Remembering Tom

Tom FlemonsDuring his life Tom had a big influence on many people. Feel free to post your memories of him on this page.

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Driftwood Obituary 21 Nov 2018

14 thoughts on “Remembering Tom

  1. Last night I said farewell to my dear friend Tom Flemons. Our little community in Saltspring’s south end is so much poorer for his passing, but so is the world. In the years to come his revolutionary insights into biotensegrity – biomechanics based on the principles of tensegrity – will have enormous impacts in physiology and robotics, and likely a great deal more. The cruel disease that took him from us robbed the world of 20 years of Tom’s inventions.

    We met a couple of years after moving to the island in the mid-90s, and both having the good luck to land in this place when we were relatively young and with the luxury of time to dream and play, we became instant friends. What followed was a long string of all-day rambles on the water and in the ‘Thousand Acre Wood’ as he sometimes referred to our neighbourhood, with long dinners here and legendary parties at his place. He was very well read and by the time he reached Saltspring Tom had done a lot of different things in a life of being ‘gainfully unemployed’. The worldwide success of his Skwish toy (still a perennial best-seller) afforded him the opportunity to pursue whatever ideas landed in his fertile brain, and when he met Dr. Steve Levin in the late 90s and started to build biomechanical models, his tensegrity toys moved from being interesting playthings to become a whole new way of understanding the structure of bodies and how they move.

    Time spent with Tom was a long conversation that always left you feeling smarter, but the thing about him was that he wasn’t just a brilliant thinker, he could make things. Around the turn of the millennium he took a look at the aluminum canoe we used for paddling on the ocean and said ‘we should sail that’. The subsequent five or six years of ‘sailing contraptions’ from the time my son Leh was 8 until he was about 13 contain some of my fondest memories of Tom. It was a constantly evolving series of outriggers, catamarans and trimarans built from aluminum canoe hulls, plastic tarps, double-sided carpet tape, and fir masts and spars cut from our knoll. Leh had already discovered sailing by that point, but those half dozen summers of playing on the water forever cemented his love for it – everybody’s son should be so lucky to have such an uncle.

    He never lost his sense of humour, even when dealing with insufferable pain. A couple of days ago when I arrived at his bedside and asked him how he was doing, he replied, ‘I’m a bit ill.’ The day before yesterday, no longer seeing too well, he asked what it was on my head. When I told him that it was a green toque, he replied through the oxygen mask, ‘It looks good on you.’ Then, leaning down to hear him better, he said ‘I’m lying.’

    Over the years Tom enjoyed speculating on what we’d all be like in this little community when we were in our 80s. He was one of the people I most looked forward to growing old with and I grieve most because that won’t be happening. I have many great photos of Tom, including some zany ones he orchestrated a few days ago on his deathbed, but I’ll include here one from those summers long ago when we thought it would go on forever.

  2. Tom and I met in Vancouver in 1990, at an event intended to bring together ‘interdisciplinary artists’, and while Tom — despite his time at the Emily Carr School of Art and his incessant drive to draw, sculpt, create — was reluctant to embrace the label of ‘artist’, he was the most interdisciplinary person I have ever met. In his case, interdisciplinarity was a beautiful and effortless habit of mind; a boundless curiosity that happily roamed the universe, paired with the discipline to explore any subject he chose to an exacting degree — whether it was a meta-theory of the I Ching during his days at SFU, tensegrity — both in the abstract and as a mode of understanding living structures — or the microbiology that accompanied his illness. What he undertook, he approached with the playfulness of a boy, the intellectual scope of a polymath, and the rigour of a scientist. What he leaves behind is a trove, or should we call it a tensegrity, of interconnected ideas and experiments, and some five million human infants touched by the Skwish.

    He also leaves behind a local and a far-flung community of friends, colleagues and of fellow visionaries. Tom discovered in tensegrity a universally applicable language of interconnectedness, and he had the acumen to apply it to areas of endeavour ranging from pedagogy to human anatomy, from the creation of robotic space probes to a conceptual model of space/time he developed in one of his last essays. Following Tom into any of these areas was never an easy undertaking, but always a fascinating journey. While we lived in separate places for many years and followed different trajectories, we were kindred in our passion for what could be called ‘design’ — a vehicle that took us on many adventures together, including some magnificent failures; from magnetic building blocks that wouldn’t quite stick together to boats that wouldn’t quite float, from making twig furniture to gazing at the stars together.

