Have you ever been invited inside the studio of a great Canadian artist? Someone mentioned in the same breath as renowned Canadian realist artists Alex Colville, Mary Pratt, and Jack Chambers. Michael Thompson is a member of this elite group and has called the bucolic tree lined streets of Oakville home for the past 32 years. He recently invited me into his Oakville studio. Thompson says Oakville “is a beautiful place…where I withdraw and reflect while creating art”. However it is the urban streets of Toronto, Montreal, New York (especially Coney Island), Paris, and Berlin that predominately form the subject matter for his art. Specifically, “The crowded pubs and cafes or the lesser travelled back streets of these cities” are what capture his imagination and engage his mind in creating art – Michael Thompson’s realist art.
Toronto’s The Junction neighbourhood is a current favourite haunt of Thompson. The creative process begins by exploring an urban area and photographing its buildings, streetscapes, automobiles, cafes/pubs, and people. Copious notes are then made about setting, lighting, and subject matter. At home in the comfort of his Oakville studio he creates his iconic realist works of art. Thompson reminds me that Oakville is not the inspiration for the mostly gritty urban subject matter of his art.
Thompson’s studio is a spacious room attached to his home in the leafy historic area of Oakville . During my visit he describes and demonstrates visual examples of his creative process. Generously left out on the drawing table is a current work in progress for viewing (it is not his habit to leave work in progress out on display). Thompson also shares the accompanying sketch for the current work on the drawing table. The sketch lays out precisely detailed measurements and dimensions for the composition . Notes in pencil to himself are written around the border of the sketch. More written notes are close at hand and are referenced while working. There is a black and white photograph taken by Thompson that that is also using as part of the creative process. Thompson’s art is measured, purposeful, and planned.
Elsewhere in the studio an entire wall is covered with a large cork board. The cork board displays photographs, ideas, and images; some taken from the pages of magazines. Other inspiration comes from the art of fellow Canadian artists such as Alex Colville, Ken Danby, and Tom Forrestall all of whom he has known personally. He names American artists that he has studied – Andrew Wyeth and in particular Edward Hopper’s ‘urban psychology’ as being important in his development as an artist. “You get their books and pore over them.” On nearby side tables are acrylic paints and drawing pencils 6H-2B all neatly laid out (erasers too). A painting easel is stored in the studio as well.
Self confession: I was obsessed with asking Thompson about the light in his studio. I had a romantic belief that an artist’s studio was flooded with natural light from skylights and large windows. This is not so in Thompson’s studio. Thompson’s art is created under incandescent light – thus the natural light in the studio is not significant to creating his art. Adjustable halogen ceiling lights (mostly used for lighting when painting) and a drafting style light clamped to the drawing table are the main lighting fixtures in the studio. The photographs and notes taken at the time the image is captured form the reference point for the light in the work. As he says “the large window in the studio is more for my (his) pleasure rather than necessary for working”.
Michael Thompson is currently working on a self imposed schedule of two years of drawing followed by two years of painting although there is “some random fluidity” to this structure, he says. Michael Thompson Drawing was the recent sold out show at Toronto’s Mira Godard Gallery October 17 – November 7, 2015. Another show (paintings) is planned for 2017 at Mira Godard. I mentioned a particular drawing I admired in the recent show and Thompson says “stay tuned”. A drawing he says is frequently “the dress rehearsal” for the painting.
Featured in the recent show is a small still life (Café Still Life) depicting a diner style cup and saucer. The work is so expertly drawn in pencil that it actually resembles the sheen of china. I ask him (again referring to the recent show ) “how do you draw leather pants to actually look incredibly like leather?” He modestly tells me these techniques are self-taught. Viewing Michael Thompson’s art in person is a revelatory experience. Photographs in books and images posted online of his art (while of very high quality) are merely a cheater’s substitute to viewing the art in person. The result of his meticulous-patient-creative process is a work of art that reflects the superior skills and craftsmanship of a great artist.
“Queen Street Sunrise” a drawing from the recent show is an excellent example of Thompson’s intentionally distilled and intricate style of art. “Queen Street Sunrise is a study in light at a time of day… the sun is low in the sky…the colours on the buildings” he says. “It is also a sociological study more about what you don’t see.” Thompson further describes “Queen Street Sunrise” as “the sun is coming up all over the city, Queen St. and Rosedale all at the same time …it is an equalizer” and this is an idea that he finds intriguing possibly because of his working class east end Montreal upbringing.
In the recent show, the model “Anna” appears in numerous works. When asked about “Anna” Thompson says, “Anna’s beauty is intrinsic…her power is magical.” Thompson has used other youthful models in past works and shows- Jenn, Jocelyn, Melissa, and Caitlin to name a few. He says there is “an energy in youth” that he is captivated by. Thompson recently celebrated his 60th Birthday. “One day I looked at my hands and realized to myself that I suddenly looked old.” “Youth” – he says ignites his imagination especially as he feels and observes himself aging.
Solo rides on his beloved (now sold) motorcycle was, until recently, a favourite pastime. Thompson shows me a photograph of his motorcycle framed and hanging on the studio wall. He vividly retraces his regular ride just north of Oakville along Tremaine Road; then riding further west under the shadow of Mount Nemo (the ancient rock formation that is part of the Niagara escarpment). Thompson has atypically used this beautiful country landscape as the subject of a magnificent acrylic on canvas piece entitled “Rain on Mount Nemo” currently on display/sale at Mira Godard.
Illumination of the contrasts in Thompson the artist adds curious insight to viewing his art. For me, Michael Thompson’s art reflects themes such as what is seen/not seen in a work of art; explorations of youth versus the artists own aging; and the predominately urban subject matter depicted in a work of art which is created in an idyllic Oakville home studio. These contrasting themes together with knowledge of the artists creative process contribute much to appreciating the art of Michael Thompson.
As an artist, Thompson has a highly disciplined schedule working contently in his studio Monday to Friday 8-5. NPR or a favourite jazz station is often times tuned in on the radio. Earlier in his career, before he was married and had a family, he put in regular 12 hour days in the studio. He jokingly says, “he has never worked a day in his life”, but quickly injects that for him creating art is “not spontaneous…you can’t just get an idea and then go the same day and make a painting.” He needs to be in the studio working every day. This discipline has resulted in an almost four decade long career as an artist. Works by Michael Thompson are found in major public, corporate, and private collections throughout North America.
He graduated from Concordia University in Montreal with two Fine Arts degrees, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1976 followed by a Graduate Degree in Fine Arts in 1978. He has worked full time as an artist ever since.”Going to art school in the seventies was all about being taught by abstract artists.” His realism style of art was an “anomaly” at the time he was in art school.
Framed in Thompson’s studio is a sweet child’s sketch that Michael drew when he was 18 months old. The drawing is a sentimental reminder of growing up as an only child in Montreal. His mother used to give him the blank cardboard inserts from boxes of Shredded Wheat cereal to use as drawing paper. As a young child then as a teenager he drew and drew. If he was ever disciplined by his parents and sent to his room for an hour, he frequently chose to stay long after the hour had passed, happy to draw endlessly.
Thompson is a self-described “observer”. He tells me he always “has a narrative running in his head. If an image or idea stays with me I usually draw or paint it…sometimes I see something but then it is gone…so it does not become something I re-create.” “My art is a distilled orchestration and altering of what is going on inside my head…there is nothing objective about the world and my art is my highly subjective interpretation of the world” says Thompson. Then there is the catalogue cover from the recent Mira Godard show – an Autoportrait drawing entitled “Priest“. Stay tuned.