Creative Community: Dr. Jackie Thompson
Life as a Square Peg trying to Fit in a Round Hole
Dr. Jackie Thompson stopped at Walmart last week to pick something up for her brother. As she walked to her car, she felt the allure of rhythm surround her. Her body began to move to the beat of the pop song blaring through the parking lot speakers. Her family laughed at her.
“I got to dancing! To the people around me, I'm like, ‘hey, it's good music. I'm not going to waste it,’” Dr. Thompson told me as we sat in front of a coffee shop in Valley Junction. The sky shone a brilliant blue, a light breeze framed the morning, and we leaned towards one another as we began to chat about how we value creativity.
Dr. Thompson’s creative energy is palpable. The first time I met her, she spent half an hour encouraging my coworker and I to see our artistic work as an ongoing project, a calling that we inhabit every day rather than a single assignment we can complete. It was a conversation that I walked away from with a renewed tenacity and a little more grace for myself.
That mindset has guided her throughout a life of art, service, and teaching, through the experience of owning her business, Potpourri Fine Arts Academy, and as an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church.
“I believe everybody has a lens through which they see the world. And my lens is a creative lens,” she said. “So I'm always, no matter where I am, looking for something new, something different, something that screams personality. To me, that’s what art is.”
Dr. Thompson’s lens has been creative ever since she realized she could see. She’s spent her life looking for the art in every moment, the art in every person she meets.
Her family frequently side-eyed her artistic sensibilities; she likens herself to a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. She never cared if she was sent to her room because it gave her a chance to read in peace. She practiced piano every day and loved to make her three siblings put on a play.
“My mother played the piano and sang in the church choirs, but she stayed home and took care of four kids. My dad's an engineer, my oldest brother is an engineer. My youngest brother is a politician. My sister is an accountant. Everyone is left-brained,” she said. “I embrace my energy because I think that too many people, they want to round off their edges.”
Forces outside her home asked Dr. Thompson to round off her edges, too. The Dayton, Ohio of her childhood in the ‘60s and ‘70s was heavily segregated. The community outside of her immediate surroundings greeted her with racism and a poignant denial of musical opportunities.
A deeply musical child, she decided to try out for the city orchestra. Black children weren’t accepted into the orchestra at that time and she was made an alternate. She spent four weeks in the audience as the orchestra practiced, hoping someone would get sick or miss practice. Dr. Thompson described herself more than once during our conversation as a “workhorse,” someone who always worked to be the best at whatever she tried. Naturally, the alternate life was not for her.
She auditioned for the city band the next year. Miss Blanchard, a progressive white teacher trying to do better than her times, gave her the last clarinet seat, the only black child in the clarinet section. So she was caught off guard one day when Miss Blanchard asked her to play a piece that two students vying for concert master could not play. Dr. Thompson played it perfectly and became first chair clarinet.
“I knew I wouldn’t stay there for long, but it was fun for a week,” she said. “It was nice for one week to think, yeah, I really can do this.”
She really, really could do it. When her church started a junior church, she taught herself the 600+ hymns in the hymnal book. Years later, she decided to change her major to music at the University of Dayton. Professors asked her how many years of professional training she had after her audition, stunned at her talents; she had only taken two years of lessons when she was six.
Dr. Thompson lives her life with a soundtrack in her veins, quite literally.
“I have a very regular heartbeat, which makes me very good at rhythm,” she said.
The rhythm carried her through school in Dayton and onto Kansas City, where she obtained her Doctorate of Musical Arts from the University of Missouri - Kansas City.
She quickly fell in love with the jazz capital of the world. The city offered a little bit of everything: BBQ, professional sports, and music on every corner that made strangers into family.
“On Friday night, we’d take our horns and we’d start at one end of Troost Avenue. We'd walk into clubs with our instruments and whoever was on stage at night, they’d say, ‘hey, come on up!’ It was so much fun,” Dr. Thompson said. “They didn't know you from Adam, but you had an instrument in your hand. You’d go and you’d sit down, play with them for a little while, and then when they took a break, you’d move on to the next club and the same thing would happen.”
I felt my body relax the longer Dr. Thompson I spoke. I’ve tried hard the last few years of my writing career to get familiar with boldness. Reaching out to new people, trusting myself to ask the questions that are needed, growing comfortable in the liminal spaces of storytelling. It’s not easy for me to believe I’ve earned the space I’m taking up.
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But from the moment we sat down, I felt strong in my space next to Dr. Thompson. She looked at me not necessarily as an equal in experience and knowledge, but an equal in curiosity. She cared not that I am 26, or that I’ve only written this column since January, or that my world is a littler smaller than hers. She cared that I cared enough about art to ask her to coffee, to learn from her.
I could tell this is why she was able to work as a teacher for so many years. She doesn’t just acknowledge that everyone has a story; she lives that truth. She searches for it.
“Even when my life was not necessarily great circumstances, I’ve always looked for the joy of things and I look for the joy in other people. What's the essence of that person? I think I'm just always looking for that creative energy in people and things and places,” she said.
When you’ve felt your voice silenced in the ways Dr. Thompson has, you don’t take the privilege of hearing others lightly. She knows how to look for someone’s story in between the notes they are playing, the timbre of their voice.
“I can always tell whether someone has a story to tell or if they're just playing the notes,” she said. “I’ve judged so many contests, and heard people sing, that it becomes obvious when someone doesn’t understand the story behind the work. Once, I was judging a contest, and these kids came in with a beautiful four-part harmony. But they were singing about nightfall, and they were singing way too fast. Once I had them actually read the words, they understood.”
But when someone does have a story, Dr. Thompson can’t step away. Talking with new people brings her joy. She knows how to guide someone towards the well of natural talent within them. She believes the artist’s job is to look at the world and capture what it means—and the importance lies in the difference in meaning for each individual. Whatever age, color, or creed, Dr. Thompson believes in your story, and she hopes you believe in it deeply enough to live out its truth.
“It's all perspective. This is what a 26 year old has to say about this. This is what a 70 year old has to say about this. Their stories shouldn't be alike,” she said. “I would be disappointed in both of them if what came out of their experience was the same story. Because either the 70 year old hasn't broadened their story, or the 26 year old is trying to live somebody else's story.”
This is an installment of an ongoing series of conversations with artists and creatives based in the Midwest. If you’d like to be featured in this series, or have a recommendation of an artist you’d like to read about, please shoot me an email at email@example.com.
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