate light and sound. Tom is constantly working on his series of star charts and is now exploring the encaustic medium to create another layer of texture and depth to this work. A map or chart gives one direction and focus for movement through time and space. His star charts are developed using this statement as a point of departure and his monumental sculptures are actually star charts that the spectator can walk through and observe firsthand the earth’s relationship to the celestial sphere. As he is quoted saying, “Through the darkness of the heavens shine the lights of knowledge.”