There’s a good chance you may have seen one of Tom’s works online somewhere. Taken a quick double-take at the eccentric character on your screen and continued with your day. Yes, the chances are, you saw an unusual-looking character and thought nothing more of it.
Except for the fact that it wasn’t a person at all. It was indeed a sculpted, molded, and constructed silicon and polyurethane figure.
And the creator in question is none other than the talented and dedicated Thomas Kuebler.
I first discovered Thomas over 20 years ago. I had invested in my very first computer, and I saved his web address at the top of my screen for years.
Never did I think that one day I would be fortunate enough to meet him.
Or interview him? Ha! Life’s pretty surprising sometimes.
I met Thomas at a massive convention in Atlanta (remember conventions?) many years ago and have followed him through the usual social media channels for all of these years.
Tom has been kind enough to have a little chat with me and revisit his humble beginnings and share how a creative mind and passionate, intergity-filled man manages to succeed as an artist on his own terms.
So without futher ado, ladies and gentlemen, I’m excited to share my recent conversation with Thomas S. Kuebler.
Hi Tom, thanks so much for chatting with me; I know you’re a busy man, so let’s get to it.
I have to ask – was your childhood particularly creative, or was there a singular event that sparked this incredible imagination you have?
Thank you, yes, my childhood was a mixed bag of total disfunction, hilarious awkwardness, and fear punctuated by a lot of wonderfulness.
Art was one of the very few things I was any good at.
I had all these undiagnosed learning disabilities as a kid and teachers didn’t know how to deal with me. My parents basically got the message from my school that they might want to encourage me in art, or they’d have a bum on their hands.
I think this both delighted them and scared them shitless at the same time. They were of the generation that most of the time the word “artist” had the word “starving” in front of it.
My mom bought a small ceramics class business from a lady across the street who was moving away.
We had the whole neighborhood of wives in our basement three nights a week, bitching about their husbands. Telling dirty jokes and painting soup bowls, pencil holders, and Christmas stuff.
If something broke before it was fired (in the kiln), we put it in a plastic bag and added water to make clay. Lots of stuff broke ‘accidentally.’
Oh wow, that sounds amazing!!! Sounds like creativity was definitely within you from an early age.
The basement was my refuge, and the clay was my therapy.
Monster movies were my favorite entertainment. Halloween became an event that I started planning for in April.
I sucked at most sports but played a lot of backyard football. I lived in a neighborhood of free-range kids that roamed parent-free from house to house, and I spent an immense amount of time in the woods around our neighborhood building tree forts with the few friends that could tolerate my weirdness.
The movie Stand by Me really felt like my childhood. We never saw a dead body in the woods, but the rest of it was authentic to me. We even had warring tribes that would wreck our tree forts and throw rocks and spears.
What great memories! Well, I’m glad a dead body wasn’t part of your childhood experience!
So, once you were out of school, how did your artistic studies and career begin?
I got out of high school and got a job at a friend’s dad’s moving company. That lasted less than a year, and mom suggested I look at Kent State University.
The deal was if I were to go into an art career, I had to go into graphic design, because my parents believed that was a ‘real’ job.
I hated most of it but learned a lot. I took a jewelry and metal-smithing class as one of my electives and fell in love with it. It wasn’t because I liked jewelry, but because the professor who taught the class covered working with so many other mediums. I could really work with my hands.
Plastics, glass, wood, and fiber arts were all part of the program that led to me secretly changing my major to Studio Art/Crafts.
I had no idea how I was going to tell my parents.
This was exactly what they feared I would do, and they might stop helping to fund my education. On the last day of my second year in this new major, I got a phone call from an architecture professor that had seen two of my mixed medium sculptures of fantasy creatures I did for a student show.
He asked what I wanted for them, and I blurted out “$600”. Without hesitation, he told me to come by his office in two hours with the sculptures.
When my dad and uncle came by the next morning to bring my stuff home for the summer, I handed dad a huge wad of twenties and asked him to hold it for me while I went up for the rest of my stuff. He looked at me like I was a drug dealer and asked where the hell I got that kind of cash. I told him I just sold a few sculptures. The look of astonishment was priceless.
I saw the moment…
“By the way, I changed my major to studio art.”
“What?! You can’t do that!”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because there’s no money in it!”
I then pointed to the wad of bills and casually turned on my heal and bounced back up the dormitory steps to retrieve my record albums.
