Khalid Thompson: Music for the Eyes
Meet Khalid, an artist whose paintings are born from music. Inspired by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Thompson's abstraction invites the viewer to sense the visual rhythm and mood.
By: Stephen Fasulo
All images featured were taken by Kyle Haffermann
Khalid Thompson is an artist. From the moment he steps into the room, a slight smell of acrylic lingers, and does not leave until he does, almost as if he has bonded to his soul the very instruments that make up his medium. He seems nervous, unused to the attention he is getting, or the focus being shown to his paintings, but as soon as the common language of art comes up, he begins to smile and joke. The smile itself seems to fall into place during our shoot after a fairly serious interview, stays for the remainder of our time together, and it fits. Khalid looks more at home with his art and a smile than most look in their actual homes, and when he shows his newest painting, the departure from his usual style into the newest phase of his career, one can only assume that this man will keep growing and evolving into bigger and better things.
How long have you been painting?
Seriously? I’ve been painting seriously for about 10 years now.
I noticed some of your work, I was going on your Instagram, and noticed something about like, performance almost?
For example, there was a sound aspect to your painting. So, can you describe what is happening there?
Yeah, what I like to do from time to time is get up with some friends of mine who are jazz musicians and who are into the more avant-garde experience of painting, and get together with them and do live performance of live painting where I’m kind of feeding off what they’re playing, musically, and channel that into my work.
Where did the occasion to do this come from?
It just kinda, it was something that, funny enough, I kinda got pushed into live painting, probably when I started painting, when I wasn’t really good at it then. But as of recent, it’s just my love of jazz music and jazz-based music and experimentation and experimental music. I see a relationship between sound and color, I mean, there’s an obvious relationship. I think that what I attempt to do when I’m performing live is to kind of get visual jazz. Something that has a musicality of feel that is encoded on the canvas. That you can feel the spontaneity, that it was done very in the moment so it’s almost like a recording of the experience. So, it was just about tapping into that connection between music and painting.
Were you born in Washington, DC?
No, I was born in Richmond, Virginia. I moved here back in 2006, and I left for like a year-and-a-half back in ’09, but I’ve been back since then.
So, DC is an incredibly artistic community, how has that influenced you?
I mean, to have the National Gallery of Art downtown, to see all the things that go on, like Art All Night, which I’ve participated in, and did a lot of paintings for, but I see this town as growing in its interest in art and we’ve always had the museums, but now to have a community of art, it inspires one to be a part of the community. When I first got started painting I didn’t sense it as much, but for the last 3 or 4 years I’ve sensed a real interest in what artists are doing and the different ways that they can get connected to the community.
Who would you say has been your biggest inspiration as an artist?
Currently, Jackson Pollock has been a really big influence. I paint on an easel and I don’t drip, but the immediacy of the gesture, the urgency to get it out and to express it and make it multi-layered, give it depth, give it contrast, let it be a direct connection or projection of the spontaneity of the moment. So, I’ve been really into him the last few years, just studied his work and trying to get a sense of what to investigate.
[Someone interrupts to get a look at Khalid’s paintings, Khalid is pleased by the interest, and for a moment we have an audience as we continue the interview, Khalid’s paintings being seen under a newly appreciative eye.]
When did you discover abstract painting?
The style I’m currently doing now probably started about 3 years ago, when I got more into the immediate gestural style. It fully developed as of, about last year, into this full expanse of color and movement, where it is spread all along the canvas in an even balance in distribution of color and stroke.
"Abstract One" Acrylic on 24x18 Canvas.
Can you explain what you mean by the “gestural” style?
They used to use the term “abstract expressionism” to describe artists like Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock in the forefront of that sort of action painting, and I mean painting is an action in and of itself but trying to define it as where you are using an immediate gesture, your approach is somewhat not aggressive per se, just very [Khalid begins to snap his fingers in quick rhythmic succession] rapid, very in the moment and spontaneous. You’re not really focusing on creating a form, you’re trying to channel the expression and movement. When you see my paintings, that’s what you’re seeing. Going across the canvas and trying to emphasize the movement. It’s reflective in the work, you can kind of tell when someone is being somewhat aggressive in their desire to get something out. I think it shows in the quality.
So where are the emotions and this feeling coming from?
