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The Life of an Artist

September 8, 2013

The paintings of Donald Roy Thompson, who has been consistently creating work for  fifty-five years, fall loosely into the category of color-field abstraction.  Although Don is married to my aunt, Mary Dudley, who is also an artist, I don’t call him “Uncle Don”; we treat each other more as peers, fellow artists trying to make sense out of the direction we took as artists. Mary, however, is clearly my aunt and always looking out for me and supporting my career whenever possible. Don and Mary have chosen to move from the cultural hinterlands of Lynden, Washington, five miles from the Canadian border, to the creative hotspot of Santa Fe, New Mexico. One of my day jobs is being an art preparator at a college art gallery so it seems only fitting that they enlisted me to handle and transport all of Dons art.

Like most artists who are not “established”, Don finds himself near the end of his career yet, still, somehow “emerging”. He retired ten years ago from thirty years of teaching Art at a California College. Now, when not dealing the complications of life after 70, he dedicates himself fully to his art. Many teaching artist are moderately successful, building a résumé of shows to fulfill the academic expectation of professional activity, but most never achieve the real success of having gallery shows that sell at a level that makes the work self-sustaining. Unless there is spousal support or a trust fund involved, teaching and other day jobs are a necessity of life for artists who often don’t flourish until their later years when the financial safety nets are rewoven by returns on investments or inheritances, allowing a total immersion into the creative process. Many less fortunate simply give up.

Their new house is in a development called El Dorado (literally: a fictitious city abounding in gold), which is either completely sarcastic or uplifting depending on your views of new age spirituality. Building codes religiously dictates style: the flat-roofed adobe houses all give nod to the aesthetic traditions of the region that served to inspire artists like Georgia O’keefe.  Here, Don hopes to create new paintings and find solid gallery representation, hopefully receiving a return on the decades of hard work he has put into his career.  The new work will be augmented by a cache of work representing years of thematically connected bodies of work, each a fresh investigation into the relationship between color, pattern, and shape; often with an experimental approach to the underlying structure of the painting: stretched canvas, loose canvas, wooden panel or  shaped construction.  All of the work is  executed with a care, precision and planning that is foreign to most of today’s hot young artists.

I lost count, but it was easily over a thousand paintings we loaded into the back of a twenty-six foot Penske rental truck. Each piece was neatly wrapped in bubble wrap and plastic and loaded in an orderly fashion until there was only enough space for a folded table before closing the gate. When the truck was opened in Santa Fe it would serve as a bulkhead to hold back the tide of all of that work.

It took three thirteen-hour days to drive the 1800 miles from Lynden to Santa Fe. Don followed behind in his car anxiously staring at the yellow rear gate of the truck as if at any moment it could spring open and spew the entire corpus of his work all over the western landscape. The truck labored over countless mountain passes at 35 mile per hour with flashers on to warn other drivers of our slow and arduous progress. We crossed the never-ending series of mountain passes and broad flat expanses of Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. As on each of my western journeys, the landscape had me completely mesmerized and enthralled but with out the air-ride suspension of a big rig, both load and driver suffered the heaves and bumps of the decaying interstate highway system. When we reached my cousin Ann’s house a few miles from Mary and Don’s new house, Don literally passed out from exhaustion and required a night in the local emergency room.

After a day’s recovery we loaded all of it into a storage unit, leaning stacks and stacks of art against the corrugated metal walls with barely enough room to walk between them. The irony of the moniker “self storage” was not lost on me as we tried to fit the entire body of his life’s work into the rectangular box of a space. I could not help but think that this could be a conceptual gallery show: The space being barely accessible, the viewer would have to imagine the work like one of Christo’s wrapped pieces.

In the moment it mattered not what the art looked like. Veiled behind translucent sheets of plastic, only titles and dates, carefully marked on each package, revealed a steady chronology that predates my existence. The shapes of the packages gave clues to an investigation of form and process: rectangular canvases, framed panels, rolled canvases, modular framed structures, flat panels and traditionally framed and matted works. The works I handled were only the beauties: Don alluded to piles of failed works that were tossed to the landfill; seemingly tragic, but to the artist, a necessary part of the constant renewal and objective self critique. The mark of a true artist may be measured by not what he keeps, but by what he rejects. The ability to adapt and evolve are crucial to survival.

The work awaits an uncertain future. Will it remain wrapped in a storage unit indefinitely?  Will it be selectively pulled out and reviewed by curators and collectors? Will it be catalogued and documented in a book format?  Will it be given away in a steady trickle to friends and relatives? Or will it be forgotten and end up on an episode of Treasure Hunters, the reality show where bidders guess the value of abandoned storage units. This is the unspoken question of any artist: what will become of what I make?  Which leads to next the question: why make anything at all? or: why bother being an artist?

As the big yellow truck filled with art rolled across the formidable landscape, it mirrored the voyage of the artist. Facing obstacles, constant self-affirmation and courage is needed to keep investing in a process that reaps shallow financial returns year after year.  Hopefully the new environment will be transformative for Don and like the butterfly escaping the cocoon, he will soon become emergent.





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  1. As usual, Rob, insightful & well written, asking all the right [spoken & not] questions.
    What is the thing inside [the vision ??] that forces an artist to create [speak in a medium] in the first place. Who, other than the artist will hear [see] that voice & appreciate [in their own unique way] what it has to say. Kudos.

    • Thanks Tim,
      I guess that is the age old question. After watching Werner Herzog’s documentary ” Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, about the 35,000 year old cave drawings found in France, and learning that they think it was all done by one person, I had to nod my head and thnik ” of course”. The artist both seer and outcast, genius and fool. We do it because to keep the creativity bottled up inside of us would result in psychosis. Perhaps this is why society is so fraught with misaligned individuals; they lack the basic tools of self expression and the encouragement and support to do so.

      • Indeed – art is [or can be] therapy. I once worked [25 years ago] at a daytime homeless shelter in Boston, where we were able to get an art therapy started. That program is still active & thriving. Today the guests at the shelter [still] turn out high quality work in many mediums that they are able to sell at art fairs throught the city. Peace, Tim

        *”I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world * *and a desire to enjoy the world. **This makes it hard to plan the day.” * *~ E.B White*

  2. Of course, not to imply that all artists are simply those who are in need of therapy! (not that we all couldn’t use it from time to time), but that art is necessary for a culture as a whole to remain healthy, whether executed by the lone spirit or practiced daily by the masses.

    • Check out the photos on the Facebook page “You Need More ART in Your Life” – it’s a kick. Cheers, Tim

      *”I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world * *and a desire to enjoy the world. **This makes it hard to plan the day.” * *~ E.B White*

  3. Great post Rob! Nice metaphor–the creative process as an arduous journey in a truck full of art. Your uncle sounds like a truly great & dedicated artist. May he “emerge”! May we all emerge!

  4. Hey Don,
    Congratulations on the move… best of luck in your new digs!
    Paul R.

  5. Been enjoying your last 3 posts this evening. In a way, with all your back and forthing, you are like a governor that keeps me from toppling over the edge into the pacific, that keeps me leaning in toward the motherland in spite of the centrifugal force. Thanks Rob.

    • And you Daniel remind me that life outside of Ithaca is not only possible but can lead to fruitful adventures! I am not through with the West- only started!

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