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Esmé Thompson: The Alchemy of Design

Hood Quarterly, spring/summer 2011
Katherine Hart, Interim Director and Barbara C. and Harvey P. Hood 1918 Curator of Academic Programming, and Essi Rönkkö Assistant Curator for Special Projects

I have a life-long interest in painting as an experience or environment. The patterns and shapes that repeat throughout my work form an internal dynamic of cross-referenced imagery and a sense of mutability and shifting possibilities for viewing. These repeated images are cyclical and cumulative, rather than a linear narrative. The painting becomes a journey that continues to unfold, reminiscent of an ongoing pattern of organic growth. —ESMÉ THOMPSON

Within the work of Esmé Thompson there is a luminosity and rich patterning that engages both the eye and the mind. Colorful and bold, these objects attest to a considered and lifelong interest in the decorative designs that infuse art in a variety of media, from the Renaissance paintings of such masters as Pisanello (about 1395–1455), Fra Filippo Lippi (1406– 1469), and Robert Campin (about 1375–1444), to the illuminated designs of medieval manuscripts such as the ninth-century Book of Kells, to the painted harmonies of French artist Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940), to the complex patterns of Moroccan textiles or ceramic tiles.

This spring, the Hood Museum of Art showcases approximately thirty paintings and collages by this accomplished professor of studio art at Dartmouth College. During the last ten years, Thompson has undertaken an investigation into the creative intersections of her many influences, creating veritable alchemies of design, pattern, and color. In so doing, she has fashioned a visual vocabulary that is distinctly her own, imbuing each painting and collage with the overlapping and intersecting language of symbols amid repeated articulations of line and color. She has created three-dimensional art installations as well, and several of the works in this exhibition draw upon this experience by occupying space as well as canvas. Blue Divide, Chiasmus, and Djellaba are sectional works made up of paintings on the shaped galvanized tin covers of maple syrup buckets. Hung on the wall in a variety of patterns, these shield-like bucket tops are painted in patterns that mirror one another and placed in relation to each other so as to reinforce their mirror imaging. The artist writes of these works: “Over the past ten years, my interest in creating an interactive visual narrative resulted in the creation of multiple-panel pieces in which the relationship of the parts to the whole is fundamental . . . I respond to the sight of the buckets hanging, solitary, on trees, reminding me of the transitional and ephemeral nature of the seasons as well as the resurgence of new life . . . The patterns painted on modular parts create an internal dynamic of crossreferenced imagery.”

Most recently Thompson has been engaged in working with a new medium: ceramics. The exhibition highlights a work that she created in response to the museum’s early seventeenth-century Ottoman polychrome panel of tiles that is on display in the Kim Gallery. Titled Portal, this large and elaborate work, like all of her visual investigations, combines echoes of the Ottoman panel with influences from the symbolic language of text, pattern, and the natural world to create something at once utterly new and bracingly familiar.

Esmé Thompson: The Alchemy of Design was generously supported by Kate and Yaz Krehbiel, Class of 1991, Thayer 1992, and the Bernard R. Siskind 1955 Fund. It is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by medieval literature scholar Marjorie Curry Woods and ceramicist/artist/art professor Liz Quackenbush, as well as an interview with the artist by former Hood director Brian Kennedy

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