Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Karen Thompson


David Tanner

Whatzup Features Writer

Published August 26, 2004

Heads Up! This article is 18 years old.

Karen Thompson, the revered educator and

much-admired photographer, may have finally found

her la querencia, that place staked out in the

arena by the bullfighters to provide sanctuary

from the menacing charges of their adversary or,

in this case, the challenges of these difficult

times.

Don’’t read that the wrong way. Although she’’s

retiring after nearly 30 years of teaching at

IPFW and most recently at the University of Saint

Francis, the strikingly handsome and articulate

inspirer is just changing venues, not her life’’s

work of documenting and storytelling.

To celebrate her exit and egress, the USF is

staging a “Retrospective” opening Saturday,

August 28 and running through October 2 at the

Weatherhead Gallery on campus. “Retrospective”

features some 50 pieces reflecting her

contribution to the visual arts, and it is a

humdinger.

Thompson was on the learn-as-you-go plan during

classes at the University of Iowa, and one of her

lessons realized after three years was that she

didn’’t have what it takes to be an artist, at

least as measured by her accounting.

“My last semester in search of a degree included

photography, and it was then that I found my

medium. A 35mm Kodak Pony, if I remember

correctly, was my first camera,” Thompson

recalled. “In photography I found a release. Not

just a release from the labor-intensive work of

painting, printmaking, sculpture and ceramics,

but I was able to do more, maybe not better in

quality but more in quantity. And in all of that

I discovered a voice I was comfortable with. A

medium that allowed me to say what I was trying

to communicate.””

That period when alchemy reigned in pools of

chemicals and contact sheets gave way to

manipulating digitalized pixels some eight years

ago for Thompson. She was at once initially

intrigued and appalled. Maurice Papier, then the

Art Department chair at USF, announced that all

the instructors would be learning the new medium

together.

“”I was so reluctant, and then even more so when

Maurice told me I was going to be teaching the

course. I think I spent time every day for an

entire year, plus workshops and seminars, to get

a grasp of the tools. To me it is like learning a

language (she studied several in college): first

you learn the alphabet, then its grammar, then

sentence structure, then conversation or dialog,

and finally you can tackle poetry,”” Thompson

explained.

“”The program (Photoshop) is really a time thief.

Like a bandit, it steals time,”” Thompson

continued. ““I remember once during that time my

teenage daughter briefly interrupted my work at

the computer at home to tell me she was going

out. When she opened the door and reappeared

before me, I thought she was coming back to pick

up her car keys or something she had forgotten.

It was then I realized she’’d been gone for two

hours and I was still exploring some single

element of Photoshop.””

Since her apprenticeship Thompson has gone on to

master the nuances of the software and hone her

message. Like all artists she uses her skills to

focus the attention of her viewers. “”You’’re not

always going to be with your art. You’’re not

going to be there to narrate it,”” she tells her

students, so it is critical that the work inform

itself.

“Therefore,” Thompson concludes, “exaggeration is sometimes necessary to get your

idea across.” To illustrate her point Thompson

related an episode involving her sister, who is,

shall we say “vertically challenged.”

“”At family get-togethers the rest of us would

get down on her for hyping, even lying in the

telling of her stories. She responded with ‘‘When

you’’re being interviewed for a position in a

chair across from a desk and your feet are

dangling above the carpet. What would you

do?”’”

TouchÈ!

As to the exhibit – it wasn’’t to be hung until

after this article was due – I can only go by the

reproduced images in the well crafted four-color

invitation produced by Thompson’s son-in-law,

Jeff Dollens of HPN, the marketing force for USF,

plus what I recall of her previously shown

works.

In many ways Thompson’’s technique mimics the

medium of cut-out dolls. Remember the die-cut

paper costumes that children could dress figures

to stage historical or contemporary scenes by

folding tabs A, B and C? In Thompson’’s modern

version she overlays costumes on images of her

favorite subject, her granddaughter, Isabel.

Often the scenes she creates depict those very

special places in the life of children and

perhaps can be best described in the words of

Elizabeth Goodenough in her book, Secret

Spaces of Childhood, a collection of stories

and poems which has been a favorite of the

artist.

“If you ever constructed a fort out of boxes,

chairs and blankets, or lost yourself in the

pages of a favorite book, you’’ll recognize in

(Thompson’’s) landscapes the urge we had as

children to hide out, build worlds within our

worlds and create spaces as real and potent as

any outside the limitless sphere of our younger,

inner lives.”

Thompson’’s reflections “capture the

daydream-like quality of our childhood visions

and fantasy worlds, a time when imagination had

yet to be banished from reality. To reconstruct

that special landscape … the gardens and

wildernesses-tender and terrible-of childhood’s

heart.”

This re-occurring theme of lost innocence

dominates her work. One piece, done in the

aftermath of 9/11, uses Isabel again as the

focus. In this case Thompson has cloaked her in a

Native American animal skin with a small American

flag in her grasp. Her rosey-cheeked and beaming

face is framed by a ring of leaves and large

moose antlers. In the background are grazing

sheep, cows and geese. Not quite your typical

Norman Rockwell.

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