A lot of different places. I have to say I think part of it is through the jazz music and I listen to a lot of John Coltrane a lot of Pharoah Sanders, there are a lot of artists that focused on improvisation and creating in the moment, and taking what you mean and expanding it through forms of expression. Using that aspect of the African American heritage, the American heritage, like to tap into that, culturally speaking. Being an African American male and trying to get some sense of where my culture lies not just here, but beyond here, since it’s not like a direct logical progression. I can’t just go and look at all the different places I might be from, it’s not listed. My ancestors, I’m a descendant of slaves, so it’s important to try to tie into my culture through emotion, and I felt like it gave me a sense of connection and pride in allowing these concepts that had been somewhat rooted in our culture’s need to improvise and to exaggerate and to add color and vitality and all in a unique way to channel that but also to have a place to express whatever emotions I’m going through. What I’ve found through art is the one place I could feel stable, because I grew up in a very unstable upbringing, so it was a place for me to find solace and peace and stability amidst a world that’s always changing. Your parent’s decisions affect you, they got all kinds of stuff going on, and drama! [He begins to laugh], and how to make sense of that, and to develop self-confidence and surety, especially later in life, with painting. I felt like that was the artistic discipline that allowed me the most freedom to be myself.
Would you also say it gave you a sense of control in developing the skill?
Yeah, over time the practice of it, because I’m pretty much self-taught, so painting was a need. It was a need that became a practice. Which became a skill, which became a way to “oh I can express myself in this language in a way that makes an impact”, like people are affected by it.
Speaking of coming out of a rough upbringing, our last showcase in November, she mentioned her struggle with PTSD and how it influences her photography. She has a quote that goes along the lines of “out of chaos comes creativity”, is that the case for you?
I think that’s what it is, to be very frank. When I was seven years old I had a brother who was four years older, and a sister who was a year younger than me, and we had a relatively stable life until I was seven and it was discovered my father was in the big time distribution of drugs and other things and he got arrested and he got locked away for 13 years, so it went from what most people see as a normal life of the middle class to all of the sudden your whole world is flipped up, so my mom is now all of the sudden working 2 to 3 jobs and we’re latchkey kids, and it was that mixed up with all the drama we went through where it just felt like you learn so early in life that what feels stable can be taken away, and it may not even be a tragic situation like a death or a car crash, it might be the decisions of the people above and around you that wholly impact your life. Then you’re trying to pick up the pieces and figure out a way to connect with “what is your real purpose, what is your real meaning?”
So, it took me a long time to find that out, but once I got into high school I got into alternative hip-hop music like A Tribe Called Quest I started feeling like I had an inclination that I wanted to be creative like I wanted to be different. I wanted to express myself, I wanted to give positive values to negative situations, and in our culture, violence is commonplace, like they watch TV and listen to music, and that’s all well and good, but for me, I wanted something positive. So, through music like [A Tribe Called Quest], to writing poetry to playing music, it all fell into place along the way, like art is something that is giving me the way to express myself to find something I’m really interested in. For a long time, I was flowing through school, doing enough to get by, no motivation to learn unless it was something I was really interested in and I found my junior year in a creative writing class “whoa, writing, poetry, this is great!” Stuff like Shakespeare, for some reason I was buggin’ off that. We were reading all this cool stuff, and it was like a different place, a different world. It grew into that, and after high school I went to college for a year, but I dropped out, and I moved back to Richmond and there was a pretty vibrant art scene because of VCU and I hung out with a lot of people in that art scene, sort of becoming an unofficial student. I hung out and soaked up a lot of culture, and when I moved to DC that’s when I became a painter. I had experimented with art all my life, and had drawn and stuff like that, but when I moved here and met an artist from the Ivory Coast, and I saw the way he was working, and he seemed so completely free and it just did something to me. I’ve been at it ever since.
"Abstract Two" Acrylic on 24x24 Canvas.
Do you still do poetry?
[Laughing] I haven’t done poetry in a while! I might do a little something on the side just to get something off my head, but nothing serious. I used to MC, I used to rhyme to drum and bass, I’m a big fan of drum and bass music, so I made some drum and bass recordings I put on SoundCloud that I recorded like, six-seven years ago. I haven’t pursued that, I did it for kicks really, and the painting just became my thing. The stuff I used to write was wild, it was real out there, abstract stuff. I’m into like, real abstract avant-garde content. I feel like I wanted my art not to just serve me and my need to create, and I wanted people to react to it in some way. So, I said “abstract painting still allows me to go out there and create a language that’s a more immediate form of communication, like it doesn’t have to be at this point in time, art doesn’t have to be anything representational.
