Mildred Jean Thompson (March 12, 1936 – September 1, 2003) was an American artist who worked in the media of painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and photography. She was also a writer and, beginning in 1987, was an associate editor for the magazine Art Papers in Atlanta, Georgia. Critics have related her art to West African textiles and Islamic architecture; they have also cited German Expressionism, music (both American jazz and classical European music,) and Thompson's readings in astronomy, spiritualism and metaphysics as important artistic influences.
Thompson grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. Her formal art training began in 1953 when she entered Howard University in Washington, D.C. There she found a mentor in James A. Porter (1905–1970), who was head of the school's art department. He arranged for Thompson to receive a scholarship at the end of her junior year for summer study at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. After Thompson received the Bachelor of Arts from Howard, Porter assisted her in entering the Brooklyn Museum of Art School on a Max Beckmann Scholarship. She began to exhibit, and her work was accepted for the Art U.S.A. ’58 exhibition in Madison Square Garden.
During that time Thompson applied and was turned down for a Fulbright Scholarship. Feeling herself ready for study in Europe, Thompson decided to go there on her own. She worked to save money during the rest of the school year and, through the auspices of Samella Lewis (1924–), got a summer job teaching ceramics at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. In this way she earned enough for steamship passage to Europe.
Study in Europe
Her trip to Germany was attended by good fortune. She had decided to study at the Art Academy of Hamburg (Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg) even though, at the time she arrived, she had not yet applied or been accepted there. Nor did she have any plans as to where she would live. A few private lessons were all she had to prepare herself for the German language. Nevertheless, armed with pluck, a strong portfolio and the help of some brand-new German friends, she found a room and was immediately accepted into the Academy. There her painting teachers were Walter Arno (1930–) and Emil Schumacher (1912–1999). She learned etching, lithography and other printmaking media from Willem Grimm (1904–1986) and Paul Wunderlich (1927–2010). She also met at this time the printmaker Horst Janssen (1929–1995), who introduced her to Galerie Sander in Hamburg, where Thompson had her first solo exhibition. At the end of her first year she received a scholarship, the Reemtsma Stipendium, that paid for her living and school expenses.
An American expatriate
After three years at the Academy, Thompson was ready to begin her professional career in the United States. In early 1961 she returned to New York City. The social and artistic acceptance Thompson had enjoyed in Germany, however, was not to be found even in that most cosmopolitan of American cities. She soon realized that because she was a black woman, she was refused the shows and gallery representation that she felt her work deserved. In an autobiographical essay, Thompson recounted that "One woman dealer... said that it would be impossible for me to have a show in New York as an artist. [Another gallery owner said] ...that it would be better if I had a white friend to take my work around, someone to pass as Mildred Thompson." She did, however, gain an audience with William Lieberman at the Museum of Modern Art; two of her prints were purchased for the collection on his recommendation.
In the fall of 1961 and again in 1962 Thompson received fellowships to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where she worked on drawings and paintings. In 1963 she returned to Germany to live, partly because she could find no sales outlet for her work, and partly because of growing racial tension in the United States. She was not alone. Other young black artists who chose to leave the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s include Harvey Cropper, Herbert Gentry, Arthur Hardie, Clifford Jackson, Sam Middleton, Earl Miller, Norman Morgan, Larry Potter and Walter Williams. In the words of artist David Driskell, "They chose a form of cultural exile over expatriation, hoping for a better day to come about in the land of their birth." All settled in Europe. Thompson established herself in the Rhineland town of Düren and once again began exhibiting and selling her work there and in the German cities of Bensberg, Aachen, and Cologne.
Thompson's work in the 1960s was figurative, but in the early 1970s she moved toward total abstraction. In Europe her works reflected the formal ideas of art for art's sake, and did not respond to the politicized art of the Black and Women's movements in the United States. According to writer Alexis De Veaux, "Thompson thought of herself as an expatriate and did not separate her identity as black from her identity as American..." although she eventually disavowed "...any claim to being American." Years later Thompson defended herself against the charge that because of her years spent in Europe, she was not a "Black" artist. In a 1987 essay for SAGE magazine she wrote:
"On certain levels, perhaps we [black Americans] might be able to identify with certain parts of certain African cultures. To copy symbols that one does not understand, to deliberately make use of a form that one does not know how to analyze or appreciate was for me the height of prostitution. I had spent long years trying to find out who I am and what my influences were and where they came from. It was perhaps because I had lived and studied with "whitey" that I had learned to appreciate my Blackness as well as how American I truly am. My experiences throughout Africa had made my knowledge of being an American more than clear. There are recordings in our genes that remember Africa. If they are strong enough and we are free of false denials, they will surface and appear without deliberation no matter what we do."