Now I’d love to tell you that I got a job right out of college, but it sucked for at least a year after I graduated, and it was pure dumb luck that I found employment at all.
There was a local mall gallery that I brought work to.
The owner was an awesome woman named Cindy Deering, and the gallery was named after her. Tom Wilson, the famous cartoonist of ZIGGY fame was kind of a silent partner of sorts and a close friend of Cindy’s.
I got to know him, and he loved my work and even bought a few pieces. He started a toy division of American Greetings called Those Characters from Cleveland (TCFC, for short).
He thought I’d make a good fit for the toy industry and tried me out on a freelance basis. The company liked my weird, wild side and decided to hire me as a concept artist. That was the beginning of a whole new education.
Incredible! I wonder where those pieces are now!
I’m happy to hear you had a somewhat positive early experience in the gallery. And that this led to your introduction to the corporate world. Tell us more!
Shortly before my father passed away in 2016, he was sitting and watching me sculpt.
Out of the blue, he said, “You know, you were never cut out to have a boss. You always hated being told what to do. That scared the hell out of your Mother and me.”
At first, I was a little offended, and then I realized he was just telling the truth.
Playing well with others was not my strong suit. I had a difficult time with art-direction, and there seemed to be a hundred art-directors at TCFC changing everything around all the time.
Yes, I was a greenhorn who did not understand the workings of a creative corporation, and I wasn’t very quiet about it.
The office I worked in was shared with a wonderful old guy who’d been with American Greetings forever. His name was Elmer Koch. He was the guy that made the prototype toys that would be field-tested with kids for ‘play value.’
I really loved this guy and followed him around like a puppy learning everything I could from him. After about a year, he decided he wanted to retire.
I really wanted to fill his shoes and gently slipped my way in as the ‘shop guy’ while they looked for his replacement, and that search eventually petered out, which was my plan all along. HOOOHAHAaah!!
I worked at TCFC for four years and made some awesome friends. We had such great times and a lot of laughs. But I was who I was, and that ‘I gotta be me’ stubbornness wore on my bosses like a crappy pair of shoes.
When the toy industry started faltering in 1989, TCFC had to thin its ranks. I was probably an easy choice as to who to let go of.
So toys and corporate business weren’t your cup of tea. I know you worked in the animatronics field at some point as well.
Do you mind me asking when this was? Did you have any involvement with the mechanical aspects as well?
Just around the time my TCFC job was ending, an old friend from Kent state called me to tell me about a guy he met who was doing animatronics for a trade show display company that needed a sculptor.
Long story short, I called him and started working with him on some things that led to full-time employment.
The display company was having a rough time because their biggest client dropped them and began building their own displays.
Shortly after that, our CEO took his own life, and the guy that hired me bought out the robotics portion of the company, and we started LifeFormations.
He told me that I was a 10% owner of this new company, and that was the incentive I needed to give it everything I had.
It was a very tumultuous time in my life. I was going through a divorce and had to relocate to Toledo, Ohio. We started this thing in an unheated warehouse building and built it into a major competitor in the field. I had my share of problems and was drinking and drugging to cope.
I got sober in 1993 and committed myself to build this company with the best work I could provide.
When I was a kid, I dreamed of working for Disney, making the stuff I had seen in the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.
We did it, too! We made stuff that was every bit as good for other places around the world.
However, as the company grew, I realized what I thought would be a dream come true was becoming a nightmare.
My partner had hired some of his former students to help run the company. And, well, let’s just say when you’ve got somebody fifteen years your junior screaming at you in front of your fellow workers you can guess what a guy like me is going to do.
After almost ten years of growing this company from a few employees in a derelict little building to a big player in the themed attraction market, I was ready to cash in my chips and collect my ownership…which never happened.
I did not have sufficient proof of ownership according to the attorney I hired to persuade my business partner to give me what was promised. He said we could try but it would be awfully expensive, and I could lose.
I fought for a short while and realized that I was emotionally drained and had to let it all go and start over.
On the bright side, I learned that I had no more time to waste. I needed to make a name and money for myself rather than for someone else.
I was determined…and I was TERRIFIED.
Oh my goodness! That sounds hideously traumatic and stressful.
No doubt this was your “aha” moment – when you knew it was time for creative independence?
Right after I left LifeFormations, I had reunited with an old girlfriend who is now my wife. I started freelancing for a small prop company called GAG Studios.
