“Reading was the best thing I learned in school,” says Tom Grow, a remarkable self-taught artist and musician. Now 71, Tom’s curiosity and discriminating aesthetic render a story of humble happenstance and museum-quality work.
As a young man in rural California, Tom knew a couple who were making a living grinding stones to sell to jewelers. “I was interested, so they told me what kind of machinery to buy. My first day, I made about 10 stones, but in order to make it profitable I needed to make about 500 stones.” An archaeologist then gave Tom raw stones, which he fashioned into cabochons, polished stones cut flat on one side and rounded on the other. Southwestern style jewelry was popular at the time, so Tom bought a book and taught himself silversmithing. Within a year’s time, Tom was successfully selling his creations.
Tom traveled in his time off. “All the old rock shops were dying out, and the rockhounds dying off, but I learned from the best rock guys in the Southwest,” he recalls.
After moving to northern California, changing life circumstances landed Tom in Maui. “When I got there, I couldn’t get lapidary out of my mind,” he recounts, so he set up a shop and again began working with stones.
Changing course, he fashioned a two-dimensional cut-stone piece. Using a variety of types and colors, Tom pieced together an intricate, realistic depiction of two cockatoos. Little did he know, he was teaching himself commesso, a 16th-century Florence mosaic technique. His commesso work was featured in the prestigious Art Maui festival, which segued into high-end gallery placement.
“I loved being out in my shop at 3 a.m. grinding stone that’s maybe 100 million years old,” he says. Tom also has a lifelong love of playing music. One night, he looked at the guitars in his shop, and at a big piece of lapis and thought he’d make a to-scale replica of a guitar. “I did not realize what I was doing,” Tom remarks. For three years Tom fashioned not one, but three miniature electric guitars: “Bone Machine,” “Stardust,” and “Envy.”
“I thought, ‘There’s no reason to make them if they can’t be museum pieces,’” he shares. Each guitar represents 600-800 hours of artistic perseverance. “The tediousness of it was incredible.” Making and placing just one quarter-inch pure silicon fret on the 1963 Fender Stratocaster took two weeks. The control knobs and whammy bar on the lapis-bodied replica turn and bend. The pickboard, bridge and input jack are solid 22-karat gold. Blue diamonds embellish the fretboard. The Bone Machine, also a Stratocaster, sold through a Maui gallery for $50,000. Made of agatized dinosaur bone, it had solid gold accents and white diamonds highlighting the fretboard.
Tom and his wife moved to Utah a handful of years ago, but he has yet to invest in a shop. “I’m 71, and I have a lot of different ideas of things I want to do,” he shares. Whatever Tom Grow does though, the outcome will be impressive.