Lydia Thompson in her studio
Artist Lydia Thompson at work in her home studio.

On the daily: 24 hours in the life of artist Lydia Thompson

By Liz Rothaus Bertrand

For Lydia Thompson, a working artist and professor of ceramics at UNC Charlotte, the past is always present. She is fascinated by “our abodes,” and how we interact with them. Inside these spaces, we carry our own stories, as well as those of former inhabitants and vestiges from our lives elsewhere. Thompson’s recent work focuses on issues such as forced displacement, gentrification, and what gets left behind when a home is abandoned. 

“You can see the emotions of a structure when it starts to deteriorate, especially when it’s been abandoned,” Thompson says. “You can see layers and layers of cultures that lived in there.” 

As Thompson wraps up a three-year term as UNC Charlotte’s chairperson of the department of art and art history, she’s also looking toward the future. After spending much of her career in leadership positions at universities throughout the United States, she is eager to return to a schedule with more time for teaching, studio work, and leading community workshops. 

“I really love working with the community,” she says, “because the artwork just sits in the gallery and I want to bring it alive.”  

While her weekdays have been mostly filled with administrative duties she finds time for studio work on the weekend. Take a look at a typical Saturday for the renowned ceramic artist, filled with her sketchbook, the kiln, and some thought provoking documentaries. 

Lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

5 AM: I wake up and start my day with some personal reading. The books I’m reading are always centered around projects I’m working on. Books I’ve recently read include Feeding the Ghosts by Fred D’Aguiar, Root Shock by Mindy Thompson Fullilove, and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

6 AM: I check emails, maybe look at Instagram, and have two cups of coffee, followed by a full breakfast of pancakes or eggs. I reserve the yogurt and oatmeal for Monday through Friday. I keep a sketchbook nearby at all times. Because I don’t have a lot of time to work in the studio, I’m always making lists.

7:30 AM: I head down to my basement studio — I am happy to finally have a dedicated studio space — and open the kiln. Even though I know what the result is going to be, I love the anticipation. The excitement of seeing a fired piece never goes away. 

Because slabs are heavy, I work on them while I have the most energy of the day. I spend a couple of hours focused rolling out and flipping slabs. I use a template and make a cardboard model before I actually cut anything out to be sure it’s going to work when I put it together.  

While working, I usually put on the television show “Columbo” or listen to a podcast. I feel like detective Columbo is the underdog who is misunderstood. I think of myself and my career in terms of being misunderstood sometimes. People see me and never think I’m the director or the person in the leadership role at UNC Charlotte because I’m an African American woman. They’re always surprised when they find out who I am. 

I also enjoy listening to podcasts. I love Brené Brown’s “Unlocking Us,” and “Business of HYPE,” with host Jeff Staple. 

9:30 AM: If I have slabs set up, I start building the interior structure and putting the walls together. I start busting up things, making rubble so I can dip all of it in glaze and put it in the piece.  

11:30 AM: It’s time to glaze. I look at the wooden bases and check the inventory of what needs to be done before setting up. I usually glaze my pieces three or four times. 

Noon: I take a lunch break, which is usually leftovers — homemade pizza, maybe a salad or a tuna sandwich — and enjoy time in my backyard with a quick stretch and check on the garden my fiancé planted. We have green beans, tomatoes, cucumber, squash, lettuce, and green peppers.

1:30 PM: Back to the studio. I set up the piece a little more and then do some glazing. This takes time and can be tedious because I put masking tape where I want another color to appear. But it gives me the result I’m after. I glaze for an hour and a half and then let it dry.

2 PM: I get another cup of coffee that I don’t really need.

3 PM: I’m always working on two or three pieces at the same time, so it’s helpful to review where I am with projects. I go back to my sketchbook and then I repeat the cycle I began at the start of the day, except for the slab rolling. 

Studio time is so important. It’s dedicated time to work and to review work you’ve done, especially the work that wasn’t successful. Even though you want to throw it in the trash, you’ve got to look at it and say, “Why did this not work?”

6 PM: It’s time to get dinner ready. We try to eat healthy, and I walk every day after dinner and sometimes in the morning, too. I also stretch. It helps to keep your body in tune, especially if you’re doing ceramics.

7:30 PM: My fiancé and I unwind watching movies, but I’m sketching all the time — at night, when I’m in bed or while I’m looking at the TV. I look through the sketches and pull out the ones I think will work. 

We like to watch suspense, thriller, love stories, and futuristic movies. I love documentaries. With the Black Lives Matter movement in focus, I’ve been watching documentaries, such as Black Wall Street, Amend, Coded Bias, and I Am Not Your Negro about African American history. They’re tear jerkers for me because this is reality. I think we’ve come really far, but the only way we can change certain mentalities is to start when people are very young. It’s hard to understand unless you actually walk in someone else’s shoes. I just don’t want people’s eyes to roll when we continue to have these conversations because it really has impacted lives. The way you treat a certain group of people still has an impact on their life and where they are in this country. There’s just no way around it.

9:30 PM: I go to bed fairly early. By 9:30 or 10 o’clock, I’m out. I’m done.

Liz Rothaus Bertrand is a writer and editor based in Charlotte who is passionate about the arts.