Lydia Thompson in her studio

24 hours in the life of artist Lydia Thompson

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.  

Curators’ Pick: “Untitled” by Beauford Delaney

Curators’ Pick: Untitled by Beauford Delaney

Beauford Delaney was one of the most highly regarded Black artists working with abstraction in the 1940s and ’50s. Senior Curator of American Art at The Mint Museum Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD, discusses Delaney’s captivating untitled painting from 1959. Its energy, life and gorgeous palette of dashingly applied yellows, pinks, blues, and greens, are among key factors that distinguished it from other works by Delaney. 

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.

Curator’s Pick: “The Birth of Venus, after Botticelli (Pictures of Junk)” by Vik Muniz

Curators’ Pick: The Birth of Venus, after Botticelli (Pictures of Junk) by Vik Muniz

The Birth of Venus, after Botticelli (Pictures of Junk), from 2008 by the American artist Vik Muniz is a play on the 15th-century Renaissance masterpiece Birth of Venus by Botticelli. To create his image, Muniz and assistants assembled thousands of pieces of recyclables on a warehouse floor and photographed the assembly from a high platform. Muniz’s images are a critical reflection on the vast waste created throughout the world and its ability to be recycled into compelling, beautiful objects.

The Birth of Venus, after Botticelli (Pictures of Junk) is on view in the contemporary galleries on Level 4 at Mint Museum Uptown.

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.

Curator’s Pick: ‘Transporter’ by E.V. Day

Curators’ Pick: Transporter by E.V. Day

Jen Sudul Edwards, PhD, chief curator and curator of contemporary art shares insight on Transporter, a sculpture by the New York City artist E.V. Day. In this work, Day’s undergraduate studies of nudes and objects in still life collide with her study of architecture and the psychology of space. She explodes those artistic concerns with gender theory that relates both to women and queer culture which was coming into its own in the 1980s and ’90s when Day started her Exploded Couture series.

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.

Curator’s Pick: “Suzanne Hoschedé-Monet Sewing” John Leslie Breck

Curator’s Pick: Suzanne Hoschedé-Monet Sewing by John Leslie Breck

Suzanne Hoschedé-Monet Sewing, was created in 1888 by American artist John Leslie Breck. Breck was born in 1860, grew up near Boston, and trained in Germany, Belgium, and France. In 1887, he and seven of his colleagues visited the village of Giverny which lies approximately 40 miles northwest of Paris where the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet had settled in 1883. 

Suzanne Hoschedé-Monet Sewing was painted in the summer of 1888, not long after Breck had converted to Impressionism. In the painting, Suzanne sits in dappled sunlight under a leafy tree and in front of a field of golden hay. Breck’s skill at capturing the play of light and shadow is on full display. A canvas by Monet, completed at the same time, features his stepdaughter Blanche at work at her easel and in the distance, Suzanne, who peers over Breck’s shoulder as he, too, works on a painting.   

See this painting and 70 others by John Leslie Breck in the exhibition John Leslie Breck: American Impressionist on view at Mint Museum Uptown through January 2, 2022.

Credit: John Leslie Breck (American, 1860-99). “Suzanne Hoschedé-Monet Sewing,” 1888, oil on canvas. Gift of the Mint Museum Auxiliary and courtesy Heather James Fine Art. 2016.25

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.

Curator’s Pick: “Siamese Twins” and “Statue” by Virgil Ortiz

Curator’s Pick: Siamese Twins and Statue by Virgil Ortiz

Virgil Ortiz was born there and lives in Cochiti. Coming from a place where clay and life are synonymous, Ortiz did not know that making things out of clay was art until he was a teenager. The earliest Cochiti hand-built clay figures may have been inspired by circus performers or other itinerant entertainers, since the characters are usually depicted in an active state with an open mouth, suggesting singing. Those early figures were much smaller in size than Ortiz’s sculpture, but the way he made and decorated this form is consistent with the way historic objects, including those made by his mother and grandmother, were made. This figure was made with clay that Virgil Ortiz collected on Cochiti Pueblo land, and it has a characteristic cream and black body.

Credit: Virgil Ortiz (American, 1969-). “Siamese Twins,” 1997, clay, stain, and slip. Gift of Gretchen and Nelson Grice. 2002.124.1. (c) Virgil Ortiz Creations 1997.

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.

Curators’ Pick: “King’s Voyage” by Bertil Vallien

Curators’ Pick: King’s Voyage by Bertil Vallien

Bertil Vallien is recognized as the pioneer of the sand-casting technique, in which molten glass is poured into a firm sand mold. Much like the cire perdue or lost wax technique, the delicate nature of the mold material prevents more than one sculpture from being produced. Thus, Vallien’s sand-cast sculptures are unique works of art.

One of the most prominent vessel themes in his stoneware sculptures of the late 1970’s, the boat became a hallmark of Vallien’s later sand-cast sculptures (1984-88). Vallien’s boats are containers for messages and metaphors for man’s existence. They explore universal themes, like the journey of life and the unknown destination.

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.

Curators’ Pick: “Beloved” by Beth Cavener

Curators’ Pick: Beloved (Reering Deer) by Beth Cavener

The sculpture “Beloved” is from a body of work by the artist Beth Cavener, that, somewhat autobiographical, captures intense psychological states of the human condition, in anthropomorphic forms, usually feral mammals. These life-size portrayals function as a sort of camouflage for her own feelings, or her observations of other people going through some sort of inner turmoil.

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.

Curators’ Pick: “Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool” by Kay Sage

Curators’ Pick: Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool by Kay Sage

Kay Sage was one of the few American artists to be closely involved with the French Surrealist movement. “Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool” was completed at the height of her career and incorporates all of the hallmarks of her signature style: a haunting, desolate landscape; beautifully-rendered yet enigmatic forms; and sophisticated variations in tone and color. The title is thought to be a reference to the traditional gifts for a couple’s sixth and seventh anniversaries. 1947 marked the sixth anniversary of Sage and Tanguy’s move to Woodbury, Connecticut and the seventh of their marriage.

Credit: Kay Sage (American, 1898-1963). “Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool,” 1947, oil on canvas. Museum purchase: The Katherine and Thomas Belk Acquisition Fund. 2016.8. © 2016 Estate of Kay Sage / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.

Curators’ Pick: “Flowerbed” by Yann Gerstberger

Curators’ Pick: Flowerbed by Yann Gerstberger

Yann Gerstberger creates murals, sculptures, and textile tapestries from his home in Mexico City. In Flowerbed Gerstberger uses inspiration from his world travels, both in person and electronically, to create imagery of lush rainforest and desert flora and fauna.

The Mint Museum from Home is Presented By Chase.