After the young French writer Albert Camus visited Djemila, a remote Algerian mountain village littered with the ruins of a Roman colony dating back to 98 A.D., he made a curious, seemingly off-hand comment in his essay “The Wind at Djemila”: “It is a place from which travelers return.”
For local artist Rachel Thompson, western New York was such a place — physically and metaphysically.
Thompson had recently married and was working as an interior designer when she moved from Florida to Niagara County, N.Y., 10 years ago. Then her life began to shape-shift when she encountered a “little old lady” artist and a Cherokee prophet.
Thompson found herself on a new path . . . well, back on an old path, really — one that led her to return to art and, three and a half years ago, to Florida, to the Hammock in Flagler County.
And now Thompson’s journey has led her to being named the Gargiulo Art Foundation’s 2015 Flagler County Artist of the Year. She’ll be honored with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday Jan. 16 at Salvo Art Project in Bunnell.
“I am just art, I am art, I was born that way,” Thompson said amid the disheveled canvases, paints and finished works at her gallery in the Hammock, I AM ART/Rachel & Friends. The clutter was due to the fact that Thompson is shuttering her gallery in order to devote more time to creating art rather than pursuing the business of art.
As a result, Thompson has become affiliated with Frank Gromling’s Ocean Art Gallery in Flagler Beach. She’ll even be curating art at the gallery one day a week.
Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, “I was the last child and kind of set apart,” Thompson said. “I always did things by myself with my hands. I had an imaginary friend, and I made my imaginary art world. I took lessons in the Old Masters-style of painting outside of school.”
But the necessity of earning a living led her away from art and into a career as an interior designer. Then her life began to change in New York.
She began to “transition” back to art and decided to study under Mimi Schiff, an abstract expressionist who had been a student of Hans Hoffman and Charles Burchfield.
“So I go into her garage and I was expecting a little old lady painting flowers,” Thompson said. “And I was blown away by these 4-by-8 plywood sheets, really raw and edgy, with images of the Holocaust and Darfur and man’s-inhumanity-to-man-type things. I was very inspired and awed and amazed and honored I got to study under her.”
Thompson’s return to art would shape-shift again after she opened an art boutique.
“There’s a lot of Native American history up there,” she said. “I had some wind chimes out (at the boutique) and this Cherokee guy came in and he started prophesying to me, talking about my life. He said, ‘The wind from the chimes brought me in.’ He said, ‘You have Cherokee in you. It’s in your eyes.’ I’ve had two people tell me that, but I have no proof of that.”
And so began a new branch of Thompson’s rejuvenated art path: painting Native American portraits. She especially paints from the photographs taken by the renowned early 20th-century historian Edward Curtis.
“There’s a spiritual connection for me with the Native,” Thompson said. “It’s almost therapeutic for me to paint a Native face. I paint it until I feel that face is looking back at me, telling me that I’ve honored it.”
Likewise with Thompson’s recent fascination with horses: “I’ve been painting a lot of horses lately. I’m not a horse person particularly — for me it’s a spiritual thing.”
In fact, Thompson said during the interview a week before the Salvo event, she was about to begin a horse triptych that she plans to exhibit at the reception honoring her.
Even as Thompson’s return to art was burgeoning in New York, her marriage was unraveling. And, like any creative person, that upheaval was soon reflected in her art.
“I started out painting Niagara Falls,” she said of “Emanation,” a mixed media, three-dimensional work on dual panels of lexan — a work she calls “kind of a self-portrait.”
“Emanation” depicts a blue-tinged, female nude form — headless and armless — immersed up to her thighs in water, with what appears to be flame emanating from her mons veneris.
“The ritual water cleansing is kind of universal no matter what path you’re on, whether you’re Jewish or Native American or Christian,” Thompson said. “To be immersed is to be cleansed. Really it was being cleansed from all this stuff I was going through. But also the chakras (centers of spiritual power in the human body, esotericists say) are in here.”
And is that fire representative of kundalini?
“Yes, you’re right on target,” Thompson said.
Kundalini, say Eastern-influenced esotericists and mystically inclined yoga practitioners, is a primal energy that lies dormant in the base of one’s spine and can be “awakened” through certain techniques involving yoga, meditation or other practices.
“The word ‘emanation’ came to me in the night,” Thompson said. “I was like ‘No matter what we go through or what someone does to us or whatever, we don’t lose that.’ That was my lesson.”
“Emanation” and other Thompson works such as “White Horse Must Fly,” “White Bird Must Fly,” the ocean scene “The Beauty of Ascension,” her triptych of the Sangre de Christo Mountains near Santa Fe, New Mexico that she titled “Destiny,” and even her Native portraits — all vibrate with a rhythm and energy evoked by her use of swirls, curves and swoops, and by her juxtapositions of earth tones and bright colors that seem wholly natural and never jarring or artificial.
Think of the dance of the heavens in Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” to have just an idea of the motion and energy often exuded by Thompson’s works. However, her style is not derivative of the Dutch post-Impressionist, even though she said she is inspired by both Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe.
Flagler Artists of the Year:
And Thompson credits artist and Salvo Art Project co-founder JJ Graham with “helping me let go of being so controlling and to paint more intuitively.”
In selecting the Flagler County Artist of the Year, the Gargiulo Art Foundation seeks “someone with unique talents and personal representation of their art,” said Arlene Volpe, director and co-founder of the foundation with Tom Gargiulo. “A lot of would-be artists are copying and are highly influenced by one famous painter or another. We look for talent that’s fresh. We also take into consideration how artists affect the community, whether they are involved in the community.
“In Rachel’s case, her art is deeply reflective of her beliefs in women and Native Americans, and her art is thoughtful, personal, emotional. We feel very lucky to have her in our community.”
The foundation has been naming a Flagler County Artist of the Year ever since its founding in 2000. Rather than seeing the available pool of potential candidates shrinking, “It’s become more difficult to find one person out of the growing talent we have here,” Volpe said. “We’re actually gaining artists and they’re becoming more responsive to the community.
“When we first came here, it was pretty much people who took up art as something to do after retirement. That’s not what exactly we’re looking for when we look for an Artist of the Year. We’re looking for someone who actually makes commitments to the community, which Rachel obviously is.”
A meet-the-artist reception honoring Rachel Thompson, the Gargiulo Art Foundation’s 2015 Flagler County Artist of the Year, will be 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday Jan. 16 at Salvo Art Project, 313 Old Brick Road (in the Nature Scapes Landscape & Garden Center), Bunnell. The event will feature a performance by sitar and Native American flute player Rick de Yampert.
Thompson’s art will be on exhibit through Feb. 16. Regular gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment. Reception admission is $10 and includes wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres. Free for children. Information: 386-871-9546 or salvoart.org.