‘It’s all about relationships’: Meet the artist behind the new sculptures in downtown Farmington

Seven towering columns, made of steel, wood, and otherwise, were installed in downtown Farmington earlier this summer, a result of the city’s ongoing public art initiative. Each is unique; one zigs and zags, another twists upwards to the sky.

They’re the work of Ken Thompson, a Michigan-based artist whose large-scale sculptures punctuate the public spaces of towns throughout the