After ten years in Germany (during which she traveled to southern Europe and Africa) Thompson returned to the U.S. in 1975. She found that the social climate had changed somewhat for the better, and she was able to overcome many of the obstacles she encountered. She lived at first in Florida, where she was named Artist-in-Residence of the City of Tampa. In 1977 she moved to Washington, D.C., where she was Artist-in-Residence at Howard University for the 1977–78 academic year. She returned to Europe in 1981, this time to Paris, where she opened a studio in the Rue de Parme. Thompson moved to Atlanta in 1986, which was "home base" for the remainder of her life. There she taught art and art history in several area colleges, including the Atlanta College of Art. A talented writer and interviewer, she joined the staff of the periodical Art Papers in 1987.
Influences in Thompson’s mature work
In 1987 Thompson's show In and Out of Germany, at the Goethe Institute in Atlanta, contained 42 artworks executed in Germany, France and the United States. The Atlanta newsweekly Creative Loafing mentioned that Thompson's most recent series of colored pencil drawings, "Objective Music", were based on her correlation of art with music. It also made reference to her sense of color and rhythmic line-making as "Kandinsky-influenced." A contemporary review of the exhibition in Art Papers also mentioned Kandinsky as an influence for Thompson, as well as the artist's interest in the fiction of Hermann Hesse and the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious. But Thompson's feeling for music seemed to have the strongest effect on the work in the exhibition. The reviewer, Leslie Schworm, wrote that Thompson's "…approach is to draw music or sound. She believes that patterns in music are among the purest natural recurrences, providing direct access to something basic."
In the following year the visual description of music was still on Thompson's mind. A solo exhibition titled Concatenation at Agnes Scott College contained the wooden sculpture Mass, whose six parts were named "Kyrie", "Gloria", "Credo", "Sanctus", "Benedictus", and "Gloria Dei". But other influences, including astronomy, spiritualism and metaphysics were starting to appear in her work. Included in Concatenations was a series of prints titled Five Mysteries. Their abstract compositions, printed in black ink on white paper, were schematic representations of earth, atmosphere and sun, the latter a flat disc set in a sky filled with energetic marks and scratches. Thompson's series of watercolors, titled Lemurian Wanderings, were described by critic Lorena Gay-Griffin as “…the time at the dawn of the world before the first ray of sun shone through the atmosphere." A series of colored pencil drawings, The Phases of Cynthia, was reported by the same writer to refer to Galileo’s study of the phases of the moon. The drawings featured "...the same sun/moon image as the prints. The circles are layered with other geometric shapes and surrounded by fragments and rays emitting from the center." In 1990 Thompson told Essence magazine: "My work has to do with the cosmos and how it affects us." Such references continued in her printmaking. In 1993, as an artist-in-residence at Littleton Studios in North Carolina, Thompson created prints in vitreography titled Helio Centric, Particles and Wave Function.
A 1992 group exhibition entitled A/Cross Currents: Synthesis in African American Abstract Painting featured a catalog that cited the jazz of Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk and the German baroque of Bach as influences on Thomspon's art. The catalog's essayist, Corrine Jennings, wrote: "The idea that man and certain animals can hear the sounds of eleven or twelve octaves, but can only see one octave of seven colors, has led to [Thompson’s] interest in exploring the unseen and making it visible." The Magnetic Fields series of paintings that Thompson exhibited in the show, Jennings wrote, "…appear to visualize the force of unseen energy. They are intensely painted, tersely defined geometric structures with a direct physical application loosened by…improvisation."
Thompson had a long and varied teaching career. From 1961 to 1964, when she was trying to make her way as an artist in New York City, she taught elementary school as an employee of the New York Board of Education. In Düren, Germany, she taught art and art history at the Eschweiler Volchoch Schule from 1965 to 1974. On being named Artist-in Residence for the City of Tampa Thompson taught classes and workshops in painting, drawing, sculpture, and mural painting to adults and children at the Tampa Bay Art Center and other local venues. She also had an "open door" policy at her studio on 7th Avenue in Ybor City. There, she wrote: "...anyone who wanted to come in and see could walk in. I felt it somehow served the community." As an Artist-in-Residence at Howard University she taught etching. When she lived in Paris, Thompson gave private lessons at her studio at 4 Rue de Parme from 1981 until her return to the States in 1985. From 1986 to 1989 she taught studio classes, art history and art theory at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, and in Atlanta she taught at Morehouse College and Spelman College. From 1986 she taught at the Atlanta College of Art.
Thompson's work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Brooklyn Museum; and Howard University, Washington, DC, among others.