John Thompson

2006 Hamilton King Award Winner: John Thompson

I remember it as a very accomplished drawing, perhaps a preliminary sketch for a painting waiting to happen. In it, a frightened young woman cowers atop a tall stool surrounded by writhing snakes. The lighting and composition create a very dramatic image, one that has stayed with me since 1979. It commanded a full page in a ten-page profile of illustrator John Thompson in Communication Arts magazine. The work was indeed a preliminary sketch, one of a series submitted to art director Milton Glaser at Esquire to illustrate excerpts from a Jim Harrison novella called Revenge. Glaser was so taken with the drawing itself that he chose to run it as a finished illustration.

A sidebar here: The frightened woman in the drawing was Johns wife, Darren. Ironically, when you get to know Darren, you realize shes not easily frightened by anything. You also realize that shes an active, vital part of the Thompson package.

I was somewhat acquainted with Johns work before the CA profile. He was, after all, a regular in the annuals of both the Society of Illustrators and Communication Arts. The profile piece, however, detailed his process for creating all those beautiful drawings and paintings for all those wonderful editorial and book assignments, and it was obvious to me he was having way too much fun!

For John Thompson, life as an illustrator was good, and for me, life as an illustrator was improving. In 1981, I won my first medal in the Societys annual and traveled to New York to accept it in person. For a wide-eyed young upstart from Iowa, the opening night scene on East 63rd Street was a bit overwhelming. I was very familiar with the annual exhibitions from afar, but Illustrators 23 was my first encounter with the Society and the city. Needless to say, my wife and I knew hardly a soul in the building that evening, but I knew a lot of work on the walls, including John Thompsons. And it didnt take long for us to know John. Quick with a smile, he introduced himself and went out of his way to make us feel welcome at the Society.

In the years since our first meeting, I have continued to visit the city and the Society on a regular basis while John has migrated from Hoboken to Syracuse, where he teaches illustration to lucky students and continues to make beautiful paintings. A friendship has grown as a result of our mutual connections in New York, a common picture book publisher, Creative Editions, and my biennial visits to Syracuse as a visiting educator.

Admit it or not, an artists overall body of work is an important criteria in choosing the winner of this award for the best illustration of the year by a Society member. In reflecting on Johns body of work, I am reminded how much he is like his paintings: smart, consistent, unpretentious, but still driven by his Midwestern curiosity. These qualities have served him well throughout his career though, like many of us, John has had to reinvent himself, or at least his markets, to respond to the changing landscape of contemporary illustration. He has pushed himself to find new ways to stay vital, active, and solvent without compromising the painting within him. Teaching at Syracuse could satisfy most of those needs. But thats not enough for John. He still needs to keep painting for himself, and even though Esquire assignments have become a very distant memory, he still needs to keep telling those stories.

Painting for himself often involved Johns passion for travel, be it a Parisian holiday, a junket to India for the university, teaching in Florence, or documenting the war in Iraq with the Societys Air Force Art Program. The need to continue telling stories involves his relatively recent and very successful entry into the world of childrens books. The planets are truly in alignment for John when he can combine his passion for painting, travel, and storytelling in a single project. And so its fitting that such a project, a childrens book set in John and Darrens beloved Italy, should produce this years Hamilton King Award Winner.

Gary Kelley
Hamilton King Award Winner 1992