When James B. Thompson was growing up in Chicago in the 1960s he often hopped on the Illinois Central train and headed down to the Loop to spend the day hanging out at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of America’s great museums. What he saw there added to an eclectic list of influences on his own emergence as an artist. “I had the movies and I had TV, and both were important to me,” he said. “And I had books. And radio. Baseball cards. And then, the world of music. It’s a weird world. Forms of entertainment become dominant in our lives.”
As he grew and traveled and established his own distinguished career as an artist and teacher, other experiences and influences added to his broad vision of the world of art: medieval books of hours and their free-floating sense of space, the mysteries of Neolithic stone art, the techniques and possibilities of fused glassmaking, the game of golf, the act of mapping, geological shifts, the ways in which science and nature and human beings interact, the human impact on the changing landscape, the fading of traditional cultures in a modern world, the cultural and artistic implications of the fragmentation of the universe, the liberating breakup of Renaissance perspective in contemporary art.
Thompson died on October 27, 2019,at his home in Salem, Oregon, from effects of the cancer mesothelioma. He was surrounded by his loving and supportive family. He was 68.
James Blair Thompson was born in Chicago in 1951. After earning his BA degree from Ripon College in Wisconsin and his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, Thompson spent the bulk of his career in Oregon, where he was a member of the art department at Willamette University in Salem from 1986 until his death.
He began his teaching career at his alma mater, Washington University, with a teaching fellowship during graduate school and subsequently taught as an Instructor of Art at Ripon College, and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Alaska, until he was offered his tenure-track position at Willamette University, where he became a Professor of Art and Curator. During his tenure at Willamette, he also taught as Resident Faculty Director in overseas programs in London, England (with ILACA/AHA) and Galway, Ireland, as well as serving a brief stint as a visiting Professor of Art at Oregon State University Cascades in its summer program.
At Willamette he taught a variety of studio art classes in painting, printmaking, drawing, and design, in addition to courses in art history, architecture, colloquia, seminars and independent study courses while curating a number of prominent exhibitions of nationally and internationally recognized artists at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, the Mary Stuart Rogers Center, the Willamette University Art Gallery, the Hatfield Library, and the Hallie Brown Ford Gallery of Art, where he served as Gallery Director and Curator for many years.
Throughout his career, Thompson was a gifted and dedicated professor who influenced a generation of students entering a variety of creative fields, and who, in his words, are engaged in “shaping cultural consciousness, contributing to the ongoing dialogue of contemporary visual culture and having an impact on global perceptions and thought about art and art-making through their own conceptual art and curatorial practices, teaching of art in higher education, and critical writing about contemporary art, architecture and design.”
As essential as his teaching career was, Thompson was best-known as an artist, primarily as a painter and printmaker, and in the past decade also as a kiln-formed glass artist. “His paintings are a beautiful marriage of rich color-field passages and lone golf figures cast with the antiquated feel of ancient medieval figures,” critic D.K. Row wrote in The Oregonian of Thompson’s 2004 exhibition Selections 1996-2003 at Portland’s Mark Woolley Gallery. “His paintings have nothing to do with religion, but you feel you’re reading or seeing something like a holy manuscript.”
Thompson’s art is in collections ranging from the Portland Art Museum and Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art to the Hawaii State Art Museum, Alaska Museum, the Orkney Archaeological Society in Scotland; corporate collections in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Seattle; and many private and university collections. He was selected for the Portland Art Museum’s 1999 Oregon Biennial, and won the Newcomer Award in the Bullseye Glass “Emerge 2014” international juried art glass competition.
