An artist’s life
Gerry Thompson turned her talent and her Fine Arts diploma into a decades-long career.
By Patty Wellborn
It’s a fine thing to discover that you have artistic talent. It’s even more commendable to develop that talent through education. Gerry Thompson (Fine Arts dip ’80) did both of those things more than 30 years ago. But what’s really impressive about Gerry’s path since then is how she took her talent and education, and combined it with a knack for business and marketing. She has forged a successful artistic career spanning several decades and, along the way, has made the time to be a teacher and mentor of other artists.
Gerry first picked up a paintbrush when she was expecting her second child in the early 1970s. She was at home, a tad bored, and wanted to try something new, so she painted a picture. Back then, Gerry was already an established solo pianist and had earned an associate degree from the University of Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.
Fast forward a few years (it’s now the mid 1970s), and Gerry has just moved with her husband and three young children from Alberta to Abbotsford. She was excited to learn that the newly established Fraser Valley College had a fine arts program. She eagerly registered — but quickly learned that juggling the chores of raising children, teaching piano in her home studio, and keeping up with her classes and homework was tough. It took Gerry four years to finish the two-year Fine Arts program but even after graduation in 1980, her thirst for knowledge and her love of painting were barely satiated.
“It was tough back then,” she admits. “I would often burn the midnight oil trying to get my school work completed. And usually I would have to leave classes early to get home before my children returned from school. It was challenging, but I wouldn’t change a minute of it.”
She talks fondly about instructors Mircho and Janina Jakabow, but stresses that they were tough teachers who demanded the best from their students. The pair organized two trips for the students — one to New York City to explore galleries, museums, and print studios; and the other to San Francisco to discover art studios, museums, undulating streets, unique architecture, and gardens.
“These trips were like a cultural shot in the arm for me,” Gerry says. “It was an eye-opening experience to saturate myself artistically in these bustling cities.
Gerry graduated from FVC with a Fine Arts diploma in painting and printmaking in 1980. During the next few years, she enrolled in as many workshops and courses that she could find, and studied under several established North American artists.
Gerry was still dabbling with a paintbrush and teaching piano in her home, when former instructor Janina Jakabow recommended that she teach watercolour classes for FVC Continuing Education. As her children were growing up around her, Gerry continued teaching piano (and instructing student piano teachers), as well as regular watercolour classes for the college, and workshops for several local art societies. It was a busy time in her life, and from those connections, many bonds and friendships were made. She continued to sell her paintings to corporate and private buyers, which included painting for The Pantry restaurant chain for 19 years.
“I always felt that I had the best of both worlds, because I was able to work from my home and also be with my children.”
Some personal changes came in 1989 when Thompson moved to Vancouver and had “the sad experience of saying goodbye to this era in my life.” Her students wanted to stay in touch, so Gerry suggested that they form an art society. That year the Fraser Valley Watercolour Society was established and in 1993 the rapidly expanding group was incorporated and registered in Victoria. The FVWS is still an active organization with more than 60 members. The society brings prominent BC professional artists for demos and workshops and continues to grow in both numbers and expertise. Gerry, one of its founding members, is a proud honorary lifetime member.
Still painting pretty well every day, Gerry recently completed three pieces to help commemorate the Vancouver Olympics. One entitled Gastown Stroll was on display during the Olympics at the Federation of Canadian Artists’ exhibition on Granville Island.
“People always ask me if it’s easy to sell a painting after the many hours I spend working on it, and honestly most of the time I’m not sad to see it go,” she laughs. “There are new images just waiting for me to paint.”
In fact, she has several paintings on the go at any one time. Jars of paint, pallettes, papers, and a current work of art cover her large dining room table. Meals are usually taken between brush strokes. Raised in Vancouver in a ‘business family’, she has a strong work ethic. She is an active member of the local chamber of commerce. Her days are filled planning for upcoming shows, publishing and marketing her artwork, and doing everything else that keeps a business running smoothly, not to mention painting.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the easiest way to make a living,” she smiles. “It’s often challenging, but my bills get paid on time.”
While her business has grown and developed, Gerry never forgot the sense of wonder she enjoyed on those two trips with FVC art instructors.
“When I went on those trips with the college, it opened my eyes and gave me more of a world view of how I looked at many things, especially my own art work. Now, I’ve have had the pleasure of giving back by taking my own students on several art excursions to France and Spain, where I hope I have been able to open up their lives.”
Whether her students sign up for an international voyage, a weekend workshop, or an evening demo, they range from total beginners to professional artists. She has always marveled at the beauty of light and shadows and how items reflect on water. Many of her finely detailed paintings have one or the other, and she revels in teaching such techniques to her students.
Her children have grown and become successful professionals, and she is now a proud grandmother. She has Signature Status with several art societies and as the current BC and the North director of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour, Canada’s national art society. In April, Gerry helped to organize ‘Western Streams’, a month-long art exhibition of 24 painters, to help celebrate the Canadian society’s 85th anniversary.
Gerry has won numerous awards, and her paintings are found in collections throughout the world. She also donates artwork to charity auctions, and helps fledgling artists whenever she can. While she loves to paint, she gets just as much pleasure out of helping other artists grow and learn.
“I’ve been in this business for many years. I’ve been in the trenches, you might say, and I want to make it easier for other artists to become successful in their careers. It’s a pleasure to give back the gifts that Fraser Valley College gave me.”
You can find out more about her by going to her website at www.gerrythompson.ca.