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Mildred Jean Thompson’s paintings are often characterized by their complex formal compositions, bright color palettes, and energetic markings. Much of Thompson’s visual language is drawn from the fields of science and sound, and include references to quantum physics, cosmology, theosophy, and jazz, to name a few. Her works aim to visualize what is unseen by the naked eye—microscopic particles, sound vibrations, or energy. Although she is considered a major figure in twentieth-century American abstraction, the majority of Thompson’s career was spent in self-exile in Europe due to the racial and gender discrimination she experienced as a black woman in the United States.

Thompson was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1936, where she lived throughout her childhood and adolescence. Her mother, Ruth Vaught Thompson, was an elementary school teacher, and her father, Dr. E.W. Thompson, was a pharmacist. Throughout her early education, Thompson was encouraged by her parents and teachers to pursue art and would often decorate the school’s blackboards with seasonal motifs. While attending Stanton High School—the historic Jacksonville school where James Weldon Johnson served as principal from 1894 until 1902—she pursued darkroom photography, mechanical drawing, and performed in the school’s band.

With her enthusiasm for the arts as a driving force, Thompson enrolled in Howard University in 1953, and one year later declared a major in painting and a minor in art history. Her father, concerned with the practicality of a visual arts degree, insisted that she add a second minor in art education. While at Howard, she studied under the artist and art historian James A. Porter, who helped pioneer the field of African American art history. It was his guidance that shaped Thompson’s first experiments with abstraction, a style she would further develop in the 1980s.  In 1956, Thompson was awarded a scholarship to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine, where she studied with the painter and graphic artist Isabel Bishop and the school’s founder, Sidney Simon.

After graduating from Howard in 1957 with a bachelor of arts degree in painting with concentrations in art history and art education, Thompson received various grants to study in New York, Italy, Germany, and Nigeria, and traveled and exhibited throughout Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. She studied with the American landscape painter Reuben Tam and sculptor William King at the Brooklyn Museum School, and later expanded her painting and printmaking skills at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg with Emil Schumacher and Paul Wunderlich. 

Thompson eventually returned to the American South in 1974 when offered a three-year residency in Tampa, Florida. In 1977, she was granted a residency at her alma mater, Howard University. While at Howard, Thompson received criticism from some of her peers, who implicated her for not painting in a figurative style, not referencing African subject matter, and having trained in Europe with white artists. She later wrote about this experience, stating “I had spent long years trying to find out who I am and what my influences were and where they come from. It was perhaps because I had lived and studied with ‘whitey’ that I had learned to appreciate my Blackness, as well as how American I truly am.”

She would continue to divide her time between Europe and the United States until the mid-1980s, when she became the Artist-in-Residence at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Thompson became an influential arts educator through the mid-1980s and 1990s, teaching courses at numerous local institutions, including Morehouse College, Atlanta College of Art, Agnes Scott College, and Dekalb College. Additionally, she interviewed artists and reviewed exhibitions as an associate editor at Art Papers, an Atlanta-based contemporary art publication. She also continued to exhibit in Germany and returned to Africa in 1992 to participate in the Dakar Biennale. 

In the early 1990s, Thompson and her life partner put down roots in Atlanta, purchasing a home in the Grant Park neighborhood, and Thompson began her expansive Magnetic Fields and Radiation Explorations series. She also rented a spacious 8,000-square-foot studio in Old Fourth Ward, a neighborhood on the east side of Atlanta. This stability afforded her the time and space to work freely. In an artist statement in 1992, she wrote: “For the first time . . . I feel that I am beginning to settle in Atlanta . . . I work in the studio every day and find my work challenging, as well as meaningful.”

Thompson’s work is held by numerous institutions and public collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and Germany’s Leopold Hoesch Museum, Düren, and the Hamburg Museum.