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From Protractors to Paint Brushes

It all started with a check. Tom Yezza was bored at his desk during a grade school lesson and started to doodle. He drew one line, then another, and eventually a curve. When he was done, he had a figure that looked similar to the Nike logo, but “way cooler,” according to Tom. It was his first drawing, and the beginning of a career as a geometric graphics artist.

A geometric graphics artist uses geometry to create intricate designs. In fact, Tom’s unique designs are so precise that many who see them ask whether his work is digitally enhanced. One viewer at an art gallery—at a loss for words—simply described him as “interesting”. “That was the best thing somebody said, I was interesting,” he said.

Tom, a tall gray-haired 67-year-old with a humble personality, walked into the New Jersey gallery of Arts Unbound—, an organization that displays and helps sell outsider art—with about five large paintings on cabinet wood and traditional canvases. After a few more trips to his car to finish unloading, he walked toward a bluish-green painting on wood, his favorite thing to draw on at the moment. “You see this one?” he said, pointing. “I really like it.”

Wing and Sphere paintingWing and Sphere painting

The painting had a total of 61 checks, and looked like an evolved version of the doodle he had drawn in class. It was almost as if grade-school Tom had time-traveled to the present and was bored out of his mind. The checks were drawn so tightly together that, from a distance, the entire piece looked like a couple of bird wings and a spinning sphere.

Tom stared at the painting for a few seconds and then shook his head, saying, “I could never recreate the same shape that I made that day” in grade school “but I still like this one.”

Painting from Point A to Point B

Tom is technically retired, but he spends so much time sketching out new designs and showing his work at galleries “for fun” that he doesn’t feel retired. He’s been a member of Arts Unbound since 2007 or 2008 (he can’t recall the exact date). He became involved with the organization after his seizures—which he’d been dealing with off and on since 1979—became more frequent and were having a stronger impact on his life. At age 2 Tom was diagnosed with encephalitis, inflammation of the brain, due to an infection. The seizures started shortly after his diagnosis and were at first manageable with the help of medication. But eventually the drugs stopped working and in 1987 he was forced to go on permanent disability. In 2011 he decided to have Gamma Knife Surgery. While Tom’s condition has been a constant battle, he somehow managed to keep pushing. “It can’t bother you, you just gotta’ keep going on.” It is that attitude that inspired him to start drawing heavily in the early 90s.

With a little over 300 designs to date, Tom intends to do just that; he isn’t going to let anything stop him from creating art. Tom doesn’t approach his work from an emotional standpoint. He doesn’t draw based on his mood or a feeling,, because his creative process is technical. It’s mathematical, to be exact, and draws on basic rules of geometry. “I just start drawing. The main thing is you have to have a guide. You have to have a certain technique that you have and go wild with it.”

Headdress

When he says “a guide,” he’s referring to a ruler, a protractor, or any tool that can help achieve the specific shape he wants. And when he says “technique,” he’s talking about how to literally get from a point A to point B. You have to say to yourself, “Okay, I’ve done all of these points on the paper. Now let’s put certain items to those points, join them, and see what I get,” Tom says.

When starting a project, Tom will go to his work desk at home, turn on some classical music (it doesn’t matter what, just anything to get him into the drawing mood), and then pick up a protractor or a ruler. All he needs is one point to get him started, and from there he’ll meticulously make other points and angles until he can’t make anymore. In the end, he always has an eye-catching design that makes people want to take a second look. Tom is known for doing two things in his work: covering the entire page and creating designs that play tricks on the eyes. His figures often pulsate off the page when a viewer is in motion.

Painting that looks like it's going in or out

In one piece that looks like a never-ending staircase, he used slightly slanted angles to make the shape appear infinite. Another piece gives the illusion that the figure is popping up like a top. The drawing, which doesn’t have a name, has been a great topic of discussion. “Some people see it as coming out, but if you look at it closely you see that it is going in,” Tom says. People often get pretty dizzy if they stare at one of his pieces long enough. For that reason Tom doesn’t have many of his drawing hanging up around his own house. “I don’t want that hanging up,” he says, with a smile. “You kidding me?”

Tom’s techniques and designs have grown more and more daring over the past decade. The first gallery he ever submitted to, Upstream People Gallery, in Omaha Nebraska, is proof of that. Five of his paintings were archived on the gallery’s website in 2007. One of them “Bang,” looks similar to a work Tom recently completed named “Headdress.” Both paintings are multicolored and seem to flicker when stared at straight on, but the up-to-date version is far more detailed. “Headdress” looks a lot cleaner than “Bang,” and less textured. “I really like this one. I like the way it came out,” he said of “Headdress.” It’s his favorite at the moment.

Tom and staircase painting

Tom likes to challenge himself to make wild and complicated designs, and he loves to play tricks on the mind with his art. He’s been praised for his work, and he’s been called crazy. He takes it all in as a compliment. “There’s a thin line” between being crazy and being a genius, he knows.