After 13 years of self-imposed exile in Germany, artist Mildred Thompson, 41, black and still somewhat bitter, has returned to Washington, where she began her career as an art student at Howard University 20 years ago.
Thompson has just opened her first major American show at the Howard artist-in-residence this year. The more than 100 wood sculptures, drawings and prints represent only half of her Florida three years ago. During that time, she was artist-in-residence for the city of Tampa, under a grant from the National Endownment for the Arts.
"My friends told me to come home and see how much America has changed," she says. "The experience in Tampa may represent American today, and it may not. I'll soon find out."
Thompson, as knowledgeable as she is passionate about her art, went off to Germany in 1958 with thte encouragment School in Maine, and another at the Brooklyn Museum School. She had failed to get a Fulbright for study abroad, but decided to go on her own to Hamburg, which proved fortuitious. She was welcomed into the Hamburg Art Academy, had her first solo show one year later, sold well, and subsequently received several important German scholarships: "By the third year I felt confident and eager to return to New York to see what I could do."
Return in 1961, Thompson sold two etchings to the Museum of Modern Art and two more to the Brooklyn Museum, but found herself frozen out of the commercial galleries: "My artist friends, out of frustration, were turning to drugs and suicide, and the racial situation was just about to blow. "I bought a plan tickey and headed back to Germany."
This time Thompson settled in Duren, a small town near Cologne, Aachen and Dusseldorf, a hub of the European avant-garde art scene. She found a part-time teaching job and once again began to show and sell regularly. As the years passed, she was included in increasingly important exhibitions along with German artists, and in 1973 was given a one-person show at the innovative Neue Galerie in Aachen. She seriously considered giving up her American citizenship.
But after 12 years, Thompson began to yearn for home. "I missed simple things like grits and Hershey bars, and my friends, who kept telling me things had really changed. I wanted to go home and see, but I didn't trust America, and made no plans to stay for more than a few months. I left my work, my dog and all my clothes in Germany."
They're still in Germany. Three years later, however, Millie Thompson is still here.
The thing that makes Thompson's work so distinctive is her extraodinary range and depth, which she at tributes to her German training. "At the Brooklyn Museum, there was a lot of talk about style, and how one must stick to one style and develop it. In Hamburg, we were encouraged to experiment - to try everything - with no talk of style, but a lot about development."
As a result, there are etchings, drawings, silkscreens, paintings and sculpture in many modes and moods, an array that looks like the work of many artists, not just one. Moving from one medium to another, Thompson works in series, developing a theme or subject in each. There are, for example, figurative drawings with fantasy elements, including the ingenious "Tattoos," and haunting "Gas Mask" cycle, inspired by an American Army mask she found in a German wood. In an entirely different vein are the carved and assembled abstract "wood pictures," combining both her graphic and sculptural skill.
But it is in the forest of abstract wood sculptures, all from a series called "Allegro," that Thompson's versatile and expressive talents are most prominently displayed. Based on musical themes named in the titles, this cycle of work begins with several pieces made of clusters of cut-out flat curling forms, which really do call up staccatto rhythms and sounds of the organ in the treble range. As the series matures, the forms become larger and the curves bolder and more assertive, as in the superb "Hymn," which conjures more somber, rolling bass tones.
New-talent hunters will have to move swiftly if they want to welcomw Mildred Thompson home before the dealers do. Hours are 9 to 4 weekdays through November.
Elsewhere in town, several shows by area women happen to be of particular interest - only one week after Joan Mondale met for the first time with a group of women artists at the Brooklyn Museum to hear their complaints and see how she could help.
The inventive Minnie Klavans is showing her latest work at Plum Gallery in Kensington, a series of 60 foot serolls - some small and some huge and spectacular - all covered with brightly colored, intuited abstract signs and symbols which one "reads" by unrolling the scrolls, oriental style. It is a sensuous and happy visual adventure she spins while viewers "oh" and "ah" at particularly satisfying passages. These are also some fine silkscreen prints based on the scrolls, editioned in Lou Stovcall's Washington Workshop.
more sardonic are the social and political takeoffs of Lila Snow and Pooka Glidden at the Touchstone Gallery, 2130 P St. NW, which has a new director and a newly professional look.
Both artists concern themselves, at least in part, with feminist issues. Glidden's nudes painted on oil brown grocery bags, said to be self-portraits, make endless and amusing puns (as in "Hand Bag" and implicitly, "Old Bag,") as well as satisfying and sensuous art objects. Comedienne Lila Snow makes more strident, sometimes raunchy references to contemporary society, but generally with a generous helping of comic relief. Her vacuformed medicine cabinet called "Sabbatical Year," describing misery abroad, is sad but funny.
Snow sometimes depends too heavily on turning verbal puns into visual form which have no meaning without an explanation. She is at her best in works that speak for themselves, such as "Shoe Fetish," a mirrored box containing the artist's silvered shoes, which seemingly dance into infinity, Busby Berkeley style.