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William Thompson is a native of Wisconsin who moved with his family to the west as a young adolescent. He immediately fell in love with the mountains and high desert landscapes and has returned after many years to live and paint in New Mexico. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in painting from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and has been painting since he was about 8 years old. A graduate of the University of Utah, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, and The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, DC, he has been a pastor, a social activist, a university teacher, counselor and spiritual director for over forty-five years. He is also a husband, father, and a very good friend. His specific “Artist’s Statement” follows.
I have always seen my life as a spiritual journey, and I have always seen things differently than most people. This has led to a creative, sometime painful, but always a fulfilled life as a social justice activist, a Lutheran pastor and a university teacher. And there is tremendous gratitude that I have accomplished much of what I wanted to do in my life. To this day I have a vision of reality that I find most people do not share and I am still seeking God. I seem to experience God more in the big questions about life than in any ultimate answers I have found and am okay with that. Also today I am more able to let go of control than in my younger years and to live in the moment, trusting that I am being guided by God.
My working life has been with marginalized people – the poor, people of color, confused and searching college students, people who are dying and people who just don’t fit into mainstream society. In my possession is one oil painting I did at about 8 years old around 1950. As an adult I started painting in 1967, when my wife and I lived in ghetto neighborhoods in Chicago and New York City’s South Bronx and then Spanish Harlem. Putting shape and color on canvas helped to overcome the frustrations of working with oppressed and chaotic people. I discovered acrylics at that time and found that they were better to work with because they were less messy in an apartment. And I fell in love with the bright colors and psychedelic effects I could achieve. Psychedelic drugs were popular in those days, and I was also influenced by the Puerto Rican culture in Spanish Harlem.
In the last decades my life has been profoundly changed by several events: I decided to stop drinking and face the fact that I am an alcoholic; I survived a life threatening illness and surgery; both my parents died thus making me a member of “the elder generation”; our oldest child died suddenly of a tragic illness; I made many pilgrimages to the Navajo Reservation in Northeastern Arizona and to 140th street in the South Bronx; I received a Masters of Fine Art in painting from Bowling Green State University and developed a discipline of going to my studio each morning (seven days a week) and painting; and I have developed a discipline of silent meditation. All of these events have and are profoundly affecting/shaping my artwork. I have become more serious about painting as integral to my spiritual journey and in encountering God. I still paint in bright colors. My paintings are often abstract in the ways I use color and texture, but the form of the subject is still there so the viewer can clearly recognize what I am painting. If I plan my painting too much ahead of time, I don’t do my best work, which is always spontaneous, honest, direct and non-formal. Everything I paint now represents, in my unique way, places where I encounter God in the world. The themes I depict in my paintings are humor/absurdity, social justice, sacrifice-living for others, death and transformation.
I have painted butterflies; the high desert mountains; poor people in the city; circles; students of mine; scenes from the bible; and coyotes. Coyotes have become a major autobiographical theme for me because they represent the trickster in Indian culture. The trickster is one who uses tricks, stories, humor and performance to heal and transform people by reminding them of their imperfections and changing their perception of reality. This is what I would like my art to do. The Trickster in many cultures, as described by Joseph Campbell and Paul Radin, is a human being who enters existence and is at first seen by the people as a blurred, chaotic, hardly unified being, having no self-knowledge or life-knowledge, despite his divine parenthood. It is only later on in his travels (usually by foot) that the Trickster emerges as a cultural hero, demigod, and savior of peoples. But this occurs only after his transformation or self-integration takes place, and brings to the fore the great and epic qualities initially given him by his divine mother or father.
I believe that artists (as a kind of trickster) have an important role in our society today. That role is to be social healers by leading our culture toward social and personal transformation.
Paul Tillich, an existential theologian who influenced many young Protestant seminarians in the 50s and 60s including myself, wrote that when the artist expresses what is real or meaningful to her she is expressing ultimate reality (or God). Tillich goes on to say that it does not matter what style an artist uses. Any style or art form from realism to abstract expressionism can express ultimate reality (God). The attempt to be creative and express in an honest way her perception of what is real and/or important and meaningful to her is the key as to whether or not a person is an artist. How an artist perceives their source of inspiration is also important. Piet Mondrian wrote, “The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.” For what is the artist a channel? I would say for God as the Whole, the One. God is a principle Love Intelligence, of Creating/Healing to which all beings have access through actions like prayer, meditation, creating art, comforting others, etc. I believe that the essence of being human is to be creative and when the artist is attempting to be creative she is accessing this creative/divine spirit and is expressing God as well as being led by God.
I want the viewer to be moved by the theme, color, texture, and mystery in my paintings so the viewer pauses and reflects on the paintings’ meaning and purpose. I believe that this can be a mini-spiritual journey for the viewer because by moving and pausing to reflect on the meaning of the universal themes of my paintings the viewer can ask ultimate questions that lead the viewer to encounter God. I would love it if my paintings might be a doorway to the sacred for the viewer.