Sculpture and crating specialist, Gene Thompson, brings an extensive and varied background in the arts to Mana Art Center. Thompson has worked in a range of art media over the span of a half of a century and has been involved in art communities on both the West and East Coasts. He also frequently writes art commentary and contributes articles to Mana Log.
Q: You received a bachelor’s in fine arts from California College of Arts and Crafts in 1963 and a master’s in sculpture from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1965. Can you tell us about the arts climate in the early ’60s? Who were some of the artists that influenced your work during that period?
A: I grew up in Oakland, so I was exposed to artists working in the Bay Area. A printmaker named George Miyasaki was one of my teachers. Another one of my mentors was Peter Voulkos, a sculptor who taught at UC Berkeley. He had a studio in Berkeley called the Spaghetti Factory, and many artists hung out there drinking, playing poker and snooker, talking about art, pouring bronze, firing clay/ceramics and making big sculptures. Peter took me under his wing, and I spent two or three days at a time at the studio. We were notorious for partying and working hard. Tio Giambruni and Manuel Neri were friends of Peter’s and they would hang out there, also.
Q: From 1965 – 1975, you developed the sculpture program at California State University and taught sculpture, drawing and ceramics courses. Please tell us about some of your experiences as a teacher.
A: I taught a Materials class where students made 8 to 12 inch cubes in 15 different materials including bronze casting, welded steel, clay slab, plaster and plexiglass. You can have the greatest mind in the world, but if you don’t know about materials, you might not be able to build what you have conceived. One of my students pantomimed a cube and others made cubes out of cake, charcoal, jello and yarn. At the end of the course, I asked students to place their cubes in the environment and to document these pieces. Students learned to translate ideas into materials, and materials germinated ideas.
Q: When did you move from the West to the East? What was that transition like for you?
A: The Vietnam War ended in 1975. The same year, I got tenure and a sabbatical to come to New York. Instead of taking a sabbatical, I decided to give up a tenured position and just move to New York. A colleague and I drove to New York in a moving van with a sign that read, “New York or Bust.” At a gas station in Pennsylvania, an attendant pointed to the highway and said, “See all those vans? Those vans are going west.”
Soho was a dump. It was a junk heap. But moving to New York was the best move for my soul and my intellect. California was about the landscape and open space. New York was about thinking and survival. All these people in small spaces trying to figure out solutions to problems. I took the leap from academia to insert myself into the real art world. The wonderful art world. The scary and disastrous art world. The new, freaky, blundering and enlightening art world.
One of my first jobs was art handling for Nancy Hoffman Gallery. I also moved art for Sidney Janis, George Segal, Paula Cooper, Andre Emmerich, Blum/Helman, Loius K. Meisel, Leo Castelli, among others. Working for artists, collectors and galleries introduced me to New York in a positive way and inspired changes in my own work.
Q: Your website reflects bodies of work in sculpture, watercolor, drawing, photography and video. What do you consider to be some of your most important works? Are you currently working on any personal projects?
A: One of my most important pieces is called American Elm, a graphite and sepia watercolor. It consists of 18 panels and took four and a half months to complete. I painted it looking through binoculars in Prattsville, New York near the Catskills. The dying elm captured my attention because it was standing in the middle of a field–a stately and royal tree.
Another significant piece is Double Helix which is a balloon constructed out of mylar in the shape of a rocket. It is 8-feet in diameter and 85-feet long, and was filled with helium on site. The rocket was launched on the Fourth of July in 1980 at Nassau County Museum of Art in Long Island.
I always try to make work that responds to my environments. Now, because I am working at Mana, I build pieces constructed from interesting things I find in the warehouse like cardboard inserts and Ethafoam. What we throw out is as important as what we take in. As my father said, “A weed is an unwanted plant.” I try to transform garbage, or something not considered, into something formally interesting, transforming shapes from their original utilitarian function and making them more compelling to look at. My work is about material, abstraction and transformation.
Q: When did you start working at Mana Art Center? What are some of the bigger projects you’ve been involved with here?
A: I started working at Mana in December 2009. I was working on and off for Michael Gitlin in SoHo and as a conservator for the Robert Wilson / Byrd Hoffman Foundation. Michael introduced me to his friend, Eugene Lemay, a year before I actually started here. Eugene was looking for people, and I came in for an interview. I was hired to help get things rolling. I totally support Eugene’s vision. Eugene has a passion for the arts, and we all encourage him as he does us.
I was hired to develop a crate shop, but I spent my first few months working with Jake Ehrlund on the basic planning of the sixth floor and its exhibition space. The crate shop got going in mid-2010 as there was a higher demand for crating. I cleaned out my studio at 55 Crosby in Soho and brought my tools here.
Q: Please tell us something about the process of receiving a work of art in your shop, building a crate for it and preparing it to be shipped.
A: A work will come in, say a painting or a sculpture. The client will either want it to be crated for storage here or want it shipped domestically or internationally. There are several types of crates: standard, travel, shell and museum. Most crates are standard wooden crates enclosed all the way around an item packed in Ethafoam. A travel or shell crate is a frame surrounding the work to protect it. A museum crate is a high-end crate made of waterproof plywood sealed with a gasket and steel-bolted closures. These crates have to be durable enough to be re-opened multiple times.
Q: What changes have you seen at Mana Art Center since you arrived and what else would you like to see happen here?
A: The changes have been incredible in such a short period of time. We have a gallery on the sixth floor equal to any gallery in Chelsea. Our climate controlled storage facility is designed with every consideration of the client in mind for the ultimate storage of their precious works of art. The design of the storage space is beautiful, a work of art in-of-itself. I look forward to seeing Eugene’s vision further realized through a sculpture garden and educational programs. I’d like to see even more lectures by guest artists, museum curators, gallery owners and arts professionals. People of intellect, vision and inspiration. People are the leading force of creativity.
Q: A major survey of Photorealist paintings and sculptures, Our Own Directions: Works from the Loius K. and Susan P. Meisel Collection, opens at Mana Art Center on September 18. What are your thoughts about this exhibition?
A: A lot of artists who will be shown are artists who influenced the American art scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Photorealism is about America–objects in urban, suburban and rural landscapes. It started by projecting color transparent slides to canvas or paper, tracing and painting the image. Photorealism heightens our perception of the visual reality of these objects or scenes. It changes the way we look at the everyday.
– Tema Stauffer