    I am very glad to know that he is survived by a family that is devoted to him, by Jane Squier, a partner very much of his own mettle, and that his legacy will live in the form of the toy, the company, and a permanent online archive that is being created by Brian Smallshaw with Dorothea Blostein and Niyousha Saedi of Queens University. I am very sad to see him go, and at the same happy that his work will endure as part of the human journey long after he, and we, have gone on to explore what he once called “the really big tensegrity”.

  3. Most people knew Tom as an affable toy designer, artist, and friendly raconteur, I knew him also as a brilliant scientist who would insist on precisely defining words and ideas. He had the ability to distill complex biological concepts into tangible models that made it possible to introduce new ways of thinking about body structure and function in an amusingly simple and accessible “toy” that was, in reality, a remarkable animated sculpture.

    Tom and I first connected in the mid 1990’s. I had some ideas about body structure and mechanics that were based on some Buckminster Fuller/Ken Snelson tensegrity structures and Tom was the designer of the “Skwish”, an iconic toy in worldwide distribution and based on the same principles. I sought him out hoping he could help me with some physical models. It turned out that Tom was already ahead of me, he had been making models of spines for chiropractors based on “biotensegrity”, the biological application of the concept, and he was familiar with some of my writings. We connected and what followed became an ongoing collaboration that lasted over thirty years. He has been thought of as the “model maker” but Tom took my often fuzzy ideas and forced me to confront the paradoxes that accompany new concepts and he usually added thoughts of his own that helped clarify the issues. All the models and usually the ideas underlying them came from his fertile mind. As the artist he was, Tom could perceive physical dimensions and relationships and embody them into sculptural works that were visionary in their conception and execution. I would sometimes express an idea and he would reformulate it into a structure and build it. Out of this came animatable spines, arms, pelvises, limbs and whole torsos. These sculptures are not only useful to anatomists and medical practitioners leading them to a better understanding of the body but also to robotic designers working at NASA and elsewhere who, often working with Tom, have taken Tom’s models and have incorporated his many ideas into their robots. In rehabilitation medicine, his concepts are being used to design artificial limbs and external skeletons to support those who are paralyzed. His writings on tensegrity and biotensegrity address structural mechanical issues that have not been clarified elsewhere and I continually refer to them.

    Tom also introduced me to Salt Spring Island. I was raised in New York City and now live in suburban Washington, DC. I am very much a creature of the rough and tough city streets. I first visited Tom in the early 2000’s. For me S.S.I. was “Brigadoon” and “Shangra-La”, a mystical place populated by people who were all nice, caring, interesting, interested in what others were doing, sharing, and accomplished in whatever they undertook. On my first visit, Tom, in a matter of days, put together an audience of over 100 people for a lecture I gave on an obscure topic, a video recording crew to tape it, and a social gathering to introduce me to S.S.I. and his many friends. This was a world far different from my usual habitat. I visited S.S.I. a few times since and it never lost its mystical appeal.

    Tom was the embodiment of S.S.I. but there is a difference. It is written that Brigadoon could be visited for only one day and that Shangra-La would disappear into the mist, but Tom’s work is not ephemeral, it has lasting qualities and significance and will outlive us and be available to all now and forever.

    Stephen M. Levin
    November 12, 2018

  4. Dear Tom – I learned just today that you had left us.

    I didn’t know you well but I will always remember the mega-tarp that you with a little help from us set up over Andrew and Adina’s straw bale house-in-progress. It survived the buffeting of wind, rain, snow and gales of a long winter. But then you knew what to do.

    I will miss our, too rare, meetings.

  5. Tom … Before Salt Spring.

    I met Tom in Vancouver’s East End when I was working on our newly bought, beat-up house. Tom walked up the lane towards his little pad … and we started talking. He was closer to the Simon Fraser days then and we even visited the Tree House he had built in what was then the Simon Fraser “Bush”. He was not alone, apparently. To escape “residence” and to be completely independent, a number of the daring lived in that bush. As I remember Tom’s tree house, it was in the arms of a tree … and, not far, a pleasant little stream made its way by. You may say: “totally Tom Flemons” … and you will be right. Serviceable. Bucolic. Beautiful.

    We lived close by in the East End… and Tom would drop into the house with books he was reading and wanted to share. Or we would sit on our upper deck, in the sun, a beer in hand…. That would usually be Tom, the excellent sculptor/painter Joseph Caveno, and me.

    At a point Tom decided to take a sculpturing course at Emily Carr – found then on Granville Island and a great adventure. It is not fair, I suppose, to suggest that maybe his ‘mentors’ were not quite up to Tom. But I think that is true. At his open, public critique to round out his time there, Tom wanted some back-up I think. And so he invited Joseph Caveno and me to his (as they say at Oxford University) “viva” (meaning live-voice, not written, examination). Tom had found an early chain-saw, much used in the B.C. Bush. He had then made (as I remember it) a wooden chain-saw replica with its saw-blade portion sunk into a stone (which was set beside the real, early chain-saw). That was the main work … but there was a range of smaller sculpted works also on show.

