A Day in the Life

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When Bird is the Word moved from just a glimmer in my eye to a living, breathing part of my everyday life, I promised myself I would start an interview series. A series that follows some of my favorite people around for a day, chronicling their lives, their work and their beautiful spirits. And I’m finally making good on that promise. We’re on to our second Day in the Life interview today, and trust me, it’s a good one. See my interview, here.

I met Richard during a working interview for my former job at the little cafe in wine country. Most people don’t just introduce themselves to an interviewee during the actual interview, but Richard certainly isn’t most people.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Richard.” With his trademark mischievous grin.

“He’s sort of a fixture around here,” the chef explained to me. I thought it was a bit strange, but I was far too busy being needlessly nervous to give it much thought. I figured I’d probably never see the guy again.

Boy was I wrong. Not only did I see him again, but I saw him almost every single morning for the better part of two years. He asked a million questions, happily ate the pitiful eggs I turned out in the beginning, and somewhere along the way, we became thick as thieves. Eating breakfast together every day, shooting the breeze and drawing pictures of bugs and fish on napkins.

Early this year, after an obscene amount of begging on my end, he agreed to take me on as his fly fishing apprentice. And since, weather and mono permitting, we’ve explored all that western Oregon has to offer. We’ve spent hours in the truck, driving to and from our destinations (all within a 2.5 hour radius), talking about life, fishing and listening to political talk radio. We’ve survived brutal days on the Deschutes, hours of fishlessness on Lake Harriet and a few unexpected dips in the river. I’ve learned more about life, and fishing, in the last six months, than I ever expected.

Though he’ll probably hate me saying this, fishing with Richard has made me feel like I’ve been able to recoup some of the time I never got to spend fishing with both my fly-fisherman grandfathers. He’s sweet and kind. He spoils me rotten. And he has more wild, hilarious stories than anyone I’ve ever met. When Taylor and I met him in Silver Creek, Idaho this fall, on the tail-end of our Montana road trip, it felt like a family reunion.

But aside from what he is to me, he’s also a really, really ridiculously talented artist. A genius painter whose work has shown in galleries all over the world for the last 50 years. Being able to spend the day in his studio last week, peppering him with questions and getting to see his process, was a once in a lifetime experience. I couldn’t be more proud to have captured him in his element, and I couldn’t possibly be more honored to share this Day in the Life interview with you, today. Without further ado, A Day in the Life with Richard Thompson.


Who are you?
Who am I today? Or in the big arc of time? That’s a difficult question.

I’m 69 years old. I’m a farm kid from Dayton, who discovered art and keeps discovering it everyday. And somehow became the dean of a leading art school. I’m an Artist. Educator. Administrator. All those things are part of who I am, but I’m still a farm kid.

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Where do you live?
Back home. I live in my grandfather, Hans’, home. Which became my father’s, and then mine. I was an only child so this place came to me, to be mine. I’ve lived in New Mexico, Texas and New York but I decided to come back where I started from.

What do you love most about where you live?
That I’m getting to rediscover it. Growing up here, I saw it through a child’s eyes. But coming back, I get to see the community as if I’m new here. Familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

In a way, it’s inspired most of my paintings. Even though my knowledge of contemporary art has grown, I’m still looking at it. Trying to figure out the same landscape I’ve looked at since I was 10 years old. In moving back, all the things that make up a sense of place- light, moisture, color- are fresh again.

I love that all of Oregon’s weather rolls in over the coastal range and through the valley before passing over the rest of the state. There’s never a static sky here. Every single day, the sky changes by the minute.

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What does a normal day in your life look like?
Around six o’clock I’m either awoken by my alarm, or a fight between the cats. Usually Cinco, the kitten, is somehow upsetting Xena, the matriarch. I get up, boil an egg for my wife Kymberli, and make her a salad for lunch. Once I send her off to work, I get in the truck and head to Community Plate. I have my coffee and start my day off with friends.

Once I drag myself out of CP, I run my errands and then come home to the studio. I’m a morning person, so my best work is done then. But sometimes, if I get involved in a project I will come back and work in the evening. I usually work ’til early afternoon, then have lunch. After lunch I usually take care of my email business- work, friends, fishing tales, etc. Then, it’s naptime. I’m retired, so I get to take naps. After my nap, I usually start cooking dinner.

The rest of the day is spent catching up with Kymberli. I don’t do any partying. Farming as a kid was a great teacher, there’s only one person that’s going to do the work, and that’s you. So I go to bed.

Artists have a bad reputation for living a “bohemian” lifestyle, but I don’t know how those types get any actual work done. Most serious artists I know…their lives are pretty mundane. Getting the work done is a discipline.

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How did you get into what you do?
Well, it came as a big surprise to me. And everyone else.

