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Saltwater Portrait

G.W. Thompson: Lewes artist inspired by love of nature

Painter promotes environmental awareness through art
July 24, 2018

Visitors entering artist G.W. Thompson's Lewes home find themselves surrounded by nature.

Overlooking Canary Creek on three sides, the home's wide windows and multiple levels offer views of wetlands, vegetable gardens and wooded trails. Sunlight spills into every room, accenting natural floors, earthen wall tones and Thompson's own environment-inspired abstract paintings. "It's a little chunk of heaven," he said. "Like a mini Camp Arrowhead."

Lessons learned at Camp Arrowhead reflect in Thompson's art and natural lifestyle. His father attended the camp as a boy when it operated under a different name, and Thompson also began attending at an early age. When he returned later as a camp counselor, he met future wife Cathy, a fellow counselor. "You'd be surprised how many couples meet at Camp Arrowhead," he laughed. "I can think of at least 10. It's a natural place to meet like-minded people who are attuned to nature."

A renewed public interest in preserving the planet in the early 1990s, coupled with Thompson's affinity for nature and the environment, led the Cape grad to major in biology as a University of New Hampshire freshman in 1992. "My first chemistry class changed that. It blew me out of the water," he said. "We covered everything I learned in high school in one week."

While at UNH, Thompson took a charcoal and pencil drawing class. "I had always enjoyed my art classes at Cape, and at UNH, I found out I was pretty good at it. I had a really motivating teacher, and I decided to pursue art," he said.

While in college, Thompson also dabbled in the fairly new field of computers. He ended up with a single room his freshman year because his roommate feared the room would catch on fire with Thompson's computers and wires stacked throughout the dorm room.

Thompson transferred first to University of Mary Washington for a semester to fulfill required prerequisite courses before finishing his final years at St. Mary's College of Maryland, earning a bachelor's degree in fine arts. After graduation, he spent a summer in Dewey like many locals do, before heading to Colorado to work in a hotel IT department.
"But you can only be a ski bum for so long before you have to grow up," he said. Thompson returned to Lewes to work in IT and accounting for the family business, Callis-Thompson. Several years later, his family sold the business, giving Thompson time to dedicate himself to painting.

He established a studio on his home's first level, designed to be floodable by elevating it four cinder blocks above the foundation, in case of water rise from adjacent Canary Creek. Natural light filters in, and tubes of paint spread across a spattered table within easy reach. At least 10 paintings in different stages rest on easels at varied heights throughout the room.

"None are even close to being done," he said. "I don't ever start one knowing what it's going to be. The image develops as the painting happens."

Wearing shorts and a dotted, button-down shirt, Thompson smiles easily when discussing his work. A short beard enhances his kindly persona.

Working first in oils, Thompson created a "Subterranean" series based on locations worldwide, from Cheswold to Bhopal, India, known for groundwater contaminated by chemicals. "I envision what it looks like below the surface," he said. "Superfund sites can even look good on the surface but below, who knows what's going on."

One painting, "Sometimes 'IT' Percolates Uphill," depicts what could be a tranquil scene of shaded buildings set against a grey-blue sky. But, just below the ground, pale yellows and golds gradually darken to violet streaks and angry reds, comprising most of the canvas. Thompson's environmental paintings are typically larger, not only for impact but also to challenge perception. "Some deal with things that look kind of beautiful from afar but when you get closer you see what's really going on," he said. "You see a colorful field, but when you get closer, you see the whites of the field are really white plastic bags. Our impact on the environment is hard to see, and it gets harder because nature covers it up. The things we do to the environment are not immediately recognizable."

Thompson makes himself paint at least one 6-by 6-inch acrylic piece a day, to culminate in a 365-piece show and "get the juices flowing and mess around with shapes and colors. Sometimes it takes me an hour to do one. Other times, I struggle and it takes days, and I always have several working at a time."