    His three E. Carr examiners were not empathetic. Their questions appeared – to Joseph Caveno and me – obtuse. They asked him very obvious [dumb?] questions about the B.C.’ Excalibur’. I finally remarked to the examiners that the forests of BC are heraldic and essential to life here, that the brilliant sculpture Tom had created united the forest, the stone of B.C. Mountain ranges, and the steel that EuroCanadians used in the exploitation of the province’s riches. And then Joseph Caveno walked around the works Tom had on display and made commentary that was delicious and informed.

    Joe and I left … and waited in a nearby cafe for Tom. He joined us. “You probably got me a B Minus”, he said. “But it was worth it!”

    Those were days, too, when Tom was inventing, creating beautiful lampshades, colour mobiles, and much more … and occasionally having a “stall” on Granville Island to show his work. Those were the days when he was digesting and recreating from the tensegrity theories of Buckminster Fuller – being the artist/creator/inventor/break-through theoretician Tom always was. And … as others have remarked … they were the days of the invention of the Squish (spelling?) that swept the market and was named Canada’s best toy of its category several years in a row…. And those days were followed very soon by the acquisition of his property on Forest Range Road ..,. and the rest, for those on the island (as they say), is history….

    We kept up with Tom in his peregrinations to Brazil and India and Vienna. And one day he opened a sketch book used at an earlier time when he was sleeping on a beach in Mexico … and the “casual” drawing/painting in the book was stunning. So much we prized … and all taken … too soon.

    1. I didn’t know Tom well but he always left me smiling and thinking. Whether sailing in Mexico or BC or just sitting on his porch having a beer, the conversation was always interesting, thought provoking and enjoyable. You will be missed Tom.

  6. Tom was not only a brilliant scientist. He was a very gentle, caring, empathetic human being. When he, himself, was struggling to ease his own pain, he would still share the few Cannabis plants, he grew for medicinal purposes, with a friend , who suffered from Peripheral Neuropathy.
    Tom’s generosity and selflessness was remarkable and inspiring.

    Tom brought out the best in people and for that he is loved and will be remembered with much fondness and gratitude.

    Margot Jahn

  7. I’ve tried a few times to write about Tom, but I get stalled because the words feel too bland. Even when he was struggling with depression, Tom was anything but bland.

    I met him, as so many people did, in passing. His Wild Oats Studio in Vancouver was close to La Bodega, the restaurant I worked in for twelve years. He would come in for dinner and sketch in a large black book. Mostly tensegrity mobiles at the time. He was civil, but did not invite conversation. In fact, I remember commenting to co-workers that he had little ‘no trespassing’ signs all over him. However, he also had a twinkle in his eye, and over time would throw out interesting questions. The conversations began…

    It is difficult for me to talk about Tom without also talking about Andreas Kahre, the other singularly interesting person who came in to La Bodega and made drawings in a large black book. He had the same slightly formal civility and the same quiet gruffness as Tom. They wanted their service without unnecessary pleasantries, and they wanted to be left to their work.

    One evening, as fate would have it, the two of them—generally so solitary—came in and sat at the same table. I thought How fitting—the two most interesting people in the restaurant know each other! As time wore on, they began to engage me in questions about life: What was the most courageous thing you’ve ever done? … What do you find most challenging about being alive? … What’s more important to you than anything? … How on earth can you have a successful relationship and still live your own life? … How do men and women differ most?

    I’d say Give me a minute… and continue my deliveries from kitchen to table to bar, all the while rolling the question around in the back of my mind…. Then I’d throw something out, wait for a response and push off, laden with empty plates and fresh considerations.

    Eventually, I can’t remember how, we got together outside the restaurant. Tom’s skwish toy had hit the big time during Expo 86 and he bought a five-acre home at the south end of Salt Spring. We were told that anyone who genuinely wanted to support him would visit not only in the summer, but in the darkest days of winter as well. The New Year’s Eve bonfires began.

    Salt Spring became a second home for me and I treasure the friendships I made there through Tom. I had many memorable retreats in his converted goat-shed, where I wrote much of my last book and was able to deepen the practices that matter most to me.

    I am hugely grateful to Tom’s lovely wife Jane and to the south-end community for the incredible support they offered Tom through his long and challenging journey. I am also grateful to both Tom and Andreas for introducing me to my wonderful life partner, Chris Welsby.

