By Jarrod Baniqued
Fifty-six years ago, a student at UC Davis received disappointing grades at the end of his freshman year. He was enrolled in the College of Engineering on the advice of his high-school counselor, and was barely coasting by with a 2.0 grade-point average, which was boosted by being a pitcher on the baseball team.
He began to seriously reconsider his path as he realized that his slide-rule skills and the engineering curriculum just weren’t a good fit for him.
In the following year, Thomas Morris joined Delta Sigma Phi fraternity and began a year filled with transition.
“I switched to a liberal arts curriculum and began taking art classes,” he said. “Going to classes was fun again.” He also jokingly recalled that taking a few tokes between classes with his new “creative” classmates helped make the transition a bit more palatable.
UCD had become a nexus for the foremost contemporary artists in the United States during the mid-1960s. Morris described his studies there as prodigious: “In 1965, the arts department was in an old Victorian building next to the Quad, and my drawing teacher was none other than Wayne Thiebaud, in a funky room on the third floor.”
It turns out Thiebaud’s wife was a classmate and Thiebaud had just finished a painting of her sitting on a piece of pie that ended up being widely reviewed.
“What a great way to begin my creative journey,” Morris said, “by having such an incredible artist as my first tour guide.”
When the new Art Building opened, Morris took courses in painting from abstract expressionist Roland Peterson and sculpture from coppersmith Tio Giambruni, and helped the latter with castings that are now out on campus.
Sculpture artist Bob Arneson, who had a studio on the top floor with the beginnings of his uniquely special icon work, taught Morris as well.
Morris also took a run at acting, auditioning at the then-new Theatre Arts Building next door, and performing in several productions.
“Now that was a real trip,” he said.
One afternoon when he was at the student union building at Freeborn Hall, he noticed a strong smell of ink coming from the lower level. Something about it drew him in, and not long after that, he began volunteering at the campus print shop and drawing posters for campus events, sometimes for tips that went toward food and drinks, but mostly for free.
“The silkscreen process with hand-cut screens was very primal and basic, and truly hands-on,” Morris recalled. He learned how to do photo-exposed stencils and began experimenting with multicolor split-fountain inking.
“Combining silkscreen with my first ASUCD offset printed poster for Jefferson Airplane’s concert at Freeborn Hall in 1967 opened a whole new world of printmaking,” he said.
Morris migrated the next year to the Bay Area with his new friend and artistic partner Frank Carson, also a UCD student. They began working with rock-show promoters and created posters for events throughout the Northern California music scene. He brought the band Spirit, along with Davis-based band The Oxford Circle, to Freeborn Hall in 1968, sponsored through his former fraternity, Delta Sigma Phi.
Morris said that discipline and focus were needed in those early years.
“Creating rock posters when promoters asked for a quick turnaround and weren’t paying much money became more of a creative ‘jam session,’ rather than some kind of unique artistic experience,” he said.
But he also noted: “We really did have a great time doing the work, though. Every job was its own kind of adventure. And it was pretty cool to be able to go to almost all of the concerts we did the artwork for, and to see some of the greatest bands of that era.”
During this time, he continued to draw on the influences that inspired him from the beginning.
Morris still appreciates Thiebaud’s storied art career, and has tried to get to any of Thiebaud’s openings when possible, such as his Whitney Museum show in New York City.
Morris also cited other influences such as Art Nouveau poster artists Alphonse Mucha and Jules Chéret, as well as other artists of the time like Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso.
During this period, Carson moved to New York and Morris continued to work on his own with several rock promoters. His hand-drawn lettering and era-defining printing still hang today at concert halls and rock museums, and can be viewed at www.TMrockPosters.com.
Morris also formed meaningful relationships with many alternative-thinking groups, such as the Diggers, the Ecology Center, the Berkeley Free Press and Planet Drum. These influencers connected him with other liberal-minded groups to help start a free print shop they named Jellyroll Press. He did the offset printing himself on an old single-color press.
“They built a process darkroom and plate-burning machines, and became a completely independent shop that supplied many of the counterculture posters and manifestos of the era,” Morris explained.
“We used the money from the rock promoters to buy supplies to print important anti-war chronicles and some of the first ecology manifestos — all for free! A great history of this period can be found in David Rossman’s book ‘All of Us or None.’”
Morris’ oeuvre was prolific. By 1973, he had started his own Berkeley office, Sharpshooter Studios, and continued to do rock posters for local promoters, while also creating award-winning logo designs and advertising art for many Bay Area businesses. Much of his work at the time reflected his rock-poster-oriented hand-lettering designs.
He also worked with UC Berkeley’s entertainment group, SUPERB, and designed a series of posters for campus music events (also chronicled on his rock-poster website). The logo he designed for the group is still in use today.
A huge blow came in 1970 when Jellyroll Press was destroyed by a fire, nearly ending Morris’ printing ambitions. He persisted, however, and often used presses from East Bay shops during off-hours to burn plates and print his work. For several years, Morris was invited to use a production center in Berkeley belonging to David Goines, also a renowned poster artist.
Morris anticipated what was to be the end of the classic studio work model, and closed his Berkeley and Orinda design studios.
“I was fortunate to migrate to the first generations of the Apple operating systems and became an expert user of all the Creative Suite software, which quickly replaced the overhead of running a conventional studio,” he said. “Trying to survive as a professional designer, however, was not without its challenging times and stressful years.”
From 1989 to 2001, Morris worked as the creative director of a San Francisco agency. The disciplined regimen of daily commuting, caring for a sick spouse and raising his two children — while meeting the corporate demands for productivity — forced him to focus and continue to grow in his confidence and creative skill sets.
“This was a tremendously strong and stabilizing period in my life,” he said. “My wife was battling cancer and the medical benefits (obtained through his corporate job) helped her live for 10 more years.”
The years that followed were some of his hardest. His wife eventually lost her cancer battle and he lost his job when the San Francisco firm went bankrupt after 50 years.
He went through years of interviews, but many recruiters found him too old and overqualified. He tried selling life insurance with little success and moved from a large house at the Moraga Country Club to a one-bedroom apartment in a senior-housing complex.
But through it all, he rolled with the changes.
“I had several prodigious creative years, even with very little financial success,” Morris recalled. “I was the U.S. contact point for a Mumbai tech start-up called ZINFI, where I helped to market contact management and lead generation platforms to big companies like McAfee, Oracle and Netgear.
“I’m still optimistic and joyous over the years now that my adult son and daughter are doing great and have been successful and I’ve been blessed with a granddaughter,” he said.
“I am fortunate now, that a young production manager took a shot at hiring an old guy, and am working as a designer at a Pleasant Hill sign shop. I get to use all of my experience and skillsets to help the shop with vehicle wraps, signs of all types and large-format banners and posters. It feels great to still be able to create good art.”
He continues to take on freelance assignments 56 years after his beginnings at Davis. The most important thing he took away from those early years, he said, was to “always be ready to learn new things, and never stop working to keep your mind strong and the creative spirit vibrant and alive.”
An overview of his work and varied skillsets can be viewed at www.ThomasMorrisDesign.com.ShareTweet