Influenced by his time in Colorado, the small paintings evoke the Southwest, with bright turquoises, oranges and geometrical shapes.
"The Southwest sensibility will always be a part of my work," he said. "I'm a colorist. The way colors interact is important, and I think the Southwest color sensibility is all about that. It's definitely not subtle."

His newest series, "Broken Scanner," combines his love of computers and painting. "One of my scanners broke and would only scan a third of the way down the page, then just repeated the pixels," he said.

So, Thompson re-created the look using a graphics program. He selected the last line of pixels in a painting, and manipulated and repeated the colors in lines running straight down, just like the paper produced by the broken scanner. Thompson uses Instagram and Facebook to display his work, often going "live in the studio" so viewers can watch his process and become accustomed to his style.

Sitting on the Rehoboth Art League Board of Trustees, Thompson began showing his work in art shows in 2015. He will have a piece in the 80th Annual Members' Fine Art exhibition, running July 27 through Sept. 3, and will enter a piece in the art league's Juried Biennial Exhibition this fall. "As an emerging artist, it's invaluable to have an organization like the Rehoboth Art League," he said.

Selections from Thompson's "Environmental Denialism" series are displayed at Lewes's Peninsula Gallery through July 27, and on a rotating basis at Teller Wines on Savannah Road. He's also begun working with Dewey Artist Collaboration, and is building his own collection of other artists' work.

Cognizant of his own environmental impact, Thompson powers his home with solar panels and geothermal energy, and solar panels charge his plug-in electric car. "My electric bill will be a negative amount this month," he said.

Thompson designed his raised vegetable and herb gardens to absorb water from his home's outdoor shower. Garden beds sit on a slight downward slope from the home and rest on a French drain to keep the soil moist. A compost area and greenhouse sit close, and Thompson uses no chemicals. Trails are lined with wood chips from fallen trees, while fallen limbs are used as rip-rap to mitigate erosion.

"It works very well," he said. "When the grounds get flooded and water recedes, the rip-rap traps anything before it gets sucked into the creek. This area would be mud without it."

In just a few years, Thompson has already seen evidence of rising tides, the dead trees and lines of erosion obvious only to familiar eyes. When he built the home, the property teemed with invasive phragmites. Thompson conferred with a University of Delaware professor to mitigate them under prescribed guidelines and allow the land's indigenous plants, like high tide bushes, to return. "Phragmites are not good plants for wetlands. Their roots are on the surface just below the mud, and a big storm washes them away because they have no holding power. Phragmites are my enemy. Indigenous plants anchor in," he said.

Thompson refuses to cut down any trees unless they pose a danger. "Dead trees are habitats for birds and other insects," he explained.

Situated among wetlands and surrounded by shrubs and trees, the property once pulsed with ticks, so Thompson set about finding a nontoxic solution to control the disease-causing pests. In early spring, he coats cotton balls with permethrin, and lets the cotton dry so the chemical cannot harm other animals. Thompson places the cotton balls in aluminum cans with tops cut off, and places them inconspicuously throughout the property.

"Rodents take the cotton balls to line their nests, and the permethrin on the cotton instantly kills any nymph ticks feeding on the rodents, breaking the tick life cycle," he said. "It's a targeted approach, and I like that it doesn't affect other insects like pollinators, like it does when people spray their yards and get permethrin everywhere. I've definitely noticed a decrease in ticks since I began using it."

With an electric bike as well as traditional bicycles, Thompson is an avid cyclist. For a future series, he said he may create a collage series about trash and pollution. "I used to hike in Colorado and pick up trash along the way and use it for art," he said. "I thought I'd focus on trash found on the Lewes bike path. We make a lot of trash."

Thompson recognizes the world is changing, in many ways through human behavior. Through his art, he hopes to engage audiences and encourage them to contemplate our own impact on the environment.

View Thompson's work at www.artbygw.com, www.facebook.com/artbygw and www.instagram.com/georgewthompson.