Kelli Thompson (b. 1982, Monroe, LA) currently lives in Queens and works in Brooklyn, NY. She received her MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts / Tufts University in 2009, and her BA from the University of New Orleans in 2006. Her work has been exhibited at locations including Greenpoint Gallery (Brooklyn, NY), A.I.R. Gallery (Brooklyn, NY), C.R.E.A.M. Projects (New York, NY), Good Children Gallery (New Orleans, LA), and Boston University’s 808 Gallery (Boston, MA). Thompson was an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Center in 2013 and The Homestead AK in Alaska in 2009.
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Kelli Thompson was the first person I befriended in grad school, and we quickly bonded as fellow figurative painters. I always admired Kelli for her firm dedication to the practice of painting, her incredible work ethic, and the fresh, contemporary perspective that she brings to portraiture. After we graduated, we shared a studio in Boston until Kelli made the move to New York in 2010.
During a recent trip to NYC, I was thrilled to finally have the chance to visit Kelli’s current studio in the 17-17 Troutman St. building on the border of Ridgewood, Queens, and Bushwick, Brooklyn (which also houses several galleries including Parallel Art Space and Regina Rex). Kelli and I chatted about painting, favorite materials, and what she’s been working on of late. The following interview was conducted after my visit.
Andrea Evans: Kelli, I have a few general questions to begin with, to give some context to those who may not be familiar with your work. Could you talk a little bit about your interest in portraiture, or rather, in painting people (and animals, in some cases)? And what is it about the practice of painting that holds your interest?
Kelli Thompson: I’ve been painting and drawing since I was very young and my subject matter has always been portraiture. I’ve also always enjoyed painting animals, which I consider to be portraiture as well, especially the way I approach it. People are drawn to images of other people. There’s a connection that happens in viewing portraiture – a moment of empathy – that doesn’t necessarily happen when you look at a landscape or an abstract image or a still life. That empathy, that emotional connection, is what does it for me. Being the person who creates that moment by creating the portrait is very interesting to me and always has been, although when I was a little girl I obviously couldn’t articulate my interest in this way. Human drama is what holds my attention.
Paint, for me, is just the greatest. I love the pigments, I love the gooeyness, the smooth application, the mixing. Color, and my interpretation of color, is crucial in my work and paint allows me to explore color in a way that I haven’t been able to with other media. Also I’ve always just been so damn impressed with painters – with those artists who can reproduce images of life in paint, and I still am. Skill, honestly, above all else, blows my mind.
AE: I’m always curious to learn about other artists’ studio practices. How often do you get to the studio? Do you work in short stints or long stretches? What does a day in the studio look like for you: what is your process of working, what do you listen to, what do you think about?
KT: At the moment my practice is my only responsibility, and I feel very fortunate to have the time that I have to devote to the studio. I go every weekday and usually one day of the weekend. I work in long stretches with small breaks in between to stretch or eat or smoke. I used to listen to music in the studio, but a few years ago I got into podcasts and those are actually a nice way to time out my breaks. When I’m listening to podcasts or audio books I feel like I’m kind of multi-tasking because I’m learning things, or getting books ‘read’ (listened to). My painting is often very mechanical, like my brain turns off and suddenly hours have passed, so having Rachel Maddow or This American Life or that awesome history podcast you turned me onto [Stuff You Missed in History Class] playing in my ear gives my mind something to do while my hands are getting the work done. There are obviously many times when I have to stop and concentrate and fight with some part of the painting that isn’t doing what I need it to do, but often I feel like the work is being made by some unconscious part of me and I just have to get myself there so it can get the work done.
AE: Can you talk a little about your choices in materials? Your favorite paints, mediums, and brushes, the panels you work on, the size you choose to work? You know, the nerdy painting stuff!
KT: I work pretty big, although lately I’ve sized it down a bit for practical reasons. The last painting I made was 48″x42″, before that they were 60″x48″. My largest thesis painting was 64″x52″, and my largest painting in undergrad (that was 10 years ago) was 60″x72″. The size is necessary. I like big, confrontational work, and if they were small they wouldn’t have the same effect.
I use Williamsburg and Gamblin paints – Williamsburg as the pricey option and Gamblin because it’s more affordable and still really high quality paint. I just love Williamsburg’s color selection, and their paint has a very smooth, softer texture that isn’t as stiff as other paint brands, and I feel like it flows a bit more easily from the brush, if that makes any sense. I paint in thin, transparent layers and glazes so I use Liquin as my medium and have for years. It isn’t sticky and doesn’t dry too fast, but is always dry by the next day, which is perfect for my process. I painted on canvas and then paper for a long time, but since 2007, I’ve used wood panels which are carefully primed, being sanded between each layer of gesso for the smoothest surface possible.
