Thorpe 1

Michael Thorpe

April 15, 2021

Basi­cal­ly, it’s all about try­ing to under­stand and fig­ure out this new life of being a full-time artist,” Michael C. Thor­pe says of his new solo show, Mean­der­ing Thoughts,” at LaiSun Keane in Boston.

Thor­pe grew up in Boston with a quilt­ing moth­er and aunt, but with the excep­tion of a piece he made at 8, quilt­ing took a back­seat to sports. I want­ed to be the next Kobe Bryant,” he says. That’s all I cared about — like, 22 hours of the day I spent play­ing bas­ket­ball.” Although he played ball at Emer­son Col­lege, where he also stud­ied pho­tog­ra­phy, he faced fierce com­pe­ti­tion to become the next Kobe. Lat­er, as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, he again fought to stand out in a crowd­ed field. Quilt­ing, how­ev­er, gave him entrée into a rar­efied world in which he could eas­i­ly dif­fer­en­ti­ate him­self — and afford him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to rede­fine the medium.

I was the only dude,” he says, of the his­tor­i­cal­ly women dom­i­nat­ed quilt­ing com­mu­ni­ty. In the North­east, because it’s very dif­fer­ent than in the south, I was the only black per­son in these quilt­ing spaces.” Thor­pe is bira­cial and was raised by his white moth­er. It could have been alien­at­ing,” he con­tin­ues, but for my luck and good for­tune, it was very embrac­ing. I think of it a lot as a small-town kid who was the bas­ket­ball star going off to the big uni­ver­si­ty and, like, the whole small town was just root­ing for him, and that’s how I feel right now with my art. I have this com­mu­ni­ty that’s just cheer­ing me on.”

For his first show, Thor­pe split his focus between fig­u­ra­tive and text-based styles — both unusu­al sub­jects for quilts. When mak­ing por­traits of friends, fam­i­ly, and bas­ket­ball heroes, Thor­pe relies on pho­tos as his pri­ma­ry start­ing point. He’ll cre­ate a sketch based on an image, then lay blocks of fab­ric, like pieces of a puz­zle, over the sketch before stitch­ing them togeth­er on a quilt­ing machine. For the text-based quilts, Thor­pe strings togeth­er snip­pets of found poet­ry into phras­es such as Shes eat­ing watermelon/​she must be half black.” When­ev­er I see some­thing that just clicks with me,” he says, I’ll write it down, and I have, like, an ongo­ing poem. Basi­cal­ly, it’ll make itself. And once that is done, it’s almost like free jazz — it’s, like, trust the con­cept, not the music.” 

His new show expands his sub­ject range to include land­scapes, still lifes, and even car­toons. I con­stant­ly think about art and how peo­ple get put in pigeon­holes where they only paint peo­ple, or they only paint land­scapes,” he says. One of my biggest influ­ences is David Hock­ney, and David Hock­ney paints every­thing.” One of his favorite recent pieces is Necrows” (a play on negroes”), depict­ing the con­tro­ver­sial black crows from Disney’s Dum­bo. The quilt is an explo­ration of the artist’s love-hate rela­tion­ship with Dis­ney and its endur­ing his­to­ry of racism. In Dum­bo, the main crow char­ac­ter is named Jim Crow — the Jim Crow laws enforced seg­re­ga­tion in the Amer­i­can South — and voiced by a white man talkin’ jive.” It’s very fas­ci­nat­ing to look at Dis­ney and see how often they don’t allow peo­ple of col­or to, like, live in their bod­ies,” Thor­pe says. Even in the new movie Soul, it’s real­ly wild to me that they lit­er­al­ly killed a black man and then had a white woman take over his body.”

Thor­pe cites many artis­tic influ­ences as he mean­ders toward defin­ing him­self as an artist. He likens his text based works to the non­sen­si­cal poet­ry of Dadaism, the avant-garde move­ment that sprung up in Europe as a reac­tion to the hor­rors of World War I. His oth­er artis­tic influ­ences span Jean-Michel Basquiat and con­tem­po­rary African Amer­i­can painter Hen­ry Tay­lor to the gen­er­a­tions of Black women pro­duc­ing quilts in Gee’s Bend, an iso­lat­ed town in Alabama.

Even as he bor­rows from the artis­tic past, his work is meant to spark hap­pi­ness in the midst of today’s acute social chal­lenges: racial strife, a glob­al pan­dem­ic, and polit­i­cal divi­sion. Rather than lead­ing view­ers into that dark­ness, he hopes his body of work sparks their joy. I look at a lot of artists, espe­cial­ly in New York, who are doing gutwrench­ing art, and I don’t want to do that, because, for me, it’s 100,000% escapism,” Thor­pe says. I have this out­let with art that just sole­ly makes me hap­py, and hope­ful­ly, it also brings the view­er happiness.” 

Read Full Issue