I feel like when I see your paintings, there’s a real sense of language and feeling there, I sense the rhythm in the chaotic.
Well that comes from an appreciation for nature, Picasso’s order in the chaos. They balance each other out, they create equilibrium. They stabilize yet create change. I kind of take that idea and apply it. I take what is going on inside of me, that may be crazy, and I try and make something out of it that’s impactful.
Also mentioned in the previous interview, and I wanted to get your take on it. Many artists in history often suffered from mental illness or they had something experienced sorrow in some capacity, they had these backstories that are riveting, but they’re known for these amazing works of art because they really tapped down into deep emotions, what do you think, personally, those experiences give to the artist?
I feel like they feed you to really create your own sense of peace, or at least attempt to. I don’t know if art is the answer per se, that by making art, or developing the drive to create it to escape pain, is always going to eliminate that pain, but what it does can be expression that can be informative to people beyond the artist. So people can start to relate to those tumultuous feelings, like when you look at a Pollack, it look tumultuous at times, but it can also look beautiful and rhythmic and lyrical and I think that’s reflective of the shifting tide to life. I definitely think it creates a drive to try to make sense of your life and what you’ve been through. It’s a great way, to me it’s a therapeutic way. I never wanted to be the tragic artist. Well, a little bit. Girls dig it.
There’s something cool about it.
Yeah, but then you get older and you’re like “this is whack”. Like, I should’ve grown out of it. In all fairness, it was about not making my life a continuation of suffering. I wanted to try and figure a way out. It felt like madness at times, it felt like there wasn’t as much support, because Mom’s working, Dad’s not around, family comes when they can, but you really learn to kind of create your own idea of what is, and you try to figure that out along the way, and hopefully you do or you become a victim of it. I’m trying to not. [Laughs]
"Untitled" Acrylic on 48x36 Canvas.
Do you have a moment of your life you call pivotal?
Probably the most pivotal time was when my father got incarcerated, but probably the second most pivotal time was when I picked up the paintbrush in 2008, not that I hadn’t before, but with the sense that I wanted to try this. My first painting was just horrible, like it was just bad, I didn’t know what I was doing, but somehow, I just stuck with it. I was really inspired to try it. I just thought in my mind I needed to paint something else. As I continued, things that transferred from my drawing went into my painting. They became the new inspirations to try techniques, and soon I was seeing things and just trying to do them, and as I developed, I went with my intuition and tried to communicate with the creator in the cosmos, that just gives me release, losing myself in the painting, I think it’s why I prefer abstract work. I don’t really do sketches or anything before I paint, I just go for it. Even the stuff that wasn’t as gestural, early in my career, I still just would go with it. “I’ll just paint this shape and put it with this, and that line goes with that.”
Can you explain your process? How did you create these paintings?
The one that has all the lines in it now is a bit of step in a different direction for me, away from the all-over gestural form. So when I did that I was trying to break out of my comfort zone a little bit. I got to a point where I was painting a certain way and I was like “I’m diggin this, I’m having fun at it but I feel like I used to paint 4-5 paintings of this style and then go into a different direction.” I wanted to get away from the things I had been doing, and my lady actually suggested “paint a circle, do something different”. It just came from that, it was like it was already there and it just opened up. What I do is I’ll lay down a color, no matter what the stroke or the style, and something will say to add another color to that to create contrast or balance, and then it becomes about adding color to create depth and the illusion of movement, so it’s really a color thing. Even with the gestures it comes down to color. It can give a voice to a painting.
We can see there’s more of an organic shape to your newest painting, would you say you prefer the organic style to hard lines geometric style?
There was a period where all I did was geometric minimalist style stuff I thought was really cool, but it’s always been a thing of feeling. When constructing a painting you want it to feel as loud, as alive as possible, and I want people to see the potency of the moment.
The organic shapes lend themselves to emotion, and minimalism is trying to evoke emotion, trying to create a feeling. Emotions are more fluid, so organic shapes would work better with that.
Yeah, and the gestural style tries to capture feeling. I mean, I love color so much, even when I was doing geometric stuff I was trying to get the colors to pop, trying to enhance the experience, and when those shapes have that bold color it creates the same saturation of energy in your mind as the gestural.
