A Perfect Day with Eso Tolson

For this local artist, the best days have space to create and connect

Photographs by Darius B Williams

Editor’s note: Perfect Day celebrates local food enthusiasts from all walks of life who make us want to spend the whole day with them. We want to know their favorite things to eat and cook, but we also just want to know everything about them. Know someone we should feature? Email suggestions to stacey@ediblememphis.com.

Originally from East St. Louis, Illinois, Eso Tolson came to Memphis in 2008 to attend Memphis College of Art and has been here ever since. He’s a self-proclaimed vibe curator, lettering artist, and plant dad.

His goal is for his work to make people feel seen, safe, and adored.

Eso’s perfect day would have no itinerary. “It would be open to whatever needs to happen,” he says. “Hanging out with friends, spending time with a loved one, or just going for a walk. Or doing absolutely nothing. I think those are important aspects.”

However, his days usually do have something planned—something to do, something to show up for. “There’s always these things,” he says. “There’s space for that, room for that.

But a perfect day has no obligation. I do what I want to do when I want to do it.”

Eso gets these perfect days more than the average person because, as an artist, he has the ability to create his own schedule. “I decide my meeting times, call times, work times,” he says. “On the flip side, I have to do everything and create what that time looks like. That can be overwhelming sometimes.”

Edible Memphis: What’s your favorite day of the week?

Eso Tolson: Thursday, because Thursday is the least pressurized day. There’s no pressure on Thursday to be anything.

On Friday there’s pressure to be done or finished with things. Saturday can be a chill day, but it is also the day to run errands or take care of important things you couldn’t get to earlier in the week. Sunday is so many things for so many different people. Monday is like, “Ugh.” Tuesday is the real first day of work, and Wednesday is halfway through.

Thursday can just be whatever you want Thursday to be.

Do you have a morning ritual?

I like the idea of waking up early. My body wakes up around 7:15 to 7:30 a.m., but do I get up? No. [Laughs.]

One of the things that I do in the morning—like the millennial I am—is scroll for a brief second on my phone, but then I just sit in bed and breathe and think about being thankful. I think, “I’m still here.”

I like being very present—looking at the ceiling, looking out the window, looking at Xanadu (my cat), etc. I take the morning to just do that—be present.

I prefer not to talk to anyone until after 10 a.m.

What’s an ideal breakfast for you?

It’s light—light where it needs to be. There’s something special about fresh fruit, granola, and oatmeal.

There’s also something special about French toast, omelets, grits with cheddar, a big, country-style breakfast with biscuits.

I love variety and eat as the mood strikes—

like, today we’re doing a melon, bacon, and two scrambled eggs. On another day it could be breakfast rice—a creamier rice with milk, butter, and salt, salmon croquettes, eggs, and fruit. Or I could just have oatmeal and throw in maple and brown sugar, and that could be enough.

It depends on the day. I can also cook all these things.

Tell us about your morning work schedule.

Perfect days don’t involve work. [Laughs.]

However, I did write a post recently about work and how we think work is where we get a check from, but it’s not.

I believe our work is the thing we bring to the world, our vision—the things we love or talk about that spark passion.

For instance, being passionate about food—sharing something you cooked with family or trying a new recipe you saw on a show—doesn’t seem like work because you are doing this thing that you love and want to share.

The nine-to-five thing is being a contributor to society, and there’s value in that. However, an artist’s work is living life and turning that into something people can wrap their head around. Even like culinary arts—people’s experiences, stories, heritage, where they are from, or what they believe—there’s so much that goes into that.

So, technically, I guess I’m always going to be working because I am living life and doing what I love and sharing with people. But I’m not going to the office to do it.

Do you take a lunch break?

Absolutely. I recently had a perfect lunch when a good friend came to town. It was a very chill day. We went to Muddy’s, walked in Overton Park, ate guacamole and tacos at Babalu, and then just connected through conversation.

How do you spend the afternoon?

Napping. Naps are so important.

I’m a regular, professional napper. I don’t understand why we stop napping as we get older. There are whole civilizations and countries with a set nap time, and their productivity seems to be doing fine.

I can do a 15- to 20-minute power nap, or an hour. The trick is you have to do between one of those. After 20 minutes, I gotta go for an hour. If I nap for 30 to 45 minutes, I’m still sluggish and not refreshed.

The sweet spot is 15 to 20 minutes or an hour.

Tell us about your artistic process.

Unless I’m inspired to create a body of work, it’s commission-based. I’m fortunate enough to have commissions—usually with organizations, companies, because I do work based on themes surrounding community, joy, pride, and celebration, things that are empowering people. I can partner with companies and organizations, learn what they are trying to do, and just go from there.

I used to do a lot of personal projects for people, but it didn’t always align with what I cared about. I didn’t want to use my art for stuff I wasn’t really passionate about. It didn’t feel like it was mine when I was done with it.

What are you working on now?

I just finished some work for The Heights CDC here—a print for new homeowners in the area, welcoming them into their new home. Now I’m working on a project I can’t talk about with a company I can’t name. (I love those projects. Lol.) After that, there’ll be a little room for me to chill. These past couple of months have been pretty full, so I’m taking a breather before starting on a new project.

We hear there’s a project coming up at City & State. Are you a coffee drinker?

I’m actually not a coffee drinker. I do, however, like coffee flavored things—candy, ice cream—but not coffee itself. I’m more “give me some tea” like chai or Earl Grey.

I have tried Guji Mane coffee from Cxffeeblack. I drank it black, and it had a very rich flavor. I really enjoyed it.

With regular coffee, usually by the time I’m done fixing it up, can we still call it coffee? [Laughs.]

What does a perfect dinner look like?

I cook. There’s this recipe my friend Darius and I put together—pan seared salmon on top of al dente linguine mixed with lemon, olive oil, and black olives and served on a bed of blanched spinach. It’s so good, so light and flavorful, so simple. It’s impressive as well. A glass of pinot grigio and you are good to go.

OK, now you are fueled up and ready for an evening of . . .

As much as I can be a social butterfly, I am a homebody. A great night in (or out) is really depending on the energy of the people. Around great friends it doesn’t matter because you are the party, you are the vibe. I like get-togethers, game nights, and listening to an album and critiquing it.

If it’s just me at the house, I set the mood—dim the lighting, watch TV or listen to music with a nice glass of wine. I curate playlists. I have playlists for several situations. I can just vibe out.

If I have company, it’s conversation with a glass of wine or something brown topped with lemon juice and bubbles. Politicking, talking about life, and connecting are ideal for a night in or a night out.

Stacey Greenberg is the editor of Edible Memphis. @nancy_jew

Darius B Williams is known for capturing iconic moments in local music, arts, and beyond. He has photographed people and places of all kinds, notably the 1968 sanitation strike workers and their families as part of the Striking Voices project. His work is about capturing the dignity and humanity in the everyday while making the everyday whimsical and grand. @dbwill211