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Love and Light

Ventura artist Elain Thompson pays homage to her hometown.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by T Christian Gapen

FAMILY TREES: Elain Thompson in her Ventura home, with “Two Trees and Brown Hills.” One of Ventura’s most famous landmarks, the artist’s connection to the scene is much more personal: She as well as her daughter, son and father all live within sight of it

“I’ve always been optimistic,” says painter Elain Thompson. “This is our town. We’re lucky.”

In a few short sentences, she sums up much of what makes her work so special. Her lovingly rendered depictions of Ventura make even the most banal or familiar spaces feel special. The soft, warm colors she prefers create a sense of serenity. And with an astute eye and skillful hand, Thompson makes these images glow with an inner light. Her work has been shown in several locations around town — Very Ventura Gift Shop, Palermo, Simone’s Coffee Shop, just to name a few — featured on the cover of the Ventura Visitors Guide (in 2006) and collected near and far. It’s easy to see why: Every piece is a love letter to, and about, Ventura. In the aftermath of the Thomas Fire, her work is a sorely needed reminder of the beauty that once was, and continues to be, found here.

Thompson is a Ventura County native, growing up in Oxnard and living in Ventura for most of her adult life. The creative bug bit early and hard. “I knew I was going to be an artist in second grade,” she recalls. After graduating from Oxnard High School in 1968 (where she was voted “most talented”) she attended the short-lived but influential Santa Barbara Art Institute, and also studied at Ventura College, where she learned from the school’s great artistic movers and shakers: Gerd Koch, William McEnroe, Carlisle Cooper, Bernard Dietz.

“At the time . . . it was more [about] abstract expressionism,” Thompson recalls. “It was very creative. Even though it wasn’t traditional . . . it taught you to see, to look outside the box.”

Her own work was largely based in realism, but she took cues from her more unorthodox teachers. “She was a rebel painter,” her son, Roger Thompson, says, referencing the way she sometimes played with perspective, added motifs for their aesthetic value or mixed conflicting elements, such as an ornate bench in a largely modern, linear scene. “She paints what’s in her heart, how she feels it.”

Thompson admits that some of these flourishes, added for the sake of nostalgia rather than composition, didn’t always work. But recognizing those flaws helped her learn how to deviate in a powerful way. Years later, she took a watercolor course from Hiroko Yoshimoto, who critiqued one of Thompson’s paintings by saying, “You broke just about every rule. But it works.”

In her early years, Thompson’s work was “more figurative, real expressive.” She did a lot of portraits on commission, and fell in love with pastels, developing some innovative techniques for blending that almost led to her becoming a rep for art supplier Sennelier. The dust became too much, however, so she turned to oil paints — almost exclusively her medium now. By the 1990s, she was largely focusing on landscapes.

“I think it was the city of Ventura,” she says simply of her inspiration. “What I really wanted to do was all of these Ventura paintings.”

Familiar landmarks like the pier, City Hall and Two Trees do have a prominent place in her body of work, and have been snatched up by collectors all over the county for their connection to the city. But her artist’s eye sees extraordinary beauty in the unexpected. Driving along Pacific Coast Highway, it’s not the crashing waves or dramatic hillsides that capture her imagination, but the odd angles of the telephone poles and the linear quality of the electric lines. Shadows cast by street signs and trees add interest to an otherwise ordinary sidewalk. A narrow street with broken asphalt and rundown houses becomes a vision of simple, everyday serenity.

“I like when they’re not so pretty,” Thompson explains. “I like the authenticity, and I like the way the light plays.” She’ll fixate on an element, such as trees coming up out of the asphalt, and build a painting around it, letting the composition come together organically. “As I paint, it tells me where to go,” she says. “The painting wants to ‘be’ something.”

But the biggest impetus? “It’s all about the light,” Thompson states emphatically. “What I like about oil painting is that if it catches different light at different times of day, you’ll see different colors. For some of the paintings, I get up before the sun rises, and just wait for the light. And I always get excited in the early evenings, because the colors are so rich.” 

Many of her paintings are the same scene, painted at different times of day. Careful layering provides a richness that unifies and anchors each composition. As traditional as her works appear on the surface, it’s a very sophisticated technique that brings them to life.

Thompson has an especially close family, with many members living within a few miles of each other. Her kindness and warmth have fostered deep bonds of love, while her artistic spirit has enriched the lives of her children and grandchildren in its own way.

“We as a family value creative expression,” Roger says. “Mom has also encouraged the ability to go after different kinds of careers — she helped me see the path because of what she’s done.”

Thompson supported Roger in his various endeavors, from surf shop owner to the founder (with longtime best friend the late Tim Garrety) of Skate Street Ventura to his current work as an author. She also lent her talents to the cause: Her murals could be found on every wall at Skate Street, while today you can see her hand-drawn maps in Roger’s most recent book, We Stood Upon Stars. She’s very involved in the lives of all her grandchildren, and has helped Roger’s young sons create artwork for their skateboards.

Roger and wife Melissa handle sales and inventory for Thompson’s art, and business will be picking up over the next few months as the family gets ready to release a series of giclée prints of Thompson’s most popular work. “We want to help put what Ventura is back in people’s imaginations,” says Melissa. She has reached out to local collectors who may have lost some of Thompson’s art in the fire and need assistance with valuation for insurance claims.

Thompson herself is currently in the midst of a break as she contemplates her next evolution as an artist. She has this sense that she’ll “re-emerge in the fall. I want to take a new look,” she explains.

Regardless of what her new direction as an artist will be, one thing is certain: Her work will be driven, as always, by love and light. 

For more information on Elain Thompson, visit her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Elain-Thompson-49998798607/ or call 320-4758.

"Poli Street."

 

Scenes from around Ventura include the instantly recognizable (“California Palms”) to those that may take non-residents a few moments to identify (the Erle Stanley Gardner Building, featured in “Palm, Shadows and Coffee”).

 

“Poinsettia City.”

 

“Inspiration Point.”

 

01-01-2018

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