It was owned by a wonderful guy who helped get me on my feet after leaving LifeFormations. His name was Dave Gottschalk. He passed away just a few months ago from cancer. He understood me in a way that others did not.
You see, he was the kind of guy that could not have a boss either. Dave started that company in his teens and never had another job. He GOT me. He knew how to talk to me because he was just like me.
So, I sculpted things that he molded and sold to places like Spencer Gifts and other stores and catalogs. We had some great times. He loved to get his hands dirty and work alongside his employees.
While all this was going on, I married that girlfriend, and her name is Kara. She worked at a job that she hated to keep us medically insured, and ultimately, she was able to secure private insurance for us.
Kara also started reading up on things like eBay and the business of art. Kara familiarized herself with learning how to manage a business. She learned how to do taxes for freelance artists.
Kara insisted that I needed a website, and she got her friend to build it.
Kara sounds like a wonderful, intelligent woman. It’s interesting to read this very natural evolution into you both grasping the ropes of all aspects of a business.
The bottom line is, she got good at everything that I suck at and made it work.
The first day that I’d officially come out from under the wings of Gag Studios and began building on my own name was a bad day.
I had destroyed a week’s worth of sculpting through a stupid mold-making mistake.
Kara heard me screaming at myself and throwing things in my basement studio. I told her that I was afraid I was going to fail miserably, and I didn’t want her to have to carry the load because of me.
She took my face in her hands and said,
“I believe in you more than you believe in yourself.”
She then got me to enter those few sculptures that I was bungling that day into Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, Volume 11. Those pieces took both the silver and gold awards in the 3D category.
Shortly after that, both of those sculptures sold for what to us was a small fortune to the CEO of Nike.
Kara knew I’d get into that book, and I thought it would be a waste of time to even enter.
That was my ‘aha’ moment.
Oh, that’s brilliant! Bravo, Kara! So, that was then, what is an average working day in the life of Tom Kuebler now?
That’s a tough one.
I get my best work done later in the day, mostly at night. So I tend to sleep in.
Sometimes I’m on fire with an idea and work at a fever pitch. Other times, I can’t find the energy or get inspired, and I know I’ve got to do something else to recharge. This pandemic, coupled with the political unrest out there, has made that extremely hard.
I used to work to escape my worries and concerns, but when all you have is work and very few other safe options, it isn’t easy.
The creative life – teetering on the edge of something very fragile.
Do you work to a strict schedule each day or week? Or is it more of a fluid process?
Oh, it’s definitely a fluid process.
The one thing that I try to do is plan a little of the next day while I’m trying to sleep the night before.
It helps relax me seeing the process in my head of how I’m going to make something happen.
I’m not sure how many of your creations are commission based, where you are working for a client with some kind of deadline in mind.
I’m curious – as I know a lot of creative individuals (myself included!) that truly struggle when it comes to making something without any deadline at all.
I guess I’m interested in understanding all about your process!
The older I get, the less I take commissions.
The main reason is that I want to make what’s in my head while I’m still able to do it.
I’ve wasted too much time already on someone else’s visions. If I do take a commission, it’s got to be something I really want to do, and I get to do it my way.
Now I know that sounds a bit like I’m a spoiled brat, but it really does come down to what I want to do with my time above ground.
I’ve found that when I really get excited about something that I’m working on, I have little trouble selling it later. People can see the positive energy and love put into that work.
It’s really only “WORK” if you’d rather be doing something else.
Oh absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Your pieces have such immediate energy about them. It feels undeniable they come from your heart and soul!
Do you have lab assistants that help with certain aspects of the process? Do you do everything?
Well, like I said, my wife does all the hard stuff…the administrative stuff, and oddly enough, she says she enjoys it.
She was an art minor in college, so she’s really good at giving me feedback on the figures. If I’m struggling with a likeness and have been looking at it for too long, she can see what I’m missing.
Kara’s also great at helping me work out clothing and accessories. I do hire a seamstress from time to time. I’m not so good on a sewing machine.
I do all the art stuff and some of it is a drag, but it’s all got to get done for the big picture, and it’s hard to find someone around here in central Ohio I trust to get it right. Now, if I lived near you that would be a different story and my hair work would be AWESOME!
Oh boy, Tom! Call me flattered!!! Might I add, your hair work IS awesome!
A running theme of sideshow, carnival, and the macabre runs through your work.
Your Freaks characters are some of your finest and most iconic. Do movies often inspire you for new ideas or characters?
