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By MIKE McINALLY
It’s a rainy March Sunday on the Thompson farm near Dayton, Oregon.
This is the farm where artist Richard Thompson grew up. And this is the farm to which he returned in 2005, after studying forestry in the 1960s at Oregon State University and after building an internationally successful career as an artist. Before his death in 2021 at the age of 75, Thompson spent the last 15 years of his life painting in a studio located in a separate building on the farm – that is, when he wasn’t displaying his paintings throughout the nation or fly-fishing or holding forth at a friendly coffee shop.
Today, a group of OSU students is huddling, making final preparations for a presentation that’s part of a unique internship. The internship has given the students from OSU’s College of Liberal Arts hands-on experience in cataloging and curating works of art. The students have been gathering for weeks on chilly Sundays in Thompson’s studio to measure, describe, catalog, photograph and carefully wrap hundreds of his paintings that had been stored in a silo a few steps away.
The work of the students has culminated in “Richard Thompson: Forever Horizons,” an exhibit of Thompson’s works in the Strand Gallery, 440 Strand Agriculture Hall on the OSU campus. The exhibit runs through June 7.
On this Sunday, the students are scheduled to make mock “acquisition presentations” to members of the advisory panel for OSU’s long-running Art About Agriculture program. The students have each selected one Thompson painting and will speak about why that painting would be a good candidate for the program to buy. The director of Art About Agriculture is in the audience as well – and so is the supervisor of the internship. So there’s a bit of pressure, but that makes for good training for students who may be eyeing careers in the art world.
“Research has shown that classroom learning supplemented by experiential learning is a powerful combo and so that’s the goal,” said Peter Betjemann, the interns’ supervisor and the director of arts and education for OSU’s College of Liberal Arts.
The internship also is part of an effort Betjemann has launched to take stock of OSU’s various art collections during the time before OSU’s Arts and Education Complex, now under construction, is scheduled to open in 2024. That work involves, among other projects, students creating interpretive materials for OSU’s assortment of public art pieces scattered around the campus. (See the related story for details about the other projects.)
The Thompson internship also has created another benefit: It has strengthened the ties between OSU and the artist’s substantial work.
The students even created T-shirts to mark the internship. On the front, the T-shirt says: “Thompson Estate Internship Winter 22.” On the back is artwork inspired by Thompson’s colorful, geometric, modernist work. They gave one of the shirts to Thompson’s widow, Kymberli Contreras.
“You guys have just been like magic,” Contreras told the students.
This story begins, of course, with Richard Thompson. Born in 1945 in Dayton, Thompson started what he called “the long, slow transition from farm boy to artist” during his time at Oregon State University from 1963 to 1965. An interest in art sparked by the scientific illustrations he painted in a botany class – and fueled, to some extent, by oil paints a roommate left behind – led him to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts.
“He moved from botany to art and you see the impact of having grown up on a farm up there in Yamhill,” Betjemann said. “You feel those organic roots.”
Thompson first made a splash in the national art scene in 1974 in the Whitney Museum Biennial in New York City; he was invited again to exhibit in the Whitney Biennial in 1981. Over the following four decades, Thompson’s work was featured in solo and group shows in New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Portland, among many other destinations. He also showed internationally, in Australia, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa and the Netherlands. A list of his solo and group shows covers five sheets of single-spaced paper and the type size is small.
He also taught, serving for 13 years at the University of Texas at Austin, and then as a professor of painting and dean of the School of Art and Design at Alfred University in New York from 1997 to 2009. While teaching in Texas, he met and married Contreras.
In 2005, Thompson returned to the family farm in Dayton. He set up his studio in the building near the farmhouse and continued to work. He used the silo on his farm as a storage space for paintings. He continued to show his work, both throughout the nation and in Oregon, at galleries in Pendleton, Salem, Portland, Newberg, Eugene and Ashland.
That list of exhibition locations didn’t include Corvallis. But the wheels that would bring Thompson’s works to the OSU campus – and would lead to the internship program – started moving in 2017.
That’s when Bill Rhoades, a well-known Oregon art collector who lives in Madras, reached out to a friend, Shelley Curtis, who at the time was head of the Art About Agriculture program. Rhoades had heard about OSU’s plans to build a new museum and was curious about donating artworks to the new facility. Curtis put Rhoades in touch with Todd Bastian and Grady Goodall at the OSU Foundation, and the men discussed possibilities.
Over time, the university’s plans for a new museum were scratched, so the conversation turned to simply donating artworks. “Richard was a prime candidate because of his upbringing in Dayton and his time spent at OSU,” Rhoades said.
Goodall reached out to Owen Premore, the new head of the Art About Agriculture program, and Betjemann. At a meeting at the farmhouse with Contreras, Rhoades and Julie Enders of the Thompson estate, the idea of using OSU students to inventory Thompson’s estate paintings was hatched.
As it turned out, Premore had Thompson’s work on his radar already after seeing his work at the “Visual Magic” show at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.
