‘Passion and talent’: Thompson family donates vast art collection to Brenau

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The Estate of Claire Thompson, who died in September 2021, donated an extensive collection of works by her late husband, William J. Thompson, to the Brenau University Galleries.

The Thompson Collection, valued at over $270,000, consists of 68 works by the famed sculptor and printmaker that span the artist’s career from the 1950s to his death in 1995.

“This collection truly demonstrates how prolific William J. Thompson was as an artist; he transcends media and subject matter to represent his passion and talent,” said Nichole Ferguson, Director of Brenau Galleries. “We are grateful to the late Claire Thompson and her children for entrusting Brenau with such an important part of their family history.”

Thompson studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design and earned an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan. His influences include Auguste Rodin, Georges Rouault, Ernst Barlach and Jacob Epstein. In 1964, Thompson joined the art team at the University of Georgia at the invitation of then professor and director Lamar Dodd. The school’s sculpture studio was later named in honor of Thompson.

The sculptures included in the collection represent a variety of media, including stone, wood, bronze, and polyester resin. Most of his works carry religious and spiritual themes, influenced by his Catholic faith.

“The language of vision and volume”

A number of Thompson’s sculptures are on public display throughout Georgia and are therefore not included in the collection acquired by Brenau. Perhaps the best known is a nine-foot-tall bronze sculpture at Andersonville National Park dedicated to Memorial Day in 1976. Thompson shared some of his sculpture philosophy when describing the imagery in the piece.

“Sculpture, like music, can have two parts: the lyrics, or the narrative part, and the music, which is the language of sound speaking directly to the ear in rhythms, tones and melodies”, a- he wrote, according to the National Park Service website. “In sculpture, the previous description of the meaning of symbolism could be likened to the words of a musical score and to the brief description of this form that I am about to give, to the language of sound; but instead of sound, it is the language of vision and volume.

Although Thompson was primarily a sculptor, the collection also includes a number of etchings, lithographs, watercolors, and plaster casts. A large number of archival documents of photographic enlargements and architectural commissions describe his artistic process and commissions – an invaluable record for art students and historians.

Preserving a legacy

The collection also includes seven plaster casts of portraits used in commissions to commemorate figures such as Robert W. Woodruff, Lamar Dodd, Hubert Owen, Eugene Odum, Sam Kauffman, Louis Griffith and Gudmund Vigtel for their contributions to UGA or at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Matt Thomas, vice president of academic advancement, helped secure the collection for Brenau.

“We are honored to be the recipient of so many works by a well-known and respected regional artist,” said Thomas. “Claire had a vision for how she wanted her husband’s works to be preserved and presented, so we are delighted that Brenau has been entrusted with this charge and the collection.”

The Thompsons married in 1954 and had six children.

After the death of her husband, Claire Thompson had her last play, the spirit of athens, cast and installed in downtown Athens and she oversaw the casting and installation of her bust of Lamar Dodd at the UGA Art Department. She also compiled and edited two volumes of photos and commentary on her husband’s work.

The Brenau University Galleries on the historic Gainesville campus consists of four exhibition spaces and a permanent art collection. The galleries serve as an educational and cultural resource for northeast Georgia through free public programming and exhibits.

Brenau University’s permanent art collection has grown steadily since its inauguration in 1986 with just one donated piece. The collection has since grown to include over 6,000 works in total, and over 80% of the collection has been built up solely through donations over the past three decades. The permanent collection has been supported by three university presidents and serves as a resource for Brenau and the wider community.

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