Cigarette between his lips, vodka in his hand, longtime Kansas City art dealer Tom Deatherage could be abrupt, cantankerous and irascible to the point of rudeness.
“He was gruff, quick to anger, lost patience easily. He was hard on his artists sometimes,” said close friend Jody Wilkins, owner of the former art gallery Pi. “Then there was the other side.”
It was love and appreciation of both of Deatherage’s sides that on Wednesday brought a steady stream of friends and neighbors, many of them part of Kansas City’s art scene, to gather at the dealer’s garden-surrounded art gallery, The Late Show, 1600 Cherry St., where he lived on the second floor.
Beloved as much for his larger-than-life personality as for his staunch support of young local artists, Deatherage died at his home surrounded by loved ones early Tuesday morning after a long illness. He was 74.
“You know what his last words to me were? ‘Quit torturing me,’ ” artist Colby Smith said Wednesday. Smith laughed, his eyes misting, sitting inside Deatherage’s art-filled gallery.
Deatherage, born Oct. 29, 1942, in Kansas City, was raised in St. Joseph by his grandmother. He served in the U.S. Navy, was honorably discharged in 1967 and eventually made his way back to Kansas City.
He honed his artistic sensibility in the mid-1970s while working as a custom framer at Union Hill Arts. Although not an artist himself, he passionately promoted local artists he believed in as a dealer for some 25 years.
“He was a rascal. … He was very direct, truthful even if it hurt,” said friend Deborah Duffey.
Brashly honest, Deatherage was also loyal and supportive. Wilkins told the story of how, when an artist friend of theirs suffered in the hospital, it was Deatherage who dove in and cleaned what was essentially an uninhabitable apartment to ready it for his return.
When artists were down on their luck, nearly penniless, he’d push their work to clients and call quickly, “I have a check for you!” He’d let others in need practically move in and live in his studio.
“He was real. He was not a phony,” said artist Mauricio Zuniga, who had known Deatherage for five years, helping him hang shows.
“You could come to him in moments of depression, shame or regret,” Smith said, “and he’d be there for you.”
Deatherage had no children. Gay, he was neither married nor involved in any long-term relationship when he died, his friends said. A memorial service is planned and expected to be well attended.
“I’m telling you, it’s going to be a parade,” Wilkins said.