‘Passion and talent’: Thompson family donates extensive art collection to Brenau

The estate of Claire Thompson, who died in September 2021, has donated an extensive collection of work by her late husband, William J. Thompson, to Brenau University Galleries. 

The Thompson collection, valued at more that $270,000, consists of 68 works by the renowned sculptor and printmaker that span the artist’s career from the 1950s to his death in 1995.

“This collection truly demonstrates how prolific William J. Thompson was as an artist; it transcends media and subject to represent his passion and talent,” Brenau Galleries Director Nichole Ferguson says. “We are grateful to the late Claire Thompson and her children for trusting Brenau with such an important part of their family history.”

Thompson studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design and earned a Master of Fine Arts from the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan. His influences included Auguste Rodin, Georges Rouault, Ernst Barlach and Jacob Epstein. In 1964, Thompson joined the art staff at the University of Georgia at the invitation of then-professor and director Lamar Dodd. The school’s sculpture studio later was named in Thompson’s honor.

The sculptures included in the collection represent a variety of media including stone, wood, bronze and polyester resin. Most of his works carry religious and spiritual themes, influenced by his Catholic faith.

‘The language of vision and volume’

A number of Thompson sculptures are on public display across Georgia, and therefore not included in the collection acquired by Brenau. Perhaps the best-known is a nine-foot-tall bronze sculpture at Andersonville National Park dedicated on Memorial Day in 1976. Thompson shared part of his philosophy of sculpture in describing the imagery of the piece. 

“Sculpture, like music, can have two parts: the lyrics, or story-telling portion, and the music, which is the language of sound speaking directly to the ear in rhythms, tones and melodies,” he wrote, according to the National Park Service website. “In sculpture, the previous description of the meaning of the symbolism could be likened to the lyrics in a musical score and brief description of that form that I am about to give, to the language of sound; but instead of sound it is the language of vision and volume.”

Though Thompson primarily was a sculptor, the collection also includes a number of etchings, lithographs, watercolors and plaster casts. A large number of archival materials of photographic enlargements and architectural commissions depict his artistic process and commissions — a record invaluable to art students and historians.

Preserving a legacy

The collection also includes seven portrait plaster casts used in commissions to commemorate luminaries such as Robert W. Woodruff, Lamar Dodd, Hubert Owen, Eugene Odum, Sam Kauffman, Louis Griffith and Gudmund Vigtel for their contributions to UGA or the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Matt Thomas, vice president of university advancement, helped secure the collection for Brenau.

“We are honored to be the recipient of so many works of a well-known and respected regional artist,” Thomas says. “Claire had a vision of how she wanted the works of her husband preserved and presented, so we are excited that Brenau was entrusted with this charge and the collection.”

The Thompsons were married in 1954 and had six children. 

After her husband’s death, Claire Thompson had his last piece, the Spirit of Athens, cast and installed in downtown Athens and she supervised the casting and installing of his bust of Lamar Dodd in the UGA art department. She also compiled and edited two volumes of photos and commentary of her husband’s work.

The Brenau University Galleries at the historic Gainesville campus consist of four exhibition spaces and a permanent art collection. The Galleries serve as an educational and cultural resource for Northeast Georgia by way of free public programming and exhibitions.

The Brenau University Permanent Art Collection has grown steadily since it was inaugurated in 1986 with a single donated piece. The collection has since expanded to include more than 6,000 total works, and more than 80% of the collection has been built solely on donations during the past three decades. The permanent collection has been supported by three university presidents and serves as a resource for Brenau and the wider community.

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