Yes, they do, but I get inspired from all over the place. The other night, I saw a face in the plaster stucco of our ceiling that I thought was really cool.
Cletus and Shorty were inspired by a very old tombstone I saw on a bike ride with Kara.
We stopped at an old graveyard, and there was this stone marked Cletus Greeley with his brother’s name on the same stone, but it was weather-worn and illegible. The date of birth and death was the same for both.
Riding home, I conjured these two-headed conjoined twins with a single body, and I actually started working on them when I got off my bike. It hits me that hard sometimes!
Oh, that’s great! The inception of Cletus and Shorty!
Also, I love antique stores and flea markets.
I have found items that inspired huge pieces of work. An old cloak, a musical instrument, or an antique wheelchair like the one I found and altered for Doctor Nighty Night has inspired many-a-sculpture!
Lately, Pinterest has been a treasure-trove of inspiration. I LOVE PINTEREST!!
Pinterest is a world unto itself as a reference source right?
What material/s do you prefer to sculpt in?
I really love Super Sculpey. I kind of grew up on it. Yes, there was the clay from mom’s basement, but Super Sculpey was able to take detail like I’d never seen. I didn’t have to keep it damp or anything.
It answers all the problems that my kind of work presents.
I like to carve rigid foam armatures and then apply Sculpey over the surface. It works well for me, especially considering the mold. I just heat the surface with a heat gun and paint on a quick thin coat of paste wax, and it’s ready.
That’s a lot of Sculpey! What materials are your characters made from when complete?
For my life-size figures, the skin is made of Dragon Skin Platinum Silicone from Smooth-On. It’s awesome stuff and life-tested to last forever if taken care of.
I sculpt the larger body parts in Smooth-On Rigid Foam-It. I pour the stuff into a general body mold and let it expand and harden. Then cut, carve, and reposition until I get what I want. And then, I add and subtract foam with everything from a chainsaw to a cheese grater.
It’s a fun, messy, dusty process. When I finish the foam, I coat it with a layer of fiberglass. I sometimes make the figures so they come apart to clothe them and for easy transit.
Many of my smaller sculptures are resin.
Oh boy, I can just picture that. I hope you wear all your protective gear and respirator!
How do you go about their clothing/accessories? I ask as the level of detail and finishing in each piece is extra-ordinary.
Do you ever use any real parts?
Flea markets, secondhand stores and antique shops are all awesome sources. Lately, with the pandemic, it’s been hours searching on eBay and Etsy.
As far as real parts, yes, on some of my smaller work, I have used some taxidermy and real animal bones.
Have you ever had to say no to any commission requests?
Yes, if I already have too many projects on my plate for the coming months or if I have no interest in the subject matter of their request, I turn down commissions.
Sometimes, people want a recreation of something I’ve done and sold maybe ten years ago, and I don’t want to repeat myself.
I certainly can’t get upset at the people that want these works.
I’m honored that they like them enough to want to pay for them, but as I said, life is too short to repeat yourself if you want to move on to creating new things.
Also, for those collectors who do have my work, I like them to know they have something rare that I haven’t made a huge edition of.
I love that you honor those who own your previous works. That’s awesome.
Speaking of collectors of your works, I have to ask about Guillermo De Toro. Can you tell us more about how he came to own your work?
I believe he has your H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe – is that right? Did I miss anything else?!
Guillermo is a kind and talented man, and he has provided wonderful opportunities to many creative souls.
He found me when Rue Morgue Magazine did an article on me in 2007.
He first contacted me asking about my Frankenstein skull. After that, he wanted some life-size characters from the movie “Freaks”.
My Schlitzie, Johnny Eck, Hans, and Koo Koo the Bird Girl are in his collection, as well as Lovecraft, Poe, The Elephant Man, and numerous small sculptures.
He has one of the largest collections of my work.
Wow, that’s a healthy collection of your pieces.
What is the most challenging piece that you have had to create?
That’s a tough one! There are several equal contenders for that spot, and for various reasons.
Poe was hard because I had to make him somewhat poseable to fit comfortably into an overstuffed chair that Guillermo had.
I also had to fill his butt with cement so that he would sink down in that chair like a real human of his size and weight would. It was a real challenge.
A piece I’m making currently is a ten foot plus tall giant named Goliath Greeley. He’s another character of my own that is the largest I’ve ever created.
Oh my goodness. I bet that has presented an entirely different set of challenges for you.
Can you tell me what the secret is to sculpting such life-like faces?
