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Paint It Black

Lowell Thompson fought racism in the ad industry. Now he's targeting the wine-and-cheese scene.

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Lowell Thompson Lectures

WHEN Fridays through 11/24, 3 PM

WHERE Open Studio, 177 N. State

INFO 312-744-6630, cityofchicago.org/cultural affairs

The last time the Reader heard from adman turned artist Lowell Thompson, he was getting ready to take on segregation in the city's museums and galleries. He planned to stand in front of the Art Institute in a sandwich board and offer to unveil his own work to passersby. At 8 AM on a bitterly cold February day he gave it a try, donning his signature black eye patch and a sign that read to see some art, just ask. The response was icy: tourists, willing to pay $12 to cruise the Art Institute's collection, gave him the cold shoulder, and locals bent on getting to work were unstoppable. It was a learning experience, he says.

This week Thompson was prepping to show his paintings of life on the streets of Chicago in a more conducive setting--the city's Open Studio space in the Page Brothers Building at the corner of State and Lake.

This new gig also required some hustle. Thompson had noticed city art honcho Nathan Mason frequenting a Starbucks in Uptown and began speaking to him there. "I told him, 'I'm an artist: I'd like a crack at that Loop studio,'" Thompson says. "I didn't think he took it seriously." But when Thompson scored an exhibit at the Bezazian Library in September, Mason showed up to hear him talk about it, and soon after that offered him one of the Loop space's monthly residencies. Mason says he's been filling the slots on an ad hoc basis because the city's selling the 1872 landmark building. (A planning department spokesperson says final negotiations are under way with Marc Realty; the city will soon offer less-visible artist residencies in the pedway beneath the Chicago Cultural Center.) He remembered Thompson speaking up at a meeting about the city-run Chicago Artists Resource Web site and says he thought he would do a good job of engaging the public in the Open Studio.

Mason got that right: speaking out is a Thompson specialty, a habit he says cost him a very nice career in advertising. After growing up in the Robert Taylor Homes, scraping by in high school, and throwing away an SAIC scholarship after a few months, he landed a starter job at advertising giant Foote, Cone & Belding. Thompson says he owes that break to the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed three months earlier and corporate America was scrambling for some diversity in its ranks. Between 1968 and 1980 Thompson moved rapidly up the ladder, with jobs at six major white-run firms before he wound up as a vice president at Burrell, then the country's largest black-owned communications company. He left that position a year later, chafing at assignments exclusively aimed at black audiences and tired of working for others, and became a freelance art director. During the 80s he says he averaged $75,000 a year working half-time and shared a Clio (the industry's highest honor) for a Bulls television ad campaign.

But by the 90s it seemed to Thompson that the ad industry was regressing. Even as a freelancer he was pigeonholed, and the mainstream work went to agencies that looked whiter than ever. He researched the creative departments of the 25 largest ad agencies and determined that out of a workforce of more than 6,500, less than 1 percent--about 60 people--were black. He says he shared this information with an editor at Advertising Age, which published a cover story based on it, scooping Thompson himself, whose 12-page story, "The Invisible Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," was published in the graphics-industry journal Print in '93. According to Thompson, those two pieces, along with the flurry of coverage that followed, finished off most of what was left of his advertising career.

Thompson then turned his energies to Partnership Against Racism, a nonprofit he founded in '93 and ran with Derek Simons, a white Catholic priest who also joined Thompson as cohost of the award-winning Sunday morning radio program The Race Question on WLIT FM. The organization, which aimed to conquer racism (through advertising and other media) by the year 2000, lasted about five years; Thompson, who admits paperwork is not his strength, says it got to the point where "to blow it out and make it much bigger, I would have to become more of a bureaucrat." He chose to let it fold.

Around this time Thompson became active in the white studies movement. In '95 he self-published Whitefolks: Seeing America Through Black Eyes, which included a study of the racist writings of Thomas Jefferson and pronounced hypocrisy the central American trait. He sold hardcover copies at $50 each to finance a paperback run of several thousand, and says he plans to reissue but needs a bunch of money up front to make it happen. (He also published a cartoon follow-up, The Whitefolks Funny? Book.)

The quest for cash inspired Thompson's rebirth as a fine artist six years ago. He attended a show of "not bad" work by another artist and watched it get snapped up; when the artist confided, "I gotta go back to the hotel tonight and do some more pictures," Thompson says he told himself, "I gotta look into this." He hit on capturing Chicago ("the way Hopper captured urban America") using photographs or video to preserve a moment, then painting the image freehand in acrylic on sand resin. (The work he's showing at the Open Studio is priced at $75 to $5,000.) Thompson says there's a developing black middle-class market that didn't exist when he was a youngster, with new galleries and a social life built around private home shows and collecting. But he claims the Chicago art scene is as segregated as the ad industry and wants to do something about it. "Compared to what other people have gone through, I've led a charmed life," he says, "but deep down inside I feel like I haven't done anything important. I know I can't change the world, but I can help make stuff happen. I plan to integrate the fine-art world the way Dr. King and his people did the society at large in the 1950s and '60s.

"The fine-art world is like Selma in a snowstorm right now: it's that white, and it's oblivious," he says. "If I did a survey of downtown and north-side galleries and museums, I bet I would find a lower percentage of African-Americans--in terms of numbers, money, influence--than what I found in the ad agencies. And the fact that nobody's saying anything is embarrassing. Kerry James Marshall? It's like in the 50s saying, 'Hey, there's Nat King Cole.' It would be a great thing for Chicago to be the leader in this, to be the most all-American art city, but nobody's interested. Every time I talk about it people start looking the other way. The black people are scared to talk about it; the whites don't want to hear it. I may be wrong, but at least there should be a discussion."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Flynn (portrait).

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