Evergreen potter Tom Edwards believes in magic. As he should, considering the many serendipitous events that have occurred in his lifetime, from succeeding as a professional potter to inventing his cult favorite, Wallyware dinnerware. However, Tom is probably best known for being the guy who created the farting unicorn graphic that Tesla Motors stole. Yes, you read that correctly. In 2018, Tom stepped into the ring with Elon Musk to defend his intellectual property. But there was a lifetime of hard work, commitment and success before David took on Goliath.
Tom fell in love with clay his first week in ceramics class in high school. He took as many elective classes as he could for the next seven years, but he graduated with a degree in art history from UC Santa Barbara in 1978. The day after graduation, Tom rented a small studio space at Santa Barbara Ceramic Design, a fledgling art pottery design group. “I was working with a really great group of artists. I learned so much about the trade and how to sell my work at craft fairs,” Tom says. He made functional pottery such as mugs, bowls and plates that sold well enough to support himself. “I was essentially still learning the nuts and bolts of being a potter at the time.” Within a few years, Tom found his true voice in pottery that better matched his witty personality.
In 1983, Tom moved to Los Angeles to be with his wife, Lori, as she completed her Ph.D in public health. One day, for fun, he made a small plate for his dad for Father’s Day. He knew he was no Picasso, but he wanted to “just play around and try something new,” so he drew a cartoon commemorating a recent trip to his dad’s workplace, Northrup Corporation. Tom’s dad (a software engineer who shares his son’s goofball sense of humor) proudly displayed the artwork in his office until the day he retired. Continuing to doodle, Tom came up with a crude drawing of a dog named Wally.
Wally ignited Tom’s imagination. Soon, the imaginary pooch began having grand adventures with humorous observations all on the surface of the clay. Tom took a batch of the playful pottery to a craft fair and was amazed by the interest. “People just crowded around the Wally pots and totally ignored the rest of my work,” he says. From that point forward, Tom created mostly cartoon pottery because “it was just too much fun and it felt good. My inner 12-year-old came out.” Wallyware pottery took off and became Tom’s signature work for the next 40 years.
In 1992, Tom and his family moved to Evergreen as he continued to produce and sell his work. He felt blessed his profession provided a flexible schedule which lent itself nicely to raising his two daughters. But, in 2017, several years after his girls “flew the coop,” when everything in life should have slowed down a bit, the Tesla farting unicorn debacle raised Tom’s notoriety to a whole new level. The following is the story from the unicorn’s (I mean horse’s) mouth.
“One day, I received a slew of orders from all over the world for my ‘Electric cars are good for the environment because electricity comes from magic’ mug. It was weird! I soon found out that Elon Musk had tweeted a photo of my mug. I thought, wow that’s cool! He didn’t give me credit, but I wound up selling about 50 of them within a week. That was February 2017. Then, two months later, BOOM, my mugs started selling again. But this time it was different. Tesla had done a software upgrade and they had a new paint program on the dashboard touch screen. They used my farting unicorn graphic as the icon for it. It turns out, one of the engineers at Tesla thought it was a great idea to copy my artwork since Elon liked that mug.”
Tom felt there was something very wrong about this, so he reached out to his brother-in-law, a law professor at UC Irvine. Yes, it was most likely copyright infringement. Initially, Tom thought he didn’t have a fighting chance against a huge company like Tesla. But that all changed when he made a new year’s resolution in 2018 to get fair compensation for his artwork. He secured a top-notch corporate attorney and began to sense that he had “magical powers” due to the numerous serendipitous situations that seemed to open up as he pursued his end goal. When the news story finally broke in the Denver Westword, Tom’s oldest daughter, Robin (a.k.a. indie rock star Lisa Prank), tweeted Elon Musk and the two engaged in a lively debate about copyright. The rock star’s argument was impeccable and the billionaire left the fight, deleting his tweets. A major media storm blew up overnight and Tom did constant interviews worldwide for the next two weeks. Without going into major detail, the potter did finally receive a reasonable cash compensation from Tesla, and his family spent Christmas in Hawaii.
It was wonderful to witness an artist who lives his dream. Tom’s happiness radiated into the plates he was in the process of spinning while we spoke. The wheel turned with a gentle push of his foot as he leaned a small tool into the soft clay to create the final touches. Occasionally, he would glance up to recall an answer or make eye contact only to immediately turn back to the piece. His chalky-gray hands deftly moved from water to clay as masterfully as a surgeon to his instruments. The spin of the wheel was hypnotic. Cathartic. It was easy to understand how someone can so easily fall in love with creating pottery. It’s almost magical.
To see an array of Tom’s pottery and his newest collections, you can check out his website at wallypots.com, or follow him on instagram at @tomedwardspottery. Or, visit Evergreen Gallery in Evergreen to see his whimsical pottery firsthand.