Montana-based artist Judd Thompson set up his easel and paints inside Azadi Fine Rugs for a pop-up show Sept. 9 in the downtown Jackson rug shop.
People were invited to stop by throughout the afternoon to watch Thompson paint and hear him talk about his work. Having never shown his work at the rug shop before, Thompson said he was impressed with the response.
“I had some people stick around for two hours and watch me,” Thompson said.
The 35-year-old artist is of Scotch-Irish descent, but his dad was adopted by a member of the Crow Tribe and Thompson grew up on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. Thompson uses his art to tell stories of his childhood and the indigenous way of life he experienced.
Thompson’s parents own a gift shop and trading post on the reservation, and much of his inspiration comes from the art and wares he saw go through his parents’ store as he grew up, he said.
Thompson attended the University of Wyoming and earned a degree in art and art history, but today his art often diverges from the traditional styles he learned in school, he said. Thompson uses a variety of media, including oil, acrylics and watercolor paints, as well as pen and ink and prismacolor markers.
“I was always taught to not mix different things in art school, so of course after I was out, I had to try it,” Thompson said, referring to his mixed media pen-and-ink and watercolor paintings.
Thompson’s portfolio, like the media he uses, is diverse. It includes realistic portraits and landscapes as well as abstract designs that reflect the geometric patterns on the rugs and beadwork he grew up around.
His portraits are primarily of Crow Indians, inspired by the photography of Edward Curtis, an American photographer who, because he was alive and working at the turn of the century, produced photos in black and white film. Curtis was a master of light and at showing the emotion in his subjects’ eyes, Thompson said.
While they were the source of the inspiration, there is nothing colorless about Thompson’s paintings.
“I guess that’s where my artistic freedom comes in,” he said. “I can just blast the painting with as much color as I want.”
He couldn’t simply reproduce the portraits in the same color palette. The people and the reservation of his childhood were colorful, vibrant and beautiful, Thompson said. In turn, his portrait’s use the whole color spectrum, sometimes using purple as the subject’s hair color.
Even as he takes artistic liberties in his work, Thompson said, he is always careful not to step on any toes.
His grandfather, the Crow elder who adopted Thompson’s father, was a great resource for him in understanding how to create his art without disrespecting the culture.
Thompson tells a story of a time when he wanted to incorporate real turkey feathers into the canvas of a painting of Sitting Bull. He approached his grandfather and asked if such a move would be considered disrespectful. His grandfather replied no, that adding the real feather to the painting was a gift to Sitting Bull, an act that took him out of the abstract and honored him as a person who existed in this world.
The conversation with his grandfather, Thompson said, “it really changed my style — to see these people as people and to give them things, to give an offering and to really pay that respect to the past and that way of life.”
As a white man painting Native people and Native culture, Thompson said he often struggles with people’s opinion that he doesn’t have the right to depict such subjects because he is not of native descent.
“Some people think I shouldn’t do it or that I don’t have the right to, which I think is ridiculous, because that is my world, that’s where I grew up,” Thompson said. “I always explain: Crow is in my heart and not in my blood, but there’s nothing I can do about that.”
Besides being an artist, Thompson is a passionate snowboarder. As he looks to the future, his goal is to combine his passions, he said.
He is inspired to collaborate with snowboard companies such as Burton or Libtech to produce designs for their products that honor the Native art of the regions in which their customers ride.
As for Jackson, Thompson said this wasn’t his last visit. He hopes to return for another show in the spring.
And next time, he said, he’d like to set up shop for a month instead of a few days. ￼