Under the Sea with Thomas Deir

You’ve seen Thomas Deir’s hand-painted tile murals splashing an aqua seascape teeming with reef life onto schools, hotels and restaurants across the Island, including a notable one at the entrance to Hanauma Bay. You’ve also seen his sultry beach scenes — palms, full moons and gentle shorelines bathed in a perpetual twilight glow — stretched across canvas in art galleries around town. The first constitutes his commissioned work, the latter his personal passion.

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Thomas Deir at home during interview. Photos by Nathalie Walker

As of late, he’s readjusted his schedule to work through the night straight into dawn, preparing one of his largest murals to date. It will be unveiled at the May 30 grand opening of Blue Water Shrimp and Seafood Market in Rainbow Bazaar at Hilton Hawaiian Village.

“The idea with the mural is to invite people in,” says Deir, describing the look of the 40- foot-long, five-foot-high mural. “The first thing they’ll see is a school of fish and then a lot of open space with blue. The “attraction wall” will lead you in and then you’ll see a turtle, so that you feel like you’re underwater and it’s swimming over you. As you go in, you discover more reef and detail.”

Last year, Blue Water Shrimp and Seafood Company owner Marshall Sakaguchi approached Deir after seeing one of his murals. Sakaguchi was in the process of moving his shrimp truck operations to a dedicated space at Ala Moana Shopping Center Food Court. The eye-catching seablue hues of Deir’s mural, he felt, would make for a perfect transition out of the blue trucks that Sakaguchi’s business was known for.

“We had a really comfortable relationship,” notes Deir. “He trusted everything I did and was really happy with the end results, so when this project came around, he said, ‘I want you to do the interior design.’”

Deir plans his design, sketches it onto the tiles, paints in solid colors with glaze and fires the tiles in a kiln. He’ll do the process of glazing and heating in the kiln five times or more for each of the hundreds of tiles to get the hues, shadowing and highlighting just right. Six months later, Deir is ready to show off his most recent project.

Always artistic, Deir worked in advertising and a sign shop as a teenager, dealing in airbrush, silk screening, painting and graphic arts. He crammed in all of the art courses he could in high school and was well on his way to being a well-rounded artist by the time he got to college. So he studied academics while continuing his art pursuit, working from hands-on experience rather than formal courses.

What really set his niche as a marine tile mural designer was collaboration with a tile setter, who urged Deir to maintain a steady day job.

“I wanted to grow as an artist, and he was telling me, ‘You’re never going to make it as an artist; you should learn to set tile.’ But I was making $6 an hour, so I moved away from that, and went off on my own.”

Perhaps the best impetus to succeed is the challenge of a naysayer. All these years later, Deir is a world-renowned, full-time artist. He’s done commissioned work for homes and businesses from Japan to Scotland and across the U.S. He has a number of commissioned projects all lined up, and he manages to escape from tile work every so often back to the comfort of his canvas studio where he works with paints he himself invented, that don’t harden until heated. (His work, including stone mosaics of green sea turtles, can be seen at thomasdeir.com.)

A distinguishing feature of Deir’s tiles is the crisp colors of the reef and rainbow burst of fish that pop nearly 3-D out of the mural.

“When I was younger, I started as a marine artist,” says Deir. “I felt like I wasn’t growing, so I went to the library and immersed myself in color — color wheels and the whole science of color, and I started doing landscapes, which was more challenging.”

Deir pulls out a color wheel and in a nutshell, explains the concept behind knowns and variables, and dominant and complementary colors. Knowns are things you can’t change, like the size of the mural and the natural color of various fish. The reef is the variable that can be manipulated, and painting it in scientifically complementary colors makes the dominant color of Hawaii’s bright fish swim in life-like vibrance right off the tile. Gazing at his work is like snorkeling, and the longer you look, the more you notice hidden surprises lurking in the reef.

“I manipulate the variables to make things jump out later,” says Deir. “A good work of art should be attractive from a distance and more interesting the closer you get to it.”

Beyond the pieces of art themselves, Deir notes that one of the most rewarding aspects of his career is something he hadn’t anticipated, something he’d like aspiring artists to know:

“I meet people who are so thankful. I’m doing something personal for them and they’re so grateful. I really develop relationships with my clients. They become friends.”