My first impression of Michael Thompson’s art was one of amazement and awe.

Mount St. Joseph News

The cross-country team and I took a trip to the National Underground Freedom Center last month, since admission that day was free. While we were there, I stumbled upon a special exhibition on display called the Truth & Healing Artist Showcase. The showcase focused on themes of healing, rebirth, and reconnection and highlighted the voices of Black and Brown artists.

The first work of art in the exhibition that caught my eye was Thompson’s, an oil painting he created called “Murmurations.” The moment I saw it, my breath was taken away and I was in wonder. Not only by its size and scale on the wall, but also, by the bold colors, sweeping lines, and sense of movement that seamlessly made the painting come to life on the canvas. His work left a lasting impression on me. It wasn’t until a few weeks after I saw his artwork that I would connect the dots that MSJ’s new artist in residence was the same artist who had made the awe-inspiring “Murmurations.”

Thompson is an artist, designer, and poet who graduated from Thomas More University. As an artist, he likes to be an archivist: collecting things, spaces, and histories to add to his art and life. He refers to practices from scientific and philosophical fields and enjoys collaborating outside the typical scope of the art world. His art and poetry focus on concepts of visual and human ecology, dignity, and nuance. He has done artist residencies at several major art scenes in Cincinnati such as the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center, and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. He has also been a TEDX speaker.

When asked how he became an artist in residence at the Mount, Thompson describes how it came to fruition through his residency at the Cincinnati Art Museum and meeting Dr. Michaelann Kelley, chair of the Mount’s Art & Design Department while teaching an educator’s workshop there.

“I was the artist in residence at Cincinnati Art Museum and there were workshops at the museum for future educators and for current teachers and professors. At one of the workshops that I was teaching, Dr. Michaelann Kelley and I talked.  Earlier this year, the Mount asked me to do an exhibition here, which resulted over the course of multiple conversations with Kelley and Dean Michael Sontag. There are opportunities for community engagement, for lectures, and ultimately just to be able to be around students and be on campus--all those things are really important to me. I like to be an active participant in the place that I'm creating art for. It was a series of events that resulted in something beneficial for the Mount and for myself.”

As an artist in residence at the Mount, Thompson is hard at work on creating and preparing for his upcoming solo exhibition, which will take place in the Studio San Giuseppe Art Gallery in January. Although he didn’t disclose too much about the subject of his exhibition so as not to spoil the surprise, he did reveal insight into his artistic process.

“The show that I will have in January will be a mixture of oil paintings and then sculpture and installation, which is typical for the work that I like to do. I like to take traditional mediums and expand upon them by either using different mixed media techniques or using different pieces of technology, then present those works in kind of unique ways. The show will be a mixture of all of those different mediums that will be focused on essential concepts. Everything I do has a narrative storyline that I like to build around because I have that background in literature and so a lot of my inspiration comes from my own writing and other people's writing,” he explains.

“When I build out an exhibition or body of work, it's often like taking a concept, building a story, and then finding ways to attach different pieces to that story in a way that makes sense and creates an authentic narrative. Art is a transformative medium and a way to connect people. It's very much like poetry to me. And I have found no other career or profession that allows me to be as free of a person as I can be as an artist and to make a direct impact on the world around me through something as simple as a painting or an exhibition.”

In order to understand Thompson as an individual, it is important to know his childhood and life experiences which led him to becoming the artist he is today. He had a key experience early in his life that exposed him to art. However, it wasn’t until later at the university that he realized that it was the thing that gave him the most joy and to pursue it.

“When I was about 8 years old, I went to this art studio of a retired art professor named Richard Dean in Richmond, Ky., where I grew up. He would invite students of all ages to come there. We were all kind of sharing this common space and working together and it was a beautiful example of the ways that having access to materials and inspiration can create a kind of an incubator for experimentation and innovation. That was a really influential part of my life,” he says.

He had “always been really drawn to books and illustrations. I used to copy illustrations from children's books when I was a kid. But then I kind of stopped doing art for a good chunk of my life. I went to college. I was studying as an International Studies major and I hated it, and I eventually transitioned to being a creative writing major. Then, my junior year, I finally joined the art program.  I immediately had a feeling of fulfillment that this was where I was supposed to be. I committed to it and have been on that path ever since.”

Since I was interviewing Thompson, I had to ask him about his oil painting “Murmurations,” the piece of artwork that had captivated my attention at the Freedom Center. I wanted to know what inspired him to create the painting and the meaning behind its unique title.

“Murmurations is the name that describes a flock of starlings. You've probably seen these flocks of birds that travel and make swirling patterns in the sky. They're the only creatures in the world that move in that fashion,” he explains. “Nature is something that's really inspiring to me. I could become the greatest artist in the world and all my work can never touch how awesome a tree is. I'm constantly in awe of the natural world.”

Most importantly, I desired to understand what the oil painting’s purpose was. What was the insight he hoped it would create when viewers looked at the artwork?

“We get so caught up in global and national conversations that we lose sight of the people who are directly next to us and the people that we should be in relationship with.  One starling interacts with the four or five starlings around it. And through that micro interaction, this macro beautiful thing comes together, and these birds come together so that they can protect one another and communicate,” he says. “There isn’t a head of the pack. The only way they can communicate is through the four or five birds around them. I wanted to create a piece that spoke to that idea of being able to impact the whole by focusing on other people around you and by focusing on your local community. A big part of that piece is like, how do we combat isolation? How can we step outside of ourselves and work for the greater good of other people?”

After meeting Thompson, I have come to know him as a creative, unconventional artist with an impressive background. But, more than that, he is ahead of his time in his innovative way of thinking. He has strong beliefs about how art can unite people and promote positive social change, as well as how we should value, respect, and continually be awe-inspired by the natural world. Thompson’s art is not only visionary, but its intention is also to motivate others to develop meaningful relationships with those around them and in their local communities.