SCULPTOR STREAMLINES PUBLIC ART PROCESS
THURSDAY OCTOBER 13th, 2011
Along US-223, leading into the tiny southern Michigan town of Blissfield, a collection of sculptures pepper the landscape of a former car dealership. A big sign says you’ve arrived at Flatlanders Sculpture Supply and Art Gallery. The owner is Kenneth M. Thompson, a sculptor, who through the Midwest Sculpture Initiative is fast becoming the epicenter of the sculpture world for Midwestern states. He clearly recalls the moment that inspired his passion for sculpture. He was four years old. “I was sitting atop a bronze hippopotamus during the grand opening of the Northland shopping mall in Southfield,” recalls Thompson. The year was 1954 and Thompson says he vividly remembers thinking to himself, “I am going to make one of these someday.”
Kenneth M. Thompson has not only figured out how to make sculptures, but also how to make a living doing it – an accomplishment that sets him apart from many other talented sculptors.
Flash forward more than 50 years. Today, Kenneth Thompson is a well-known creator of indoor, outdoor and public art. His public art creations are often large and abstract pieces that dominate their space. Ken works in bronze casting and metal fabrication, but says stone carving is his preference.
Thompson finds the longevity of sculpture intriguing. “When I cast in bronze, I’m making something that could possibly last for 8,000 years or longer,” he says. “When I carve granite, it could maybe last 100,000 years. That’s a long time to have your work around.”
The son of a Michigan State Police trooper, Thompson moved frequently as a child. One constant was Sunday mass. The religious statues and art he observed while attending church with his family served as inspiration during his boyhood. “I was always trying to figure out how everything was made,” Thompson recalls.
By age 10, Thompson transitioned into building things. His first project was a trestle table he crafted of white oak, using a plan book his parents picked up while vacationing in Pennsylvania Amish country. By high school, he was building canoes.
During college, Thompson’s flair for making wooden objects put money in his pocket. While pursuing a Fine Arts Bachelors Degree in painting from Sienna Heights College in Adrian, he logged many hours in the college woodshop building bookcases, desks and other furniture for faculty members and fellow students.
It was in his first sculpture class during his final semester at Sienna Heights that he realized his true calling. He went on to earn a degree in sculpture from the University of Toledo.
The woodworking skills he developed as a young person come in handy now. Before creating a sculpture, Ken often builds a small-scale wooden model first, which he finds helpful for client presentations.
To-date, he’s been commissioned for 47 public art sculptures including the Reclamation Archway for Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Detroit and the Peace Arch in Toledo, Ohio, which honors Vietnam War veterans.
Artists from across the country order sculpting supplies form Thompson’s company, Flatlanders Sculpture Supply. As a young artist 30 years ago, Thompson became frustrated with the process of ordering sculpting supplies from Italy. So he sought out the technology to make his own stone carving tools and began making his own supplies. That morphed into a business of supplying sculpture tools to artists all over the country. “We’ve created a niche for ourselves in making tools, and many art schools depend on us,” says Thompson.
Artists can also purchase stone and can have their sculptures fabricated through Flatlander Sculpture Supply.
Although sculptures are generally built to last, they occasionally need repair and restoration and this is another area Ken Thompson is building a name for himself. Requests come from churches, museums, universities and businesses. “We have no problem finding work, it finds us,” says Thompson.
Perhaps Kenneth Thompson’s biggest contribution to the art world is his brainchild, the Midwest Sculpture Initiative (MSI). By using the services of MSI, small cities across the Midwest are installing public art exhibits for a minimum investment of money and time.
Founded in 2005, MSI was formed out of Ken Thompson’s desire for more outdoor sculpture opportunities for his own work and for other artists. Its mission is to provide outdoor sculpture exhibitions throughout the Midwest, promote cooperation among art and civic organizations, and advance the role the visual arts play in the quality of life.
MSI often fills the niche for communities and downtown development authorities that lack an arts commission, explains Thompson. When MSI consults in the process of creating a public art exhibit, they can assist with site selection, initiate a call for artists, form a selection committee and install the sculptures on exhibit. “Basically, they just need to write a check and we can do the rest,” says Thompson.
Simply by word of mouth, MSI engaged 13 communities to host a public outdoor art display in 2010 – partly because they make it so easy for everyone involved. And in the process, MSI is increasing the cultural barometer across the Midwest.
By working with MSI, the City of Tecumseh is now hosting its third year-long public art exhibit. “Art is a big draw,” explains Linda Hewlett, marketing director for the City of Tecumseh. “It brings our own residents downtown and it brings in visitors from outside the community,” she adds.
In Tecumseh, it was the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) that initiated its public art exhibit in the spring of 2008. MSI issued a call for artists and Tecumseh’s selection committee chose 12 sculptures from a pool of more than 400 pieces. Artists are paid a stipend of $250-$500 and agree to keep their art on the site for a year. In its fourth year, Art Trail Tecumseh stretches through the downtown area. The show is changed out every April with Thompson and his MSI crew handling the set-up.
Hastings, in Barry County, is another community enjoying the benefits of a public art display in its downtown area. How the partnership came to be was a happy accident, says John Hart, director of Hastings’ Downtown Development Authority. While making inquiries about a public art exhibit, Hart said he literally stumbled upon MSI. The result is a successful alliance that is increasing economic development and bringing vitality to the downtown district. In 2010, the City of Hastings partnered with MSI to install a sculpture exhibit through their downtown area. Visitors can pick-up a brochure that guides them through the exhibit and provides details on each sculpture, including the asking price. The exhibit is also promoted on the city’s website with a video produced by the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan. “We could not have pulled off the project without the assistance of MSI and Ken Thompson,” says John Hart.
Thompson says MSI sees itself as an engine of economic development for mid-sized cities and for artists alike. Public exhibits, such as the ones MSI produces, add to the communities’ cultural ambiance and bring in tourist dollars. Thompson said the exposure and the stipend for transportation and set-up is a boon for the artists, with some finding buyers for their sculptures by the end of the show.