Section: Arts

Artist Profile: Ashley Thompson’s world of whimsy and war

Artist Profile: Ashley Thompson’s world of whimsy and war

At any given time, Kenyon students are dealing with a colossal amount of work. They have to-do lists filled with unfinished obligations, chores and assignments that might be put off until long into the night. The concept of a laundry list exists to a much lesser extent for Ashley Thompson ’15 because for her, a self-driven artist as well as a declared studio art major, work will never be done. Though Thompson is currently deep into her senior exercise, art is no hassle for her. It is not a source of anxiety so much as the creed by which she lives; it permeates every corner of her life, inside and outside the classroom.

“I wake up every morning and I’m very thankful I have a purpose,” Thompson said. “I get kind of fanatical about art in a way. I feel like it has the ability to save lives and that it can assign value to things and that art should have a sense of morality. … I don’t know how else to process what happens to me and the world around me without art.” Kenyon boasts that its students follow their passion, and Thompson exhibits exactly the sentiment Kenyon advertises, and then some.

Her art mainly addresses irony and juxtaposition. Oftentimes she will juxtapose saccharine sweetness with war imagery. “I always have very bright paintings, utilizing the imagery of girlhood: pink, polka dots, bubble-gum — that sort of thing,” she said. Using everything from family photographs to Chinese propaganda posters, she creates a dark twist of the carefree and sinister. “I also tend to work with a lot of found imagery and family photographs because I like to tell stories with my art and I found a lot of really interesting photographs of my mom from 1966 when the [Chinese Cultural Revolution] started,” she said.

Friend and art history student Virginia McBride ’15 has worked closely with Thompson, and the two share ideas and knowledge to help each other. “Ashley’s work is deceptively personal — beneath a candy veneer of pop-culture imagery, her works contend with a complex and often painful family history,” McBride wrote in an email to the Collegian.

Thompson’s relationship with her Chinese mother and her own identity as a mixed-race woman has heavily influenced her art. “When I was younger, I used to be very ashamed of my mom, just of the cultural differences that I didn’t understand at all,” she said. “She’s very rude; she greets my friends by saying they look like they’ve gained a few extra pounds, she pees in the shower, she talks really loudly, she asks people how much their homes cost. I would try to avoid doing things that made me seem like I was Chinese.”

Using the found objects to show her mother’s past and China’s history as well as her own poppy, candy-toned images, Thompson can reconcile her own identity. “My art has always been the way that I’ve dealt with life and I find it to be a very necessary act,” she said. “I don’t think that I could be a human without it. It allows me to give meaning to experiences, and to understand why certain things happen and the ability to empathize with people. I don’t think I would have a relationship with my mom without art.”

Thompson’s artwork reaches beyond her class portfolio and Horvitz Hall. She is applying to graduate school for art now, but also works on independent projects on the Hill. During her sophomore and junior year, she presented her work at the Horn Gallery, in one joint show show called Old Boobs, New Boobs with Hallie Bahn ’14 that juxtaposed happy-go-lucky images and bright, childish pictures with pornography. Last year, she showcased her work in an exhibition called Bling Bling and Edible Things, which showed more manically sweet images.

She has done humorous gag art before, once collaborating with Gus Riley ’16 on a finish-this-sentence-inspired project. Thompson posed the start (“Jesus is back and…”) while Gus finished (“…and he can fit his whole fist in his mouth”). Thompson added, “Not that [a] gag joke can’t be art. I definitely think a gag joke can be art, but not my most powerful art.” Additionally, she creates art for her friends. For one such project, she and James Karlin ’15 once presented a friend with a lady-beetle piñata filled with hand-dipped chicken wings. “I would love to do a birthday party performance piece where we fill a piñata with sauce-drenched meat or ribs,” she said. “Like a meat cake. I really like meat.”

McBride elaborated on Thompson’s perpetual motion through art, saying, “She seems to think less in terms of class projects than in an evolving body of work, and it’s difficult to distinguish her art from the rest of her life.”

Thompson perceives no unpleasant demands in her art classes. Creating work is an obligation, but not one for class. It is an obligation that seems to arise from within her. She believes art should be something that elucidates somebody’s point of view and evokes a strong response. However, while she must venture into dark places while she paints, art alleviates misery rather than perpetuates it. “I think there is no misery in art and I like to be able to laugh while I paint,” she said.

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