DOUGLAS THOMPSON INTERVIEW
By Mike Coppolino
Discovering the secret of a good interview is an odd experience. It can be intimidating at times, disturbing at others, especially when you go in figuring you have to steer the artist into set-up questions, whereas you find two outcomes: one is you get a standard pre-ordained answer; the other is having your subject resent being penned into this line of questioning, and resenting these answers they're being forced to give, making interviews something to dread. In interviewing Doug Thompson, I figured that I ought to take more of an experimental route; a three-point plan where I went in with no set questions, plenty of alcohol, and burnt out from a hard day of work. As it turned out, planning for an absence of plans seemed to work best. It's an easy strategy, especially when you live above the bar you work in; something that I found was a calculated part of a life by design; something as calculated as the seemingly random décor of Doug's apartment. Walking in, one is overcome by a strong sense of a person who is as much a fan of other people's work as he is confident of his own abilities as an artist. The evidence of both these aspects was evident at every glance, with every corner revealing more evidence of this strange and bizarre sense of humor, and the appreciation of humor where it's found. As we chugged beer and whisky, with the Residents playing in the background, I switched on the tape and let the interview start.
motivates you as an artist?
As both an artist and otherwise, I feel my motivations are centered around being able to sleep in every day. I want to be able to stay out as late as I want to and if the inspiration is there, I want to have the ability to stay up all night working on something, be it art or anything else that has my attention. Having a morning schedule destroys my ability to think. It's a mindset I've learned to avoid after attending five and a half years of college. I already know what a dollar's worth. I have a good sense of what you can do with it and what you can't. Right now, I doubt a dollar will ever be worth the ruin of my mornings. If I need to work for something, I'm going to make sure it's during my hours.
Did you always work at jobs around bars?
I had a slew of jobs before I got to bartending. My first job was working as a Bob's Big Boy, dressing up and waving at people on the highway . . . but I got fired from that job pretty quickly when they found out I was pissing on the side of the road while in the costume and giving random people the finger. I guess you can say I didn't realize what a job was about when I was young, that whole list of do's and don'ts . . . but I knew I needed to do something that was suited for me. Being Bob's Big Boy was fine so long as I could be what I considered the ideal Bob's Big Boy.
I'm finding it awfully hard to picture Bob's Big Boy pissing on the roadside. Were you in one of those big plastic outfits? Because honestly I didn't figure those had an easy way you could pee out of them.
It was one of those checkered overalls-type jumpsuits with a big paper mache' head attached to the top of it. I would spend most of my time out there, chain-smoking cigarettes, and the only way I could do that was by constantly sticking my arm through Bob's eyehole to get to them. I imagine it looked pretty weird and it eventually got me fired; not that I cared all that much. I knew I wanted to work at a bar even then because I was already spending my time getting in under age. I already knew how to make the drinks, so when I turned twenty one, I jumped on the opportunity while that style appealed to me. Right now, there's nothing I'd rather like more than to get out of it . . . but only if I could find a way to survive on my other abilities, not necessarily commercial work but . . . there would need to be more of an appreciation for fine art to make that happen.
It seems like commercial art is where everybody has to hang for a while.
The only commercial jobs I do are jobs I believe in, like doing record covers for bands I want to hear more of. Right now, one of my projects is working on a movie poster for Dave Sheridan, a friend I grew up with back in Delaware. He's just finished writing a movie about where we grew up and he's lined up with Mike Judge to co-produce the film. Thinking about all the stories this movie is about, and the idea that I was part of making it while we were growing up, makes it real easy to think up ideas on how the poster should look. I feel there should be something that tells what it was like to live during those years.
Are they giving you complete artistic license?
We're in the middle right now where I'm giving them my version, and hopefully they won't revise it. You know when you're going into a project like this that they're going to pull things out or not want certain elements in? I'm getting used to that now. That's why I'm working more and more on only things that I want to do because I'm getting tired of being edited out of my paintings. It seems to be too common an experience when working on commercial projects, even when I'm working with people I want to work with; the whole idea of creating mass appeal usually turns my work into something that's not going to be the way I want it to be.
used to it seems like a harsh thing . . . and it seems like an easy thing
to if the money's there.
These little figurines you have on the wall are pretty strange. I've been meaning to ask you about them ever since we started this interview.
They used to be given out like greeting cards in the late sixties and early seventies. Instead of getting a greeting card, you'd get one of these little googly eyed statues saying "I love you this much" or "world's greatest grandma", and things like that. People used to get them in Hallmark stores and for a while they were really really popular. The earliest one I got is from 1967; and in this style, they go all the way to maybe 74, something like that.