There is such life in the eyes of your characters. Always. It just blows me away.
Do you always work from reference photos? I am so curious about how you create such magic in the expressions.
Mostly it’s just practice, practice, practice.
I’ve been sculpting faces more than anything else since I was eight years old. The thing I always try to tell myself is that I have to insist on getting it right.
There is no such thing as ‘close enough.’
I use as much reference as I can possibly compile on the subject, and I do a lot of grid work using horizontal and vertical lines to make sure I’ve got things right.
But, most importantly, the pose has to be fitting of the character I’m sculpting, as does the expression.
The eyes have to be looking at something and not just staring straight ahead. This is the stuff that illustrates personality.
Accuracy is only part of the job. The rest is creating that soul through expression and gesture.
Hyper-realism has become incredibly popular and seems to have grown as an art form of its own in the last 10-20 years.
I remember being young and starting in film/tv work, and always looking for inspiration (in the early days of having internet!), which is how I discovered you.
I knew of you and Ron Mueck. Has the industry changed at all for you? Do you think it’s flooded?
I don’t know, I just kind of think of silicone as a newer medium that more artists are starting to discover.
Like when I was a kid, airbrushes started showing up and everybody was painting everything with airbrushes. Cars and vans and posters.
Everything looked like it was airbrushed, and all the local artists forgot how to paint with regular camel hair. Then, after a while, it was just another tool in the toolbox and people used it when it best fits the purpose.
I use resin and epoxy sculpt as often as silicone in my work when I’m making animals, creatures, or oddities.
I just think when artists discover new mediums, a frenzy of excitement rises and falls with newer discoveries.
Then, that medium just finds its place in the toolbox.
Can you tell us what you’re currently working on/what you most recently produced?
I’ve got a couple of irons in the fire.
I’ve got some commissions in the works and some personal projects, too.
The giant I mentioned has been photographed step-by-step for a Smooth-On Master Sculptor Series™ seminar that will be rescheduled (knock on wood) pending pandemic developments.
Also, working on a bust of Cousin Eerie of the old Warren comic books fame.
I loved those magazines as a kid. I think I’m gonna make Uncle Creepy next.
Oh brilliant! Perhaps Cousin Eerie and Uncle Creepy need to be a set complete!!!
I’d like to ask about the bodies or framework of your full-body characters.
I know they are mostly all clothed. Would you mind telling us about the skeleton or frame underneath? If you are doing a full-sized character, is that where you start first?
Well, there are a few different approaches I might take. Most of the time, I use a large fiberglass mold I made years ago and I pour rigid 3# density foam into it.
After it rises and completely hardens, I pop it out and cut it up to reposition it. I sometimes use bamboo barbecue skewers to hold things in place and then add more foam as needed.
There’s a lot of carving and refining and adding and subtracting foam with everything from electric chainsaws on down to sandpaper.
When I get it where I want it, I coat the whole body with fiberglass. I like my work to be sturdy.
How long do you tend to spend on each character? Or does it even break down that way?
Do you like to limit say, the amount of time you sculpt on a face or hands for an individual piece?
I’m often working on multiple things at once, and time is something I seldom keep track of when it comes to art.
I know that most of my life-size stuff has taken anywhere from one-to-three months, but I have a hard time narrowing it down, because when you really enjoy something time kind of gets lost.
For me, that’s part of the point of being an artist; to lose awareness of time.
At LifeFormations, they had this sheet they wanted the artist to fill out every time you’d start something or finish something down to the hour.
It used to piss me off, and I quit doing it because my work suffered for it.
Having to focus on the clock was a distraction that got in the way of the joy of creating.
I could never make them understand that.
I always made the deadlines; it’s just that I just didn’t want to have to focus on them.
The point of art and life is to enjoy it whether you’re getting paid for it or not.
The wise words of Thomas Kuebler. I couldn’t have summed it up better myself.
Thank you so very much to the ever humble, always inspiring Tom Kuebler for taking the time to chat to me.
What a thrill and an honor, as I have been an admirer of Tom’s work well before I thought I may ever meet him, let alone interview him!
Related post: The Sensational Art of a Turkey Merck
If you aren’t familiar with Tom’s works, and these images he has shared have piqued your interest, check out his website and also his Etsy Page for his latest available creations. And if you don’t already, you can follow him on his Facebook Page as well.
Now, if you don’t mind, I need to go and create!!
All images are courtesy of Thomas S. Kuebler.