I had reviewed a few of Thompson’s exhibitions, and got to know him over a series of long conversations, mostly at the old Salem farmhouse where he and his wife, Martha, lived, when I was writing the essays for the book James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time, which was published in 2016 on the occasion of his twenty-year retrospective exhibition of the same name at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. I came to recognize both an intellectual rigor and a restless stubbornness in his approach to making art, a determination to act independently and an eagerness to embrace the world of ideas, scientific and otherwise. He often created series of works on a theme, sometimes in subsets of paintings, prints, drawings and, later, glass that were conceptually interlinked and might take a year or more to complete. In series such as 2009’s The Vanishing Landscape and 2018’s Water Is Sacred: Water Is Life he focused on the degradation of natural resources, creating a thematic kinship with several other leading Pacific Northwest artists. “Underneath the lovely abstract surfaces in his large acrylic paintings and smaller intaglio prints, mapping is very much on James B. Thompson’s mind: the transformation and disappearance of the landscape of the West as the region grows and develops. His response is a kind of considered improvisation of mapmaking – a stab at beauty, instead of destruction, through change,” I wrote in reviewing The Vanishing Landscape for The Oregonian. Reviewing Water Is Sacred: Water Is Life for Oregon ArtsWatch, I wrote: “Thompson’s work never seems didactic. It is, rather, an exploration of the visual possibilities rising from a specific philosophical proposition, and it seems to lead him to surprises as he traverses its terrain.”
Such surprises were crucial to the way he made art. He approached a print or painting not as a fully planned project to be filled in but as a series of decisions leading to other decisions, exploring and discovering along the way. “I don’t know what I’m going to find sometimes. It’s a mystery. Which I like,” he said in one of our interviews.
For all of his serious intention as an artist, a current of slightly skewed humor flows under much of his work. “I’ve always had, even in abstraction, a funny way of dealing with colors,” he said. “I deliberately tried to make them offbeat; strange juxtapositions.” His curiosity about the ways the universe works encouraged him to look more and more outside the art world for his inspiration. His belief in fragmentation rather than unity as the normal order of things is reflected in most of his work, which rejects the Renaissance proportionality that held sway in the art world for centuries – “I don’t believe in that. I don’t care about it.” – and finds a commonality between medieval art, with its floating focus and fantastical juxtapositions, and the freedoms from pictorial realism of contemporary art. He simply wasn’t interested in carrying on the European tradition of realistic perspective, he said when discussing his 1995-97 series Certain Situations, which grew out of his visits to Scotland and study of its architecture, ruins, and surviving medieval art. “They had it really good,” he said wryly of the artists who followed in Leonardo’s footsteps. “Four hundred years of imitation.” He preferred the freedom of “just mixing things up. I’m drawing and painting at the same time. It’s what I enjoy.”
The worlds of teaching and art-making came together in the spring of 2018 at an opening-night party at the Hallie Ford for two exhibitions: one by Willamette University art students in the Senior Art Majors Show, the other Thompson’s Water Is Sacred: Water Is Life. “It struck me, looking at these two very different yet strangely congruent exhibitions, how good and likely, after all, the arrangement was,” I wrote at the time. “Young artists, on the cusp, bringing energy and enthusiasm and a restless net of ideas and possibilities to the conversation. A mature artistic craftsman demonstrating how such ideas and energy can be focused, channeled, shaped into a vision. The art world has a long history of apprenticeship, of young artists working in the studios of master artists, bringing fresh possibilities as they learn the skills and techniques of those who’ve been there before. It’s likely that one or more of these student artists in time will discover her or his own vision, and master it, and in turn pass it along to someone else. That seems worth a party, or two, on some Friday evening yet to come.”
Curiosity and the process-oriented act of making in his art practice stayed with Thompson from the beginning to the end. Always, in his life, the hard work of creating was central. “I’m still making things,” he said in 2016, on the occasion of his retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. “I am still using my hands and my mind. You have such a short time on this planet. You really want to try to figure out a few things before you go.”
To that end, Thompson spent his last months working on a new series of artworks, Tide Charts: Ebb and Flow, that is scheduled for exhibition at the Dan and Gail Cannon Gallery of Art at Western Oregon University in 2020.
Thompson is survived by his wife, Martha Schuyler Thompson, and their son, William Loch Thompson.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Tuesday, November 7, in Cone Chapel, Waller Hall, on the Willamette University campus in Salem. All are welcome to attend. The family asks that you support your local artist and/or make a donation to Willamette Valley Hospice for all the care they provide.