Over the years, many talented and creative young people have worked with the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. A number of our members are teaching mentors, several are professional educators, and it has long been a central part of the UACC mission to foster the work of young activists, poets, writers, and artists. Michael Thompson, a past participant in our first Urban Appalachian Leadership Project cohort, stands out as exemplary of this group of young artists for many reasons. His commitment to community engagement stays at the fore of his creative and intellectual work, and this is a real point of distinction.

To say Michael Thompson is ambitious is something of an understatement. Renaissance artist might even apply when trying to sum up Thompson’s varied approaches art and ideas. He has a substantial body of visual works; his writing reaches into poetry and even cultural analysis. And he is involved in performance projects. He is a multimedia artist and writer who recognizes no boundaries when it comes to creative expression. Michael Thompson’s work is about ideas, culture, and community. His current work will draw on the written word, visual presentation, and community engagement to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

“Sanctuaries” will focus on the lives of Cincinnati-based creative Black, Indigenous, and people of color and the everyday spaces that are sacred to them. I asked Michael Thompson what drives this project, and he explained that “too often, the narrative that surrounds creative and artistic representations of black and brown people is the problem of trauma, and my fear is that we will equate the black and brown experience with this trauma narrative.” To get beyond these kinds of limitations, Thompson has developed a project that will work directly with individual artists and defy any overarching narrative. By working with individuals and their experiences, “Sanctuaries” will provide a creative medium by which individuals offer their experiences complete with nuances and even potential contradictions.

“Sanctuaries” will draw on Thompson’s experiences as a writer, a journalist and an artist. He explains how he is approaching this project: “I am going out into the community to interview black and brown artists about what they consider to be sacred spaces to them.” Sacred spaces, to Thompson and other artists, are not restricted to conventional definitions of sacred spaces. These spaces, as Thompson told me, can be “the home, a studio, the woods, a library, etc.” The point is he wants to open up the definition of sacred space to consider the kinds of practices and beliefs that make certain spaces sacred to these artists. The idea is that this opens the conversation to endless possibilities and to distinctly individual stories.

Michael Thompson brings quite a resume of qualifications to this project. He has made his mark with UACC as one of three students who worked with Sherry Cook Stanforth in developing a UALP grant. He presented his work at the Appalachian Studies Conference. Thompson read his poetry at the “Express Urban Appalachia Showcase,” and he has published poetry in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel Volume 22: Appalachia (Un)Broken in 2019. He displayed his visual art in a solo exhibition entitled “Strange Fruit” at the Eva G. Farris Gallery, in 2021. As Michael Thompson says of his work: “Nothing is beyond my range of inspiration as I draw on poetry, philosophy, nature, literature, patriotism, music, and forensics to weave together a full-bodied and direct fabric that intertwines our perspective of anthropocentric ecology and its complicated relationship to art.”

Michael Thompson grew up in Richmond, Kentucky, a small city within the Appalachian region. Michael’s father, now in higher education leadership, was born to a coal mining family in Clay County, Kentucky. Michael moved north after high school and became distant from his creative work. But after beginning at Thomas More University, he said he “became re-connected with art and creative writing.” It was there he connected with the Urban Appalachian Leadership Project. This put him on his current path. Thompson has so much going on, it is difficult to imagine how he manages. He is contracted with the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center as a freelance designer. He has worked with ArtWorks on mural projects. All this, and his current work on the “Sanctuaries” project.

“Sanctuaries” will lead to a series of ten paintings. Thompson will also include excerpts from ten interviews, and the entire project will culminate in a book. He plans to make and distribute 200 copies of the book. The project will also produce a database with a collection of the transcripts of interviews and other data accumulated by his research. This is clearly a massive project that draws on all of Michael Thompsons’ creative and intellectual abilities.

I need to allow Michael Thompson’s own words to sum up his work and commitments. He states in his bio that he works at “creating a living system of relationship around the art by forming organic relationships and community collaborative relationships through inquisition, live programming, and giving away books which capture the authentic experience of a community.”

This philosophy is certainly consistent with the goals and mission of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition in maintaining community engagement and service. Through writing, poetry, visual art, and multimedia exploration, Michael Thompson’s work engages the community and works transform our understanding of how our BIPOC communities are understood from the inside out. He brings the investigative curiosity of a journalist combined with the creative energy of an artist to reveal our communities in ways that are illuminating and dynamic. We look forward to the unveiling of his new work, “Sanctuaries,” and we are certain there is much more to come from Michael Thompson.   

You can read more about Michael Thompson’s work here: https://michaelthompsonart.myportfolio.com/work

For a blog post written by Michael Thompson during his time as an Urban Appalachian Leadership Project member, visit https://uacvoice.org/2019/04/young-leaders-reflect-asa-conference/.

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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