OSE sculptor and Best-In-Show winner Ken Thompson
Ken Thompson’s sculpture “Inverted Steel Arch #3” won this year’s Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition best-in-show award. Thompson has been involved in major sculpture competitions across the United States for nearly two decades, and has been a strong voice in support of Public Art himself. He recently spoke with CVA about how he felt about winning the prize, the architectural elements in his work, and the grueling North Carolina heat!
CVA: Congratulations on winning best-in-show! What does that honor mean to you?
KT: Oh, well it’s been great to earn the best in show award. I’ve been fortunate enough to have earned that distinction many times in my 38 year career. But it was really kind of exciting because there were a lot of great pieces that were well deserving of that award in your exhibit. Actually, I had my money riding on Ray Katz’s piece- but I lost that bet. I was very surprised; inasmuch as the juror being a painter, I figured naturally he’d gravitate towards color. And what did he do? He picked the only rusted piece in the show.
CVA: Were you pleased with the juror’s analysis of your piece?
KT: Well, it all comes down to perception- I mean that’s how he perceived the piece. He talked about enjoying the curves, the unfinished appearance of the piece, the incomplete circle. You know, I appreciated that. He plugged in to what I was after. I see it as an uncompleted thought- but visually when you look at it, in your minds eye, you know enough to complete the circle. So yes, he did seem to understand what I was saying. But once again, I was surprised he wasn’t drawn to the more colorful pieces.
CVA: You’ve been a part of so many Outdoor Sculpture Exhibitions across the country. What do you think is special about the one in Cary? Why does it stand out?
KT: Cary is a lovely town! You guys are certainly gracious hosts. I’ve been in shows before where you arrive with your work and they treat you like you’re something stuck to the bottom of their shoe and can’t wait for you to leave town. But in your situation, you folks are way kind and generous with a very nice reception. It’s a lovely venue you have, and I certainly hope to apply to your show again.
CVA: I’ve noticed the arch is sort of part of a series, or maybe just a reoccurring theme in your work. Can you tell us a little more about why you keep returning to that form?
KT: It goes way back to when I was a wee lad and making decisions about what I wanted to do when I went to college. I thought I wanted to be an architect. So it started in that direction, and a lot of my work has a real art-tectonic character to it. Partway through my decision, though, I discovered that in truth, architects are nothing more than frustrated sculptors. And I thought, “well I don’t want to be a frustrated architect, I just want to be a sculptor” and that changed the course for me.
So if you bring that ahead in time and look at the body of my work you’ll see all these architectural references and, you know, that particular piece that I think you have in mind, is number four in series of about 10 or 11 pieces. An artist starts a series because it’s a way of looking your way through a thought, or searching for the solution for a mathematical problem- there are a number of steps along the way. So each new piece in the series is yet another step, until you get to the last one in the series, which should be the answer or conclusion that you come to in your work. And then for me I start searching for the next series. Sometimes I have to step away from a series for a couple of years, let it rust, and then go back to it meanwhile working on other series. It’s really hard to pin down why that one is the way it is, but it kind of seemed like the thing to do.
CVA: I’ve noticed two sorts of reoccurring patterns or themes in your work- notches/stripes/repeated lines and of course the arches. What draws you to these patterns?
KT: That just goes back to one of the fundamental principals of sculpture. What really defines sculpture is the surface of the work, and sometimes the grooves or notches that you’re referring to are actually just a way of forming a texture that make that surface what it is. Sometimes those patterns are random-- but I guess if you subscribe to things like string theory there’s no such thing as a random pattern [laughs]. Everything happens for a purpose, but the pattern will come and go in the works, and a lot of times are based on a tiny little fragment of something maybe out of a building or a tiny piece of machinery and then I start repeating that form over and over and over again until it’s obscured from what it originally was.
CVA: In doing a little more research about you, I discovered the Midwest Sculpture Initiative. Tell me more about that.
KT: It’s a company that I started almost twelve years ago. At the time I started it with a woman named Peggy Grant. It’s kind of interesting actually— her claim to fame (well, her and her husband, actually) was that they invented paint by number. Did you over do those as a kid?
