Vision With New Eyes
Montana artist Judd Thompson offers powerful, contemporary images of Western life and legend
Photos courtesy of Stapleton Gallery
Artist Judd Thompson is a living embodiment of the American West’s cultural complexity. “I’m Scotch-Irish, and my heart is Crow, so it’s a different combination,” Judd Thompson explains. “I always say, I’m a full-blood half-breed.”
Thompson grew up on the Crow Indian Reservation, near Billings, Montana, where his father had been adopted by a Crow family. In 1984, when he was only a year old, Thompson’s parents built the Custer Battlefield Trading Post and made their home upstairs. “I literally grew up above the store,” he says with a laugh.
Thompson’s range extends from realistic to abstract. A framed portrait of his grandfather, “Yellow Weasel,” rests on a table near “Good Boy Gray.”
Surrounded by a family and community rich with artists, Thompson decided to follow the creative path himself after attending the University of Wyoming. Memories from his childhood reverberate throughout his work. “Nothing was ‘normal,’ so to speak, and that was my normalcy,” Thompson says of his upbringing among the Crow. “I never felt like they weren’t my family. And, in that way, I am very lucky to have vision with new eyes.”
Thompson meticulously pours color onto the surface of the canvas that will become “Chief’s Blanket.”
“My Aunt Birdy, who’s Crow, is very known for her dolls and her beadwork and her use of color,” Thompson explains. “I was definitely impressed upon that there’s no limit to color—you can put different colors that usually wouldn’t make sense to people together, and on a cradleboard it just makes so much sense, and it’s so beautiful,” he says. “That paved the way for a little bit more artistic freedom.”
Thompson’s “Strike a Light” glows between mixed media images “Portrait Mode— Star Boy” and “Portrait Mode — Local Celebrity.”
“His personal history is so fascinating to us,” says Abigail Hornik-Minckler, co-curator, along with Jeremiah Young, of Billings-based Stapleton Gallery, which represents Thompson. “His work rewards the viewer; you see something new each time.”
Historic portraiture merges with Pop-infused color and pattern in Thompson’s watercolor and Prismacolor marker rendering of “Abalone Shell.”
Taking his inspiration from century-old photos of the Crow people by Richard Throssel and Edward Curtis, Thompson uses bold applications of watercolor, acrylic, markers and spray paint to reinterpret images. “I love being a historian—if I don’t have a name connected to the picture, I try to track down who this was, and have that name connected, and pay honor to that picture,” Thompson explains. “I feel like I’m bringing it to life again.”
The muted tones of Thompson’s painting “A Horse Called Paint” translate perfectly onto a soft-textured blanket by Pendleton.
One of his own photos of horses running through a snow-covered field served as inspiration for Thompson’s “A Horse Called Paint.” That dreamlike image was recently chosen by Pendleton to become a blanket in their limited-edition Artist Collection. “We work with about 10-12 artists each year, most of them Native American, to create new designs that will appeal to our customers,” says a Pendleton spokesperson. “Our teams are always on the lookout for artists whose work can be translated into woven imagery.”
Thompson’s audacious color palette shines in “Curley,” a portrait of the Crow scout, displayed above a Pendleton blanket at the Stapleton Gallery.
Thompson is inspired by century-old photos of the Crow people.
“I really want to honor where I grew up, and the Crow culture, and the way of life, by making it as beautiful as I can for the world to see what maybe they’re missing,” Thompson reflects. “My Indian name is Walks Good Path—I was given that name early on in my life, and I’ve kind of tried to live by it.”
As seen in the January/February 2020 issue