An Interview with Sarah Thompson

Spring is the time of new beginnings, and so it is fitting that our spring interview introduces you to Sculptor/Photographer/Multi-Media artist Sarah Thompson. When you find yourself lost in a creative desert, take an adventure to learn something new. It might just turn out to be your passion.

MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.

Sarah: I joined the Air Force as a vehicle body mechanic in 2002 and met my husband, Tim, in the break room at Ramstein AB, Germany. Two years later, we were married at the Bürgerhaus in Ramstein Village, but that’s not when my life as a military spouse began. That life began in 2010 after I separated from 8 years of active-duty service. Being a dual-mil spouse is entirely different from being a military spouse. I had taken for granted that I would lose the instant community of coworkers, the comfort of military routine, and a little bit of control over the trajectory of “our” service. It was humbling and I developed a great respect for all military spouses who sacrifice so much with every PCS.  

At the time of my separation, we had just PCSed to Altus, Oklahoma from another tour at Ramstein. Our children, Aedan (17) and Cayleigh (15) were starting elementary school, and I was home alone all day. I was sinking into a depression and dubbed myself a “just a.” Just a housewife. Just a mother. Just a spouse. Fortunately, I lived on the best street in base housing, Geranium Avenue. It wasn’t a fantastic street because of the quality of housing; it was due to my neighbors. Among them was Melissa, an extravert to her core; she would not allow me to sulk or become a shut-in no matter how hard I tried. A fellow artist, Melissa helped me realize that creativity is what I was missing. That need to create had been fulfilled by welding, painting, and fabrication and was now devoid. To fill the void, I began taking welding courses at the local community college just to use their equipment. I also grabbed ahold of the pallet upcycle craze and started a sign business, A Life More Palletable. Another friend and military spouse, Mandy, encouraged me to rent a booth at a local craft show. I was hooked!  I loved everything about being a craft show vendor. Setting up, tearing down, the mad rush to get enough inventory made, but most of all meeting and chatting with a constant stream of new people. I’m strangely chatty around people I don’t know. While Altus, Oklahoma was not the assignment we wanted (an understatement), I’ve come to realize, it was where I needed to be to begin discovering who I was outside of the uniform. 

MilspoFAN: How did you become an artist?

Sarah: I continued A Life More Palletable when we PCSed in 2014 to Langley in Virginia. At this time, I considered myself a crafter. I was creating a lot of signs inspired by Sailor Jerry tattoo flash and was inundated with requests to recreate signs from Pinterest. The satisfaction of sign-making dwindled with every piece forged from someone else’s creativity. Feeling the intense need to create a level of work that would make such requests unthinkable, I dipped into my Post 9/11 GI Bill and headed to community college to study Graphic Design. Two semesters behind a computer and a 3-D design course convinced me to switch my major to sculpture and trade community college for a BFA in Sculpture at Old Dominion University. I dubbed it my “mid-life crisis art degree” and still didn’t consider myself an artist. I was three semesters away from that degree when we were hit with orders to Spangdahlem, Germany. Heartbroken and devastated, I packed up the house and left my degree goals to gather dust, along with my workshop tools, in storage.  

While in Germany, depression struck, and I realized I was letting myself become a shut-in again. With my husband’s encouragement, I began working at the on-base craft store, where my coworker Codi, also a military spouse, was a guiding light in what could have been a very dark time. She encouraged me to start teaching classes at the store, so I began exploring as many artistic mediums as possible: watercolor, pinhole photography, cyanotype, kitchen lithography, felting, paper mâché, and linocut printmaking. Although I never did get to teach a course thanks to COVID, the exploration and process research was vital to keeping me on a creative track and helped me discover that I am an experimental artist and not just collecting hobbies. I went to Germany dragging my heels and holding back tears, but I’ve come to realize it’s where I needed to be to begin discovering who I am as an artist. Last summer, my husband retired after 22 years of service, and we headed back to Virginia. I’m back at ODU and have finally shed the “midlife crisis art degree” unkindness. I have so many military spouses to thank for guiding me and helping me find the confidence to say, “I am an artist.”   

MilspoFAN: Describe for us your creative work and the aesthetic of your work?

Sarah: My work is often autobiographical and inspired by nature’s ability to reclaim and erode. I find beauty in the imperfections of salvaged materials and enjoy breathing new life into discarded objects. I use the dichotomies of order and chaos, light and shadow, ephemeral and enduring to explore my past, the present, and the future.  

MilspoFAN: How has your role as a military spouse impacted your work as a sculptor- creatively, logistically, or otherwise?

Sarah: My work in reclaimed wood speaks to the challenges of military life, both as an active-duty veteran and a military spouse, particularly the feeling of self being eroded by a lack of control over my own destiny and the constant need to reinvent myself with each military move.

MilspoFAN: How do you cultivate your creativity?

Sarah: I cultivate creativity by experimenting and following my whims. My recent experimentation started when my friend, Lisa, gifted me a homely federalist-style chair for an assemblage assignment. I ended up using something else, but for some unknown reason, decided to take the chair apart. I then thought it would be interesting to see how many different sculptural forms I could make out of its pieces by precariously balancing them on one another. The exercise eventually turned into a rotoscope, where still images are captured from a video and used to create an animation. For the rotoscope, I moved a light around to redirect the chair sculpture’s shadow and videotaped it. I then pulled 12 still images, processed them in photoshop, and turned them into an animation. I’ve also used the images to create laser-cut woodblocks for my hybrid printmaking course. I plan on turning the prints into a flipbook and/or a zoetrope, which is a Victorian-era form of animation. It’s been a very rewarding process that I hope will one day turn into an art exhibit where three different shadow animations are projected onto a wall with the disassembled chair pieces strewn on the floor in front of them.   

MilspoFAN: How do you meet other artists or plug into the local arts scene when you PCS?

Sarah: I currently meet other artists through school. I’m a full-time student taking four studio courses. There isn’t much time outside of classes, coursework, and family to join the local scene. I hope to change that soon.

MilspoFAN: What’s next for you?

Sarah: I recently won Best in Show for the 2022 Juried Student Exhibition at Old Dominion University. With it comes the opportunity to work with the Chrysler Glass Studio to create a solo exhibit. I’ll also be taking a couple summer workshops; a one-week workshop at Penland School of Craft and a two-week workshop at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. I’m calling them deployments.

MilspoFAN: What is the most practical piece of advice that you would give to other artists?

Sarah: Every single PCS, no matter how poorly timed and/or dreaded, can advance you and your work. Look back and see what you’ve gained with each move. Really dig deep to find the good.  

Follow your whims no matter how silly they may seem.

Try new processes often, but don’t feel like you need to buy $300 of felting supplies just to try it out. That’s a whim I would rather not have followed.  

Find Sarah online at: Blue Bamboo A Life More Palletable is a good site to visit to see how Sarah’s art journey began post-military service.

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