In 1963, I enrolled at Oregon State University to study forestry. What else does a kid from Dayton do? I failed to register in time to get a dorm room, so I spent the first semester in a fraternity house. I wasn’t fraternity material. I was also failing miserably in all my Forestry classes. The only one I was doing well in was Botany, because most of the class consisted of drawing plants. Ray Dragseth, a senior in my frat house, happened upon me drawing plants one day and having taken a painting class earlier that year, offered me his leftover painting supplies.

“Did you ever think of painting those leaves?” he asked me. So I did.

It came absolutely, perfectly natural to me. I didn’t know why, but I painted shadows under the leaves. Within a week, my room reeked of oil paint and I had paintings covering every square inch of the four walls. I realized Forestry was not going to do it for me. I had this new passion, but I also had no idea what do with it.

So, I started taking design classes. My parents weren’t especially thrilled about it, so I lied to them for a few years, telling them I was studying English while secretly taking every art class I could get my hands on. They finally found out in 1966, when I transferred to University of New Mexico to focus on painting.

My career got started pretty fast. By 1965, I’d had my first show. And really, it was all happenstance. Thanks to a simple question, “Did you ever think of painting those leaves?” And a fraternity brother trying to get rid of his leftover art supplies.

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What do you like most about it? What inspires you?
I’ve been so blessed. I was embraced by a lot of people who have really blessed and encouraged me. Garo, the professor I went to UNM to study under; I had lunch with him last year. He’s 93 and he still remembered me and my work. We still keep in touch.

With art, it’s always about tomorrow. Where can this go next? It’s always about the next painting. I’ve done this so long now, I really have a body of work. It shows growth. I love finding the little places that can be opened up for growth.

I love the process, and the thinking that goes into the process. First there is a mountain. Then there is no mountain. Then there is. You take something external, internalize it and try to figure out how to reproduce it in a way that means something to you. I choose to paint because it’s the closest I can get to that process of thinking.

At the end of the day, it’s what you see, what you think about it and what you do about it. Painting is alchemy. Taking shit and turning it into light. Converting nothing into something.

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Favorite thing to paint?
Nothing.

That is to say my paintings are not about places that are special, they are about the mundane. The absolute essence of the mundane American moment. There’s nothing more sad than the places in the middle of nowhere. Clusters of buildings.

I like to take nothing and turn it into something.

My perfect painting would be so quiet, so silent, it would take your breath away. So much art today is screaming. Paintings that draw me in are the ones where you can hear the crickets.

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Favorite place to see art?
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

I think a lot of places are driven by trendiness versus thoughtfulness. Trying to fit into a global perspective rather than a national one.Β Americans are undereducated in the arts. I don’t think people have an eye for painting anymore. It’s hard to find a good painting museum.

I like to see art in other people’s studios.

What’s your favorite thing to do on a NOT-so-normal day?
Fly fishing with my friend Kali.

Suck up.

I’m good at two things: fly fishing and painting.

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If you are interested in doing a Day in the Life interview, please get in touch.

6 Comments

  1. Great interview with Richard. Loved all the pictures–the well-used artist studio, the art, and the artist and fly fisherman. Richard was a teacher and friend of mine for a semester at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1974. I haven’t seen him since visiting him in New Mexico in 1976. Your interview with Richard reminded me of his very positive spirit, his warm offbeat humor, and his PASSION for creating art. I’m happy to see that it is all alive and well… and his colorful art is SO unique and WONDERFUL, reflecting his happy strong spirit after all the years of hard work. Thank you for this wonderful interview and portrait.

  2. Richard would have no reason to remember me but I had the great fortune of being one of his students at UT Austin in the mid-80s. When people talk about that one important teacher who reached you and made a difference, I think of Richard. I had no gift – I’d migrated to painting as a major precisely because it was so damn hard – but Richard treated me with the same seriousness as the talented students, so I took myself seriously too and kept plugging away. RICHARD TAUGHT ME TO SEE. I graduated with a painting degree and went to work at the art museum in Milwaukee where I was an education writer for several years until entering grad school in anthropology and museum studies. I eventually married an artist and in all the turns my life has taken in the 27 years since, the jobs I’ve loved, art I’ve enjoyed and sometimes made, that ability has played a critical role. It is certainly one that I hope to share with my now 4yo daughter. Thank you, Richard.

  3. Your interview of this artist and fisherman makes me want to meet this rare and humble human being. It would truly enrich my life. Thank you for sharing, Kali.

  4. What a great piece, Kali!

  5. Thanks for sharing this-was just like stepping back in time to when I was a child hanging with my Dad in the studio. So many notebooks filled with watercolor and ink sketches, so many afternoons spent sitting on the river bank watching him fish. Oldest spent a month with him this summer, thinks it’s great that Grandad has a breakfast hangout, but thinks it’s also okay to step outside routine every now and then!

  6. Love, love, love this!