Going back to your comments about the African American experience in art, what would you say is so important about using art as a means of expression?
Just to provide new languages for dialogue, like what is a part of the world. Being impacted by various artists, that’s what it did for me. I felt compelled to share that feeling with other people, and I feel like especially with live painting with the jazz musicians or the other musicians I’ve worked with, it wasn’t so much about entertainment, it was about getting the sense of the relationship between what I was doing and what the musician was doing, and seeing that organic and live and them getting the chance to experience and letting them feel that, because it’s not everywhere you go you get to experience that.
Like visual sound, so they can see that bridge.
[Nodding] It’s also hopefully to get that appreciation for what art can do, because we’ve gotten to the point where it’s in the schools and the galleries and the museums, but people need to feel like it’s accessible, so you need to be able to go to your local pub and be able to see a guy on the sax and q painter painting some work, and you see the process of creation.
Definitely to see how it’s made is a whole new level to the painting, like “I saw that”, it brings a personal side to it.
Yeah like “I actually saw this work developed in front of my eyes."
"Clearing the Path" Acrylic on 60x36 Canvas.
So how long does it take you to finish a painting?
It’s really about a lot of things, like when chemistry is right, I’ve had times when in one night, boom. Ten there’s times when a year later I’ll look at it and need to do something to it. I mean it could take me a few nights, it could take me a few months. I’m constantly in correspondence with my work, and looking at it. Seeing if it needs more, I feel done that night and then later in the week I’ll feel I need to add a whole ‘nother thing to it. It just depends, especially with the style I’m doing. Sometimes when you’ve gone through a form of expression and you’ve got a sense of what you can do, if you’ve got a combination of color right and you’re trying to get this wall fully action oriented there can be a few layers and you’ll just be like “wow, how does that work? Then other times it’ll be layer after layer after layer after layer, talking two weeks and I’ll still not feel it is done. It can be a tricky question to say how long. I guess on average it’ll take four or five days to finish a painting and feel it’s complete. When I do the live ones, I try to give it at least a sense of completion so people feel like it is, and then sometimes I’ll go back and add more.
I saw in one of your videos that you started with larger strokes and sort of got smaller as it went on, is that your technique? To put a base layer and go forward?
Yeah, I usually start with big broad-brush strokes and leave naked space on the canvas to help it breathe, so I may do two or three of that and then I’ll start with smaller brush strokes, with accents, to try and get a feel of activity. Then I may go to the palette knife to do more dynamic elements, and then sometimes I may do broad brush strokes. I don’t want there to be a cut and dry method, sometimes I break the monotony and try and mix up the elements.
What kind of paint do you use?
"Surface of the Sun" Acrylic on 36x36 Canvas.
How do you approach a live painting as opposed to a standard one?
This one guy who was doing a lot of paintings a while ago told me you can only give people an hour before they start to drift. [Laughing] Someone who can sit for 3-4 hours and watch someone go through the motions is a special type of person. I try getting something that seems complete, but my style is the same. It’s the same intensity and aggression I apply, the only difference is that in that hour I want to make sure I have something that looks like it could be completed and put on a wall. Whereas when I’m not in that situation I can continue to gradually go about it.
Do you tend to make it more theatrical if you're trying to keep these people’s attention?
I think they see the hurriedness, they see me doing it and it’s theatrical in that sense. I think they get the intensity of the moment, the music helps to navigate focus on that. I think it all plays a role. Just in the moment, live, I really try to push it. It is a theatric performance there’s some theatricality there, I’m definitely gesturing, I’m definitely moving, you want people to feel the intensity. I want that to come across, I want them to feel the excitement that I’m feeling because I just need to get this thing out, because in other areas of my life I’m not always vocal or responsive, I tend to be passive-aggressive. This allows me to let it out in a way that’ safe and I can make sense of things and take a step back.
Going back to your statement about revisiting paintings, when did you last revisit a painting?