In 2008, I bought my first really awesome natural sable hair brushes and have not looked back. I need the application to be smooth and virtually stroke-free, and real sable hair does this unlike anything else I’ve tried, natural or synthetic. For the past few years I’ve been obsessed with DaVinci black sable brushes, and once I find a type of anything that I really like, I’m pretty loyal, if only for the sake of consistency and really knowing what I’m getting when I make a purchase.
AE: When visiting your studio, it was so great to see so much of your work together, both finished pieces, and works in progress. Your process of painting is slow, complex, and refined. What I really loved about being studio mates was watching your work in progress—how a piece would start loosely and then slowly build up, layer by layer, until suddenly: “Bang!” It would totally pop! I’m curious about that moment when something is “finished”, when it “pops”. Could you describe your process of making a painting? How do you get it to that point where it “pops”? How do you know when to stop?
KT: I used to feel frustrated that my paintings take so long to finish – I guess sometimes I still get impatient, but at this point I’ve accepted that each one is this monumental endeavor for me and that I’m not an artist who can finish things quickly, make drawings, quick watercolor studies, and have what I consider to maybe be “fun” in my studio. These are fun for me, but in a slow, progressive way that ultimately (ideally) ends in a moment of extreme satisfaction and accomplishment. If I’ve been wrestling with something for months, when I finish it and feel good about it, it’s a really great moment. The paintings themselves are packed with so much drama: drama within the color, drama within the figure, and drama in the process. If you know me, you know that this suits me.
I build up layers and things do start very loosely, as you said. The figure starts to look ‘finished’ from the inside out- usually the nose is the first thing to “pop”, and by that I mean come into it’s own and show some reflection of how the painting will look in the end. The first part of the process is slow and kind of boring at times – painting and painting and building layers and layers of color and tone and not seeing much of a change, but once one piece starts to look right, things get much more exciting for me. When different parts of the painting start to actually be complete, it’s kind of about breaking it down into pieces and finishing one piece at a time. Once all pieces are as I want them, representing the photo I’m working from and the individual in the photo to the best of my ability and to my satisfaction, the painting is finished.
AE: Congrats on the recent mention in the New Yorker for your piece in the A.I.R. Gallery Biennial. Your painting in that show was “Aine in Orange”; a portrait of a young woman and cat, both staring intently at the viewer. Of course, I am a big fan of this piece, since the painting includes our cat Ori (who is also the unofficial mascot of Temporary Land Bridge), but it’s been pretty popular with other people as well. What kinds of reactions have you gotten to this piece? What do you think makes it such a striking piece for your viewers? (By the way, I have to mention that Ori is loudly meowing in my ear as I am writing these questions.)
KT: Haha, Hi Ori! Thank you! That was super exciting for me. I definitely see it as one of my most successful paintings. You know, you’ve got those pieces that just stand out and get the most positive response. The gaze of my subjects, essentially on the viewer, is something I’ve always tried to push. It’s one of the reasons I make paintings – to make the viewer feel as moved, as uncomfortable, and ‘stared back at’ as possible. I mentioned that painting animals is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, and the idea of doubling up on the gaze in the painting made sense. The way that cats seem to stare so deeply at you and almost see through you is one of my favorite things about them, and I thought that quality would lend itself nicely to one of my paintings. I made another painting of a person and a cat which didn’t illicit the same response. After the A.I.R. show and after having talked to people about their reaction to my first cat painting, I realized that the second didn’t work as well because the cat is looking away. It seemed like the natural thing to do when I made the composition: to balance out the gaze of the human subject with the cat looking away, but I see now what I’ve always known, which is that I have to look past the limit of a ‘good, balanced composition’ and make things a bit awkward and maybe even a little forced if I want to get my intended reaction from the viewer.
AE: Back in March, you did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center — what a great opportunity! What were you working on there, and what direction you see your work moving in the next year?
KT: Hey, thanks! I’m playing around with the animal/people double portraits some more. Dutch Golden Age portraiture is one of my biggest influences, and so many of these stoic, reverend subjects are posed with an animal. In those the animal functions more like an object, as the subject is the person being represented. Portraiture had a completely different function for the sixteenth century Dutch and Flemish painters. I want to take that influence and pair it more directly with these contemporary portraits I’ve been making, utilizing the animals as another source of personality to work in tandem with the human subject. I’m playing with different animals this time. They definitely won’t do exactly what cats do, but I’m interested to see what they bring to the new work.
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Kelli Thompson’s piece “Anna and Cat” is currently on view in “Show 17 – Drunk-Tank Pink” at Field Projects Gallery (New York, NY), running from Dec. 12, 2013 – January 25, 2014.
For more information on Kelli Thompson and her work, check out: