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From photos to paintings, art runs in family



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BIG FOOT HISTORICAL SOCIETY members view the Thompson Art Gallery and Studio after owner Bruce Thompson explained his family's history in art. His father was a well-known impressionist painter (click for larger version)
July 30, 2013 | 02:24 PM
WALWORTH — Art runs in his family.

"When my dad was about 10 years old, I think, he woke up Christmas morning and found an art box underneath the tree," Bruce Thompson said. "He painted a still life, a bowl with some fruit. It was all done by the time his parents woke up."

Thompson, owner of the art gallery and studio that bears his name in Walworth, shared his family history in art with the Big Foot Historical Society July 25.

"Eventually, his mom, Vera, had his portfolio looked at by Chicago art professionals. They asked if he could attend classes."

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Thompson's father, Richard Thompson, was an American impressionist painter, often compared to Monet, founder of the French impressionist painting movement in the 1870s, Thompson said.

Richard's paintings are in galleries across the United States, including Johns Hopkins Hospital, Marquette University and the Naval Art Collection at the Pentagon.

"He started at an art school when he was a freshman in high school," Thompson said of his father.

"He excelled and prospered at the school. He went to the American Academy of Fine Art then onto the Art Institute of Chicago."

Thompson said after his father finished school, he was granted an internship with an illustration studio.

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"From there, he started creating advertisements for the Haddon Sundblom Studios in Chicago, whose major client at the time was Coca-Cola," Thompson said. "He did many pieces that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and other big papers. He had a very big career going."

When the Thompson family was living in Chicago, Richard took frequent trips to Geneva Lake. When the train route was built between Chicago and Walworth, Thompson said, Richard transplanted his family to Walworth.

"It was a full day's ride from Chicago to the lake in a Ford Model A," Thompson said. "When the train came, he made a mad dash to live in Walworth. He realized he could live here and work there."

Richard traveled from Walworth to Chicago every day for 25 years before he came home one day and said to his family, "I'm done." Thompson said the family was shocked.

"We just kind of assumed he had a bad day at work or something," Thompson said. "But no, he was done working commercially. He wanted to return to art."

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Richard started painting more, all day, every day.

"He told us he was going to be the artist he knew he was inside," Thompson said. "No more train rides. Just painting. At that time, we started looking for places to sell his art. It was difficult."

When Richard was painting, in the 1960s and '70s, the art trend was modernism, but he tried to "buck the trends," Thompson said.

"He brought some of the pieces he made into the house and ask our opinions," he said. "We've have them up on the wall for a little while, then they'd be replaced by new pieces. He was a very prolific painter, and he was swimming up stream (against the trends) the whole way. People liked his work, though."

Thompson said his father's work sold in 11 high class art galleries across the country.

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A family gallery

Thompson's brother, Dick, was working in California at the same time, and Thompson said he was finished with that career.

"My brother was driving through San Francisco and saw a for rent sign on a little store front," Thompson said. "He said, why not? He talked to my dad, and they ended up selling his paintings there. Dad was now a trend. We had people coming from all over the country and the world to buy his paintings."

Thompson said 80 percent of his dad's work was sold.

The gallery closed in 1995, four years after Richard's death.

Now many of the remaining paintings are at the Thompson Art Gallery and Studio, where Thompson continues the family art tradition.

"Our story has continued on," he said. "My dad taught me so much. We'd be out in a fishing boat on the lake, and he'd say, look at that light. Look at the waves. He taught me how to see patterns move, how light changes things. It's really poetry."

Thompson said he was in college when he discovered his passion for photography.

"My mom gave me this camera," he said. "I took it everywhere. I was walking to class (in college), and I'd take pictures. Holding the camera and taking photos fit. It was like slipping on a glove. I knew I wanted to study something in art, but there wasn't a photography program back then."

A couple of Thompson's professors approached him to create an independent study program in photography.

"They were going to give me credit for taking photos," he said. "It was pretty fun."

Thompson started submitting his photos in art contests, and "before I knew it, I won the damn things," he said.

The art contests gave him more exposure and opportunities for photography.

"An advertising firm working for the state of Wisconsin approached me and asked if I wanted to be the state photographer," Thompson said. "Yes, sure, of course. I get to drive around and take photos, real photos. I didn't have to stage anything. It was great."

Since then, he's worked in fashion, industrial and corporate photography, but his true passion is for art.

"The advertising and running around was exhausting," he said. "I never stopped doing it for art. About 10 years ago, I said the same thing my dad did. I'm done. I'm going to be the artist I know I am."

His son and daughter follow the family tradition, too.

"My son Benjamin, the moment he picked up a pencil he could draw," Thompson said. "He's still working on finding a fit. My daughter, Emily, she claims she has no artistic talent, but I swear, she's the best doodler I know. She has talents working with autistic children."

Thompson now exclusively shoots artistic photos.

"Where do you find beauty?" he asked. "Well, go to your front door, open the door and step outside. Stop. There it is. That's how far you need to go."

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