Last week? It isn’t here but I just look at it and I think “it needs more weight, more depth, more of a story, it’s not finished.” Like having a kid, having a partner it’s like your life is just rushing. It’s funny, I got into this after my lady got pregnant, so I wonder if it was more a sense of urgency or need to hold onto my art, and the urgency of my art reflected the urgency in my life at the time, like I had the kid unexpectedly and suddenly I was a dad, and a provider and all this, and I was unsure how I was going to get the time. I used to have the time to sit around, do my thing, paint and analyze and sit and read books go to the museum, and he’s older now so things are starting to slow down, and I begin to get the craving to do something slower, it really speaks to your life in the moment. I saw it and I felt it needed more. I’ve had one come out perfect in like, 30 minutes, and I ended up painting over that one for something else. I had it for a year, it showed in a gallery, people loved it, but one day I couldn’t afford canvasses and I felt like I wanted to say more, and it had to go. I learned over time that work always seems different between now and the future, and there’s always something more I want to say.
Because you feel the need to revisit works, what constitutes a completed work? What speaks to you and says, “this is done”?’
What it is is that you’ll step back from it and feel “Yeah, that’s done.” But as I was saying, I have feelings like that, so I know what you mean, like when is it complete and I can move on and go to the next piece, and I guess it’s when it’s singing, and not in a way like ah [imitating a choir] like when it’s radiating that people will be impacted by it. When the presence is strong, and the colors are good and II know that it works. One thing about gestural and action painting, you give them a chance you might apply the red there, and hope it goes a certain way and it doesn’t and it’s whack and you have to work around that and try to build it, and it’s when there’s a harmony of colors and gestures and it’s balanced and it has presence and it can stand on its own, and I can step back and see that. Then I can move onto the next one. Most of the time I feel confident in that and they stay where they are, but in the last year I’ve felt I needed to revisit some of these, like we need to have another conversation, works that I was showing. Or I need to get over you and cover them up, and some of my best work has come from that.
"Thelonius Monk" Acrylic on 20x16 Canvas.
I wanted to touch on color, like for you do you have certain colors that mean certain emotions? Like what color would mean a happy color you would use?
I’d say yellow, orange.
Even darker colors, like cadmium red, those are cool. Cerulean blue, like a sky blue that’s a great blue, that makes me feel good, when I add that. White is great, it’s a very active and electrifying color, you can put it up against a lot of bold primary colors and make them dance.
How would you show an emotion like anger, that’s active?
Red may get more passion, more anger, I feel like when I’m adding that, it’s definitely charged in a different way, a different emotional context. Red tends to help show and express the depth of emotion in a painting when I use it. I’d have to say that.
What are some places you’ve shown in?
The Pepco Building downtown they have a gallery in the back of the building and they have a showing every year and I’ve featured in a few of those. I’ve yet to feature in any commercial gallery. I’ve shown in a gallery out in Middleburgh, and a bunch of cafes in the city.
The smaller events allow you to get to know your community, they let you really get to know your viewer.
Totally, and I love doing that stuff, that’s what it’s about, meeting everyday people. If I can’t get into these galleries, then the world is my gallery. I used to paint out in the street and have work displaying on the street. You can’t let people limit your desire to show your work, you can try to give people support so they can work with you, but I would never want to be like “oh, I just do galleries now”. The heart can be affected in many ways.
How much does a painting usually go for?
Depending on the time of the day… [Laughing] It go from $1,500-$2,000 to like, $13. I make deals too, it’s all about getting my work into the hands of people who would appreciate it. I’ve learned the different hustles to try to make work available to people, but base range it’s like $100-$2,000.
Avant-Garde means “moving forward,” what does that mean to you?
It means to go in a direction that is viewed as fringe or out there, be as free as you can, and people will catch up eventually. You can see people at a crosswalk, all it takes is one person to go out of the order and others will follow. People will catch on, they may want to do something, but it’s hard for them to feel comfortable in taking a chance, so I think Avant-Garde means giving other people their chance, and being out there and being cool with that.
So, to someone who is your shoes a few years ago, how would you encourage them?
As you grow and you get older you realize people will have things to say about you whether you do it or you don’t, so it’s about allowing yourself the opportunity. Don’t worry about the flack you get, if you aren’t being rude or crass, or offending people, and even that depends what you’re into. Art is there to challenge people so if you feel like this is weird to someone but it’s what you want to do you just have to put it out there and deal with what comes your way. Be true to yourself, and experiment and try and at the end of the day it gives you confidence to not need others to be comfortable with what you do. It’s important to trust yourself, to not play the victim. If you do have something exciting you want to share you should do it, especially if it’s positive.
"A Love Supreme" Acrylic on 60x48 Canvas.