Kelly Thompson - Artist Study
This is part of an ongoing series on the how, where, and why behind some people making and doing awesome things in the Midwest.
Kelly Thompson is an artist based in Grand Forks, ND. I first saw his work at Ecce in Fargo and was immediately struck by a series of minimal landscapes that he is working on. He graciously let me into his home where he works and chatted with me about his process and experiences. Read on!
Zach: Tell me who you are and what you do.
Kelly: I am a painter. My background, which I’ve done for years, is in graphic design with a lot of emphasis on logo design and corporate identity. I’m constantly balancing things and editing things because one of your goals as a logo designer is to strip away superfluous things until you have the perfect image. So a lot of my paintings are very minimalistic and they have a very graphic component to them. That comes through in the work, especially in the landscape pieces I do. These red boxes are supposed to represent barns, they don’t look like barns but you look at it and know that’s what it is.
As much as I’d like to feel like I’m more of a free spirit when I have a brush in my hand, it’s actually quite controlled. People that know me would probably say that’s paralleled with my personality.
I did another series I started a few years back where I painted objects, unique objects. I call them Accidental Icons. These were things that were designed for probably a single purpose, not to stand the test of time as something iconic. When you take something and isolate it, like a water spigot for example, and really look at it for what it is, I find that really interesting. So those are the two subjects I’ve been painting. I’ve done figurative but I seem to always go back to these two things.
Zach: What are you working on right now?
Kelly: (laughs) I’m taking a break. I just finished the show at Ecce and I think I had about two and a half months to prepare for that and I finished twenty-three pieces. I painted all winter long, every spare moment that I had. So I had to take a break from it. Following a show, often commission work follows that because someone has discovered you so I have some commission pieces. So that’s really how I’ve worked, a show or two a year and then commission work.
Zach: How do you approach a new piece? What’s you mindset?
Kelly: Say for example I’m doing a landscape, because I have computer graphic background, I’m able to work with my elements on a computer screen first. For example, I’ll take the black bottom and I can move the elements, the squares or the symbolic tree, and I can move it around and decided how I want it to look, somewhat, before I take it to the canvas. That’s kind of how I start.
What I’m doing one of my Accidental Icon pieces, I go to antique stores and thrift shops and second hand stores a lot to look for unique things I can paint. Then I will take pictures of it in different lighting and I will transfer that to a computer and get it proportionally set up and then I’ll start in on the canvas.
Zach: Have you always considered yourself creative? Did you grow up in a creative home?
Kelly: I did. It’s always been a part of my life. I can never remember not being. Both of my parents are creative people. My mom’s a painter, my father’s a musician, my brother’s a musician and an artist so it’s always been a common thread in our family. I did not get the singing gene in our family, though. (laughs)
Zach: Have you tried many other mediums?
Kelly: I’ve done a little bit of sculpture, I’ve done a little bit of furniture, drawing, of course, some charcoal, pastel painting. When I first starting hitting the painting seriously, it was probably about twelve years ago, a friend of mine had a beautiful big home and offered to have an exhibition for me. So I worked really hard at it. I don’t remember how many pieces I did but we put these paintings all over their house and within four hours I sold about $20,000 worth. (laughs) So that was my first solo show and after that I thought, “Maybe I’m on to something.” And I’ve been painting hard ever since that day.
Zach: Why painting?
Kelly: I needed, being a dad to some kids, I needed a medium that I could do while I had dinner on the stove. I needed something I could do that I could set down and give someone a ride to piano lessons. It started out as something more of a convenience. It’s always been a dining table project for me. Even now what I have studio space, I’m still drawn back to the dining room table. The dining room is where I work.
Zach: On that subject, tell me about your workspace.
Kelly: It’s not ideal by any means, especially in lighting and tripping over things. I keep a very utilitarian table because it takes a lot of abuse. Someone was throwing this table away and I found it and pulled it out of the garbage and put a coat of paint on it and roughed it up. I make do. I like to be near the kitchen. I like to be near the TV and the water and the music.