Are these plastic?
They're like hard resin plastic. The company that made these still exists, but now they make different things. I just pick these up at thrift stores. I used to also collect those big-eyed puppies, paintings of big-eyed kittens and kids; those Margaret Keene type paintings. I used to get into those paintings of big-eyed dogs and cats because they looked so pathetic, but then, after collecting enough of them, they grew on me to a point where I ended up actually liking them. After that, I figured the next step would be collecting something that was even more pathetic, something I didn't even know whether I'd be able to stand it or not, and these statues that I found at thrift stores kind of filled that ticket. I had no idea it would turn into a collection like this. I now have over two hundred, and they're all different, different colors and different sizes. These ones on the top shelf are fifteen inches tall. I'd never seen anything like these when I was a kid. I like these a lot because no one actually wants them. They're things that everyone else kind of wants to give away.
The thing is, they weren't obscure. They were so popular--that's the amazing thing about it.
It's kitsch. It's kitsch to a "T"--that describes it more than anything. I don't know what's going on with these now, They aren't on Ebay, or anything yet, but give it another year, and I'll be making a fortune out of collecting crap.
How long do you believe in something? Do you ever come to a point where you believe that the art you've been doing is not good art and decide to change something or everything?
Actually, when I went to school, I originally went for photography; half as a cop-out because it was the easiest format, the easiest way to get a degree because you could just go out, shoot a roll of film and develop it and have fifteen images inside a day. Whereas if you're painting, it takes you a month at least to do something that's worthy, and I think it shows when you put a lot of time into something. It kind of takes on a soul of its own. As far as things changing goes, I went from being a photographer in college to painting on the side until after I graduated, and I didn't have access to the facilities. Then I was doing thirty by forty inch photos and silk-screening over top of them, and all sorts of wacky stuff. Not many people have seen that era of my stuff, and not many people will since it's not something I continued doing. After I graduated, I didn't make any art for a year, and then I started freaking out. I needed to get stuff out, I needed to make things to do what comes naturally to me, so I started painting without any training. The easiest thing for me to do was hop onto the pop art style because its flat paints. There's a guy named Shane Swank in Chicago that was my biggest mentor at the time, and he got me to start making art again, and I actually bought the painting from him that made me realize that I could paint. I'm not trained as a painter, and I don't know what I'm doing as a painter., I just started, and from there it evolved from painting to constructions to found objects, and back to painting. I keep a pressure on myself in case I ever feel stagnant. If I ever feel I'm doing too much of one thing, I'll jump to something else. I'll do something totally different from what I've done before, but still try to keep that ironic humor in it. People will catch on eventually, it's something I'm not worried about. It's much better to disregard that acceptance and follow your passion. It's the only thing I've heard from anyone I admire. If you do what you believe in, then you will be successful, so I try to do that as much as I can.
Do you have many projects going on at once?
I always seem to have about ten projects going on at once but there's always one I want to finish most. Often I'm at odds with where I am and what time I have. I recently finished a mosaic of Charles Manson formed out of marijuana seeds, and that project turned into something I really had to want to finish. I thought it would be something that would just take a month to do, the actual assembling of the picture being the only thing that I was focused on. I didn't figure on how difficult it would be to get all the seeds together. Everyone kept saying "I'll get you a ton", but when it comes down to getting a few thousand seeds in the required shades it gets really difficult. The people I was looking to get seeds from were often in no condition to remember to save their seeds. They'd make excuses, saying "I only had four or five, so I threw them away", but from where I'm looking, that four or five seeds will all add up. You're always constrained by available to you . . .but at the same time I'm always at odds with what's given to me.
Is there anything that fuels your art or gives you special inspiration?
I think I'm more inspired by going to a yard sale or a thrift store than any museum or gallery. The less I'm exposed to other people's art, the better off I feel I am because I feel it comes more from inside, rather than a mimicry of what someone else is doing. If I go out and see a lot of things I'm bombarded by other people's images to the point where I feel set back. Duplicating doesn't add to anything that's already out there, and if I'm not painting or putting together art that comes from the inside, I'm not going to be very satisfied. I think the last time I went to an art museum was quite a few years ago, some exhibit by Roy Lichtenstein, and only because my mom wanted to see it. She actually wanted to see some of my stuff and I suggested the museum to change the subject. I don't want my mom to see what her son's been thinking about in the last five years. It might really weird her out to see the type of stuff I'm doing now, and I don't really think I'd want to do that to my mom. I wouldn't want to worry her more than I already have.