The moment an original J. Malcolm Thompson work of art leaves the bench, it starts a new life. Coveted by its purchaser, the piece forgets the fire and brimstone of birth and catches the sunlight of life.
In the beginning, however, raw materials in silver or copper undergo a transformation at the hands of Thompson. Often using found patterns or incorporating designs from his copper etchings, each piece is bent, twisted, and molded into a one-of-a-kind form.
He can be found painstakingly applying detail to a new piece at his workbench every Wednesday in the windows of Dakota Fine Art, 11 Eighth St. S., Fargo. Thompson is a jewelry fabricator who creates rings, necklaces, bracelets and earrings that appear from an unknown country or bygone era. Yet, their obscurity can be realized with a glimpse inside his creative mind.
Ever so delicately, his lifelong influences are set in metal and adorned with stones. Whether he sets precious gems, wood, glass or even fossilized dinosaur bones, the final product begins as a labor of love. But since he started making jewelry during a gap year in college some 40 years ago, the jewelry market has changed.
“Now, I’m competing with the world,” says Thompson as somewhat of a challenge.
The love may be lost in mass-produced jewelry, but not his work. The time it takes to craft each ornate finery, like the editions from his Mountain and Moon series, is nearly immeasurable. Only the process matters.
“What is happening now is people are realizing the limitations of the online market, which is so saturated,” Thompson says. “So, the small, productive studio is now coming back as a format.”
Among the paintings and ceramics that fill Dakota Fine Art, Thompson holds a steady hand looking down his nose through a magnifying visor at every single detail. Unlike casting, where a jeweler pours molten metal into a wax mold, jewelry fabrication can be likened to building a bridge at a microscopic level. It is a time-intensive process where any move could result in a do-over.
It’s not hard to imagine an impassioned Thompson at 20-something selling his work out of a shop in upstate New York. After earning his undergraduate from St. Lawrence University there in the 1970s, he struck out on his own and began a brief career of fabrication in a town nearby.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would probably get (a Master of Fine Arts). I actually dabbled in the idea of going into the arts, but that would have been kind of crazy,” he says.
Instead, Thompson took a marathon ride toward a Ph.D. in African history at the University of Minnesota. His education included research classes taught in French as well as half-year stays in Paris and Dakar, Senegal, where he conducted dissertation research on the topic of African river sailors dating back to 1817.
He went on to teach around the country in North Carolina, Ohio and Minnesota, including St. Paul’s Macalester College and Moorhead’s Concordia College and Minnesota State University Moorhead. Throughout that time, he grew an interest in copper etching or intaglio printing while collecting stones and recycled metal that are still stored in his bench drawers today.
Recently, Thompson attended a workshop at Penland School of Craft, an international center for craft education in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Spruce Pine, N.C. The result was a creative hoard of metal designs shimmering in vibrant blues, oranges and grays.
“For 40 years, I wanted to learn enameling, and I did there as well as engraving,” he says.
The skill is yet another in his refined toolbox, luring customers in at the opportunity of designing and realizing a custom piece. But like any art, it’s not a sure process. Involving a kiln-fired finish, enameling is a worthy adversary for Thompson’s years of experience.
“The difference between not done and throw it away is seconds,” he says.
Dakota Fine Art is an artist collective gallery that sells fine art in the historic Dakota Business College at 11 Eighth St. S. in downtown Fargo. Gallery hours are 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 pl.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Visit with J. Malcolm Thompson every Wednesday during gallery hours.