Zach: Is there anything you hope people take away from your work?
Kelly: I do, I want people to look at my work, especially my landscapes, and I’d like for them to convey a sense of freedom and peacefulness and something that grounds you. But I like to always create a sense of mystery. I want them to actually wonder what is just beyond the edge of the canvas. Rather than just see what is there, I want them to have a feeling and emotion from it. I think, ultimately, the point of art is to be provocative, whether it’s a positive feeling or a negative feeling, whether it’s fear or happiness. That’s our purpose as artists, to interpret and provoke people.
Zach: How do you think your work has changed since you began painting?
Kelly: I think a lot of artists probably start off in a more controlled approach and learn towards realism and probably expand on that as they get more comfortable with it. I think I’ve evolved, I’m a little more sophisticated and that just comes from being aware of what other painters are doing and watching the trade journals and that sort of thing. As an artist, you never stop gleaning motivation and ideas. You can glance across the room, or even close you eyes and find on the inside of your eyelids, and find something that inspires you for work. I think you learn to be more open to finding inspiration.
Zach: What is your inspiration? What influences your work?
Kelly: The landscapes, I love driving, I’ve always loved being on the open road, by myself even, and just taking in what’s around me. So many people are not excited about, for example, the drive between Fargo and Grand Forks, as flat as this table top and you can see as far as you can see. It’s not unlike standing at the edge of the ocean to me. It’s a sense of awe and mystery to me, and beauty. I’m a minimalist so that inspires me. A lot of these images, they’re whirring past me on the highway and they’re coming back to me in theses strong horizontal lines and landscapes and brush strokes.
Zach: What’s the most fulfilling part of what you do?
Kelly: I approach painting a little bit from a buyer’s standpoint. I am a marketeur, if that’s a word, at my core. I like to paint what I think people want to buy. An artist, a purist, might not be thrilled with a statement like that but I like to paint what I think people would like. I paint what I would like to buy.
Zach: What’s the most challenging part of what you do?
Kelly: Well, I don’t think people realize that the paintings that are presented to the public are the ones that have risen to the top. There is a lot of work that people don’t see. A lot of effort that people don’t see because the pieces have been covered up, they’ve been thrown away, they’ve been shredded, burned. So that’s hard, when you need to let a piece go. They’re sitting in my studio and they’re turned against the wall because I can’t bear to even look at them. They’re hard to paint over…it’s the ones that you have to give up on, that’s the hardest part.
The hard part too is when you love a piece and you haven’t sold it. You can sell five and not sell one and your mind is gonna go, “Why didn’t that one sell?” But there’s nothing tragic about this. I don’t make a living at it…thankfully, because I have kids in college. I don’t have that kind of pressure to produce. But it’s very rewarding when people buy your work,. It’s very validating.
Zach: What’s the last good book you’ve read?
Kelly: It’s called Bettyville, I’m almost finished with it. It’s about a writer growing up in the deep south in the 60’s and 70’s and those struggles.
Zach: What’s on your playlist right now?
Kelly: That’s pretty eclectic. I grew up with a hard core classic country music background from my father. Hank Williams and Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn, those old timers. So that’s engrained in me so I go there sometimes. But I have everything in between, I like it all.
Zach: What advice would you give to a young artist?
Kelly: I can speak specifically to painting, and it took many years of trial and error, was to establish a style of your own. A look and style where someone looks at your piece and says, “That’s Kelly’s painting.” I finally did that. I don’t know the quick route to that but that’s a big hurdle that you should try to achieve as soon as you can.
You don’t have to recreate the wheel. My favorite painters are Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol and you gleam what you like from others and adapt them to what you want to do and what you want to say. They always tell a writer to ‘write what you know,’ I would say the same thing to a painter, paint what you know or paint what you feel and you’re probably going to get to those identifying elements in your work.