“That was the first time I had seen his work and I was just blown away by it,” Premore said. “I was just shocked that Art About Ag didn’t have a piece in the collection from him.” He set a goal to meet Thompson and acquire one of his paintings – but he didn’t get a chance to do that before Thompson died in 2021. So, when Betjemann said that he had interns who also were interested in curation, Premore couldn’t help but note that the Strand Gallery – which, like the Art About Agriculture program, actually is run by OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and not the College of Liberal Arts -- had open dates this spring.
Oregon State University student Kelsey Keele talks about Thompson's painting "Horizon-Prairie Fields #9." Students in the internship had the opportunity to make mock "acquisition pitches" as if they were trying to persuade a gallery or an art program to buy a particular piece. This painting was Keele's choice.
OSU student Sarah Bennett made her mock acquisition pitch for Thompson's "Rise Amongst Flowers #1." The painting suggests Thompson's love of fly-fishing.
So it was that this winter, interns from OSU descended on Richard Thompson’s studio on a series of Sundays to begin their work. (Students in the spring 2022 internship focused on curating the show in Strand Hall.)
For weeks, the students carefully examined each of the paintings brought in from the silo. The paintings were carefully measured and catalogued. They were photographed. They were snugly wrapped for preservation.
And, maybe just as important, the students thought deeply about the paintings and discussed them.
“Richard would have been thrilled,” Contreras told the students. “The fact that you would stop and talk about the paintings as you wrapped them made my heart sing.”
And the pitches the students made for their selected paintings showed that preparation. One of the students, Kelsey Keele, made her case for a Thompson painting called “Horizon – Prairie Fields #9.” Keele noted how the modernist painting and vibrant colors give “a great answer to what agriculture can be and what it is in Dayton.” She said the painting reminded her of a quilt and offered a confession: Under the guidance of Enders, she had just taken up quilting. Then it was Contreras’ turn for a confession: Thompson had a quilt collection.
Sarah Bennett pitched a painting called “Rise Amongst Flowers #1,” which features the shape of a trout rising in a field of flowers with patches of watery blue throughout. “We know how he loved his trout,” Bennett said. The painting, with its floral and aquaculture references, is “a really good example of everything agriculture can be.” Standing almost 6 feet tall, the painting was the biggest of the four featured in the students’ presentations. “It’s a big boy, but it’s beautiful,” Bennett said. “I find it really mesmerizing.”
Abbay K. Anderson showcased her selection, “Modern Landscape: Between Road and River,” which shows two structures – possibly a farmhouse and a barn – in the middle and depicts a river to one side and a road on the other. “To me, agriculture is a relationship between people and the land,” Anderson said, and both the river and the road represent sources of movement. “I just deeply love this painting,” she said. “It calls back how much he loved the landscape that he lived and worked in.”
Allison Sakai made the case for a painting called “Horizon: Vessel and Houses,” a landscape featuring a clear heart-shaped vase in the middle. Sakai talked about the playful nature and visual sophistication of the painting. “The majority of his work is like a love letter to nature,” she said.
After the mock presentations, the party headed to the Seufert Winery Tasting Room, a short drive from the farm to downtown Dayton, to mark the opening of “Fusion Landscapes,” another student-curated exhibit of Thompson paintings – a rehearsal of sorts for the Strand Hall show.
That Strand Hall show likely won’t be the final word in the story about Richard Thompson’s work and Oregon State University, the school where he discovered painting.
“He’s an artist who’s deeply rooted in agriculture,” Premore said. “But also, he’s surprisingly not that present at OSU, which is surprising. So here’s an opportunity for the interns to say, hey, OSU, here’s Richard Thompson. He needs to be in your collection.’”
It’s an opportunity the students have embraced.
Anderson said she had little or no experience with curation, art handling or gallery practices before working on the internship: “I have always been focused on making art as opposed to all the management that goes into displaying, promoting, and caring for artworks. After participating in this internship, I realized I love the curation, art history, and planning an exhibition.”
Added Bennett: “For me, the internship has been a magnificent experience in so many ways. Not too many college students get a lot of real-life experience regarding the many things we got to do within our internship.”
And that, Betjemann said, is exactly the point: “I just want to stress the importance for our students in the arts to have hand-on experience with collections,” he said.
But there’s something else just as valuable, he said, and that involves the act of curation itself, of telling stories using a group of separated but related items – like paintings, in this case: “Curation is not like some rarified world elsewhere. It’s fundamental to what we teach in higher education…This kind of case-making for relevance and importance, it’s just so key in higher ed.”
OSU student Abbay Anderson made the case for Thompson's "Modern Landscape: Between Road and River." Anderson said that the Thompson internship has prompted her to think about careers in curation and galleries in addition to creating art.
OSU student Allison Sakai made her mock acquisition pitch for Thompson's "Horizon-Vessel and Houses." Sakai served as the photographer for the internship project, making fresh images of the works that the interns were cataloging.