CVA: Oh, yeah! Of course!
KT: They started in the 60’s or 70’s.Those were just huge! Everybody was doing that. They invented that. But at any rate—Peggy used to represent me. She’s well in to her 90’s and doesn’t do that anymore, but she and I started the MSI together and after a couple of years she backed out for health reasons and I just took it over. The whole purpose of it was to create opportunities for artists to exhibit their work. So this last year we did 14 exhibits, much like yours, but we did them in 14 different communities. Well, actually, 12 different communities, a museum, and a university. And we do pretty much what you do. We send out a call for artists, collect the work and do a presentation for our clients. They pick the work, and then we take care of bringing it to their towns, putting in the concrete pads, installing it, and then we maintain it for a year. And then a year later, we come back and do it all again.
CVA: That’s great. And that leads in to my next question, which is: What is it about Public Art this is so important to you? I know part of that answer from the research I’ve done on you, which is “well, why not?”— but it really seems like it has played a big role in the way your career has panned out.
KT: Well, it really is what I’ve always wanted to do. If you were on the MSI website there’s an essay on there that I wrote a few years ago, which is where you got that quote. But for me, I enjoy public art because it reaches far more people than, say, work hanging in a museum or in a gallery. A lot of times people are put off by the façade of a museum—they’re intimidated by it. They don’t want to cross that threshold to go see what’s inside. A lot of museums charge an admissions fee, and that in and of itself is exclusionary. It says that only people who can afford it can enjoy art. Whereas public art is out there in front of everybody, for people to look at or not look at, for people to enjoy or people to hate. All you have to do is show up- there’s no charge. It’s there. And I think it reaches a greater whole of the population, which has always appealed to me.
The other thing is that it allows me to work on enormous pieces. The piece that you folks have in Cary is one that I consider to be small. I’ve done pieces that weigh, like, 37,000 and all made out of limestone that’ll probably be here after the apocalypse, and that’s another thing I enjoy about it—the permanence of the scale and the materials. Knowing that this will transcend me. We’re still trying to figure Stonehenge out and that’s how many thousands of years later? Maybe someday people will be standing around my work trying to figure out what it means. A thousand years or so from now…that’d be kind of cool.
Actually, it takes me to another thought, which is that I just finished doing a headstone for a friend of mine that died about a year ago. I from time to time will do headstones for friends, but I don’t hold myself out as a gravestone maker at all. And people will walk in off the streets and ask if I make them and I’ll tell them no, I don’t do that. And they’ll look at me and go “Yeah, but what’s that you’re working on outside?” and I’ll say “Wellll….that’s a headstone. But I still don’t do them.”
And that paradox sends them out the door.
But, one time my son asked me “So, are you do your own headstone?” and I said “Nah, I’ve done it already.” He went, “Well, where is it?” And I said, “Let’s see…53 large-scale public art pieces-pick one!” They’re all over the place. I don’t need a headstone; I’ve left my mark. Why clutter the place up any more?
If you talk to anyone who’s going to be honest with you about the sculpture they made- if it’s big stuff- that has a lot to do with it. It’s about ability and longevity.
CVA: Well, I actually feel like that’s the perfect note to end this on. I have nothing else to ask you, other than if there’s anything else you’d like to add before we go?
KT: No, other than to say thank you for having me. It was great. You guys gotta do something about the weather down there, though! It was hot. I was wondering after a while if you were trying to kill off all us Yankees!
CVA: Oh, yes. Definitely. That’s our real goal.
KT: “Let’s install sculpture in the middle of July and see if they can survive!”
CVA: And you all passed!
KT: Fortunately for you. Of course, it’s been hot up here too.
CVA: But the North Carolina heat is something special.
KT: It sure is. But maybe we should just bring all of you up [to Michigan] in January and see how you do.
CVA: Yes. That seems fair. Well Ken, thank you so much for speaking with me today. We really appreciate working with such talented artists. We couldn’t make this show happen without you.
KT: Take care!
Note: Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity.