The Caricature Job that almost Wasn’t

April 10th, 2009 | Posted in General

This is a picture of one of my first theme park caricatures in progress,
taken at Great America in Gurnee, IL in the summer of 1985.

People sometimes ask what got me started doing what I do. As far back as I can remember I wanted to be an artist. Comic books and Batman got me started loving art and storytelling, but I never set out nor really wanted to be a comic book artist. The truth is I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with art… I just wanted to be a “commercial artist” and make a living drawing and illustrating. Caricature was not something that particular interested me early on. I knew what caricature was, of course, but I never made a connection between it and what I did as an artist, or what I wanted to do. That would all change one day thanks to a pretentious art teacher and a pointless art class at the University of Minnesota in 1985, and the change of heart of another caricature artist.

I wish I could remember the name of that art teacher at the U of M… I’d send her flowers.

The class was called “alternative sculpture”, which was one of those silly filler classes that applied to virtually no actual career direction, but was apparently just there to fill up student schedules and collect tuition money for credits. It was “alternative” because you created your sculptures with any material EXCEPT clay or similar. I could go on about how big a waste of time that was, but suffice it to say I was disappointed but it was the only art class with room in it when I registered. The class was so boring and useless I took to skipping it a lot.

I was skipping the class one day and wasting time in the art building commons area when I spotted a flier on the wall that said “can you draw?”. It was an advertisement for caricaturists to work at a local theme park called Valleyfair by a company called Fasen Arts. I thought I could draw pretty good, so I answered the ad and mailed them some drawings. A few weeks later I interviewed for the job with the company’s owner, Steve Fasen. I showed him a number of drawings I had done of celebrities, and he critiqued me pretty harshly before sending me on my way with a “we’ll give you a call”.

Now, Steve is quite a guy, and today I count him as one of my good friends as well as a mentor and surrogate big brother. He’s a great caricaturist and an even better businessman. However Steve has a very selective memory. He will tell you that he took one look at my work and hired me on the spot, knowing I would really take to caricature and make it one of the center points of my career. That’s not how it happened. I in fact did not get the job at Valleyfair, and heard nothing from them for weeks (not that I blame them… despite my overconfidence I know in retrospect my work wasn’t very impressive). Just as I was figuring I was out of luck, I got a call to do a second interview at Steve’s home. There I was given a quick lesson on live work and tossed into a chair and made to draw Steve as his brother Gary watched over my shoulder. No pressure! Wish I had that drawing today… it must have been awful.

Well, not too awful. I did get a job, but not at Valleyfair. Fasen Arts had another operation in a theme park near Chicago called Great America, and they said they had a place for me there. So, I packed my bags and moved to Waukegan, IL, where I lived in a townhouse with 5 other caricature/airbrush T-shirt artists I did not know, worked 12 hours a day 6 days a week all summer and had my life irrevocably changed…. I later found out that I got the job only because another artist who they had selected bowed out, deciding to stick to gigs and fair work back in Minnesota.

I wish I knew the name of that artist… I’d send her flowers, too.

That summer I fell in love with the art of caricature and cartooning at the same time I learned what it would take to realize my dreams of being a working artist. I was privileged to work with a small group of outstanding artists, most of whom went on to have very successful careers in animation, illustration, comic books, children’s book illustration and fine art. I was humbled by the talent these guys possessed, and realized quickly this art thing was not something you just did or were born with… it was something you had to work incredibly hard at. That summer got me off my rear end and instilled a determination and drive in me that still motivates me today. I drew until my hand was sore… literally. I worked hard at my skills and did live caricatures at Great America every summer all through college, eventually being offered a manager/trainer job by the Fasens at a new operation at Six Flags Atlanta. From there I started my own caricature operations and began freelancing. It was a long road (one I’m still on), with many lucky breaks and many failures and roadblocks. I am still constantly humbled by the skills and talents of artists I admire and that continues to motivate me to improve my abilities and to grow as an artist. My philosophy is still “be confident in your skills today, but do not be satisfied if they are still the same skills tomorrow”.¬¨‚Ć Today I am lucky enough to do what I love and earn a living at it, supporting and raising my family in the process.

…and I owe it all to a boring art class and a caricature artist who got cold feet.


  1. Monty says:

    Would’ja look at that 80’s hair?! Yikes!

  2. Nate says:

    That’s one great aspect of caricature art comparred to other forms of cartooning. Those 12 hour days I’m sure polished your skills to professionalism much quicker than doing it on your own. It sounds like (well, obviously) you took the right road!

  3. K McNutt says:

    Awesome. I love hearing these kinds of stories. I also love hearing you say this isn’t just something you’re born with.

    Happy Friday!

  4. Mark Engblom says:

    Wow…the Secret Origin of Tom!

    Seriously, as serendipitous as your story might seem, I have a feeling you’d have went far no matter what direction you set out upon. It’s your inner drive that’s brought you everything you have…and that’s nothing that can be taught in a class or even by the Fasens.

    Still…it IS amazing to look back on the various directions our life has taken us.

    • Tom says:

      Mark here slaved away as a caricaturist one summer at that same Great America while I was there. 1989? That’s 20 years ago this summer!! whew…

  5. Mark Engblom says:

    Actually, it was the summer of ’88, a.k.a. “the Hottest Summer in Recent Memory”.

    Ah…nothing like drawing caricatures when the asphault of the park walkways drove the 90¬¨? temps up over 100¬¨?. As I recall, artists, customers, and airbrushes were equally miserable.

    That said, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.

  6. Jim says:

    Actually, Tom 1989 was the summer I met you when you were running the caricature operation at Six Flags Atlanta for the Fasens. I believe you also opened up your business at Underground Atlanta. Can it be 20 years this(or was it last) month? Was thinking about it yesterday when I took in the film,”Adventureland”. Although I could spot no caricature booths, it really captures that working in a theme park feeling.And it’s set in that same era(1987). Nice flick! Great story, Tom!

  7. Bernard says:

    Great insight into your career path. No less interesting than any other “How They Got There” story as I just love to read these.

    I’m a man of strong faith conviction and thankfulness to God for everything but must also second the comment by: K McNutt. I too do not subscribe to the “Born-With” theory knowing all the hard work and long hours it took just to quit destroying my many attempts at something decent.

    Now I do give the Lord credit for giving me the desire and determination…but automatic it was not.

    Enjoy Your Trip In London

  8. Victor Payes says:

    Hi Tom, I worked for Fasen for four years and was lucky enough to work with some of your old co-workers from that time, Peter Grondahl and Mac Thomas. They always talk highly of you and your amazing speed. Also, Thank you. Your caricatures are part of the reason I started buying Mad and inspired me to pursue a job drawing caricatures in the first place.

  9. maevie says:

    hey this is my job too! i work at legoland california. my park sketch is really bad :/ but it’s better than when i started so i’m improving.


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