    My conversations with Tom continued until just before he died. I loved him like a brother and I will miss him very much.

    Margit (Mog) Hesthammar

  8. Tom was an explorer of ideas, far enough ahead of most thought leaders that he appeared mystical and unsupported sometimes, but with his feet firmly planted, if you dared approach. I admired how he pivoted through life, and I was afraid of the depths of his depression.

    I miss you Tom

  9. There was always something profoundly easy about my friendship with Tom. We met because we had friends in common. He was creative, an inventor and an artist. I am also creative but the emphasis is reversed. I have made a lot of art but I was in awe of his Tensegrity constructions. We both loved to make things. We held this territory in common, it was never uneasy because the territory was vast and surrounded by plenty of sea!

    We both loved boats and we often sailed together but he liked to design and build them more than I did and I spent more time sailing them than building them. We both owned large unruly properties on the gulf islands but neither of us would call a plumber or electrician. Why spoil the fun! We were endlessly entertained by our love of problem solving and if Tom couldn’t fix it, no one could. We were both practical, dead practical – practical dreamers.

    We met on a beach in Mexico. I had an inflatable kayak but I wanted most of all to sail. Tom had a tarp and some tent poles. We scrounged nylon thread, borrowed some tools and cut bamboo from the mangrove. We had fun. A few days later, we sailed. At sunset we talked ideas and drank tequila, science, politics and art.

    I was the University professor but Tom was a borne teacher, he taught me stuff, he taught me how to sharpen one of those dreadful serrated knife blades, he taught me to love chemistry and bake cookies out of plants he grew in his garden. Tom even taught me how to die well, with courage, imagination and a wicked sense of humour.

    I feel as if I had known him all my life. He was like the brother I never had. I shall miss him like a brother and there is now a big sad space that once was our friendship. He set sail in a small boat, I wish him fair winds and a following sea and wherever he is anchored now, I hope he will reserve me a mooring close by.

    There are some friends you never want to lose.

    Chris Welsby

    Gabriola Island
    26th November 2018

  10. I first met Tom at the inaugral Biotensegrity Interest Group meeting is St Malo, France 2010. Fortunately an inciteful medical doctor was also there to hear Tom’s unease with what appeared to be a poorly planned pending package guided medical tour to the really big tensegrity distraction. A different tour to India was organised instead, and the result is history now.

    Several years later, in an email to interested biotensegritists Tom laid out his thoughts on ‘floating fulcrums’. Although he often disavowed being an engineer, his observations and insights were spot on. Such shared observations are the very essence of science. As such Tom was an inspired scientist, although he often preferred to be labeled ‘merely’ as an humble artist.

    Tom was well familiar with the nature of failure that precedes the risk of success, and the limitations of academic fame. When he heard of my own minor scientific academic woes with the received view, he immediately responded, “Well, what did you do that was so right?!” What I did right thereafter was to pay close attention to Tom’s work and not to accept his own humble labels as to its limited importance. The limitations Tom placed on his own contribution were merely an expression of his limitations compared to the really big tensegrity, that he perceived is still out there to be realized.

    God speed, Tom

  11. Buckminster Fuller commented that he was just looking for the Universe’s ‘coordinate system’ – he could have as likely ended up with a pair of flying slippers as a geodesic dome. Not so – I doubt any flying slipper, no matter how cute, could really explain as much as the approach to mathematics and engineering implied under the concept ‘tensegrity’.

    Tom Flemons was such an explorer, headed for the heart of things. Here’s to the passing of a totally original mind, a generous spirit with a kid-like curiosity. I was glad to be able to gambol down the paths of Saltspring with you, but too bad I never got to sail in your self-made boat.

  12. I met Tom in the mid-1970s at SFU when he was living in a tree-stump, part of the stump-people community in the bush around the campus. He spent a lot of time hanging out at the SFU pub making, what he called, “4 dimensional objects” out of plastic straws.

    I remember that at the time Tom struck me as a Hippy genius destined for a life of pleasant poverty, interesting projects, and great conversations. Thanks to the Squish, I was wrong about the poverty part. I was very sad to hear about his death. He was a unique guy.

  13. I hope this reaches Brian Smallshaw. I just published an entry in an instructables robotics contest, and I credit Tom, and this website.
    I used an image of one of Tom’s spine models to point people here. After I uploaded it, it grabbed that image as a thumbnail for the entry. I think I’ve gotten it changed, but if you see it out there, please understand that I have tried to give proper credit for it. Also, if the link to the site causes you too much traffic, let me know and I’ll take it down.

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