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Tom Edwards in his home

The trajectory of an artist's career is rarely a direct path. For Tom Edwards, it took a 27-year detour through a career as a dentist before he was able to devote himself full time to his art. Today, you’ll find the 81-year-old making art in his studio just outside Bentonville.

“When I was a little boy, maybe around 6 or 8, I wanted to grow up and be an artist. I used to draw on butcher paper remnants, war pictures and things like that. Somehow I saw something that Picasso did and I wanted to be like that,” Edwards said. He idolized Picasso as a child, and wanted to go to Europe, study with Picasso and become an artist himself. “I did two of those things, because Picasso died.”

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Edwards' workspace

His career as a dentist came about the way many careers do, through a certain experience and parental influence to get a “real job.” “When I was around 12 years old I had to go get a tooth pulled, so I rode my bike to downtown Joplin [Missouri] to the dentist. When I came home I told my dad about it. They encouraged me to think along those lines—my parents were Depression-era people, dentists made a lot of money. They wanted me to have that security,” he said. “For 53 years I blamed my parents for me being a dentist, until I finally said, ‘You dumb shit, stop.’ Although I hated dental school, I enjoyed being a dentist.”

Edwards never abandoned his love of art, though. He began as a self-taught artist, or “Sunday painter,” and his first formal lessons didn’t come about until a man named Don Cincone came into his Harlington, Texas, practice in 1967 with a dental problem. He credits Cincone as the person responsible for him becoming an artist. “I listened to people making fun of Sunday painters and didn’t like it, since I was sort of a Sunday painter myself. So I started taking some drawing lessons from Cincone,” he said.

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Edwards' barn/studio in Northwest Arkansas

Watching Cincone work at the easel introduced Edwards to glazing and painting with acrylic. Cincone’s influence created a compelling desire for him to become an artist, and when his dental practice was terminated by chronic mercury poisoning, he returned to college. Thirty years after graduating from the University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Dentistry, he began earning degrees in art from three institutions, culminating with an MFA in visual art from Vermont College of Norwich University. Earning those degrees, Tom said, made being an artist “official.” “I had a piece of paper that said I was an artist, like the Tin Man in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when he got his heart,” he said. “That piece of paper was important to the psyche.”

It was during that time that Edwards made his way to Europe, just like Picasso. In 1992 he was a guest student of the Cleveland Institute of Art summer session at L’Ecole d’art, Lacoste, in Provence, France. “Picasso didn’t go to school,” he pointed out. “But Picasso did work his butt off, and that’s the one thing about him that I hope to emulate.”

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Two years later he found himself in Sweden for a summer session as part of a Missouri Southern State College exchange program. Studying Scandinavian art at Mullsjo Folkhogskola in the village of Mullsjo, Edwards said that an awareness or understanding of another language and its culture is necessary for one to become an artist. He mentioned a quote from Mark Twain—“Nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people”—to summarize his views. “Basically, you don’t know anything until you meet the people of the world,” Edwards said.

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His work takes many forms, from giant canvases awash in acrylics and watercolors, to carvings made from Tripoli, a stone that traversed both his career as a dentist and his life as an artist. And while he employs the normal tools of an artist, Edwards has also found a way to incorporate the tools of his former trade as well. “I always loved making dental castings,” he said. “So I kept all of those tools, and now I use them mostly to make jewelry.”

From the barn studio where he focuses on drawing, painting and printmaking, you’ll also find Edwards creating welded steel sculptures in the old farm machinery shed. These large works are on display in a sculpture park on his property, which has become a well-known landmark in north Bentonville. Visitors are welcome, both to the sculpture park and studio, by appointment.

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“Art is never wrong,” Edwards said. “I do art different than you do art. I don’t like having someone tell me that I’ve drawn a figure incorrectly. It’s not incorrect, it’s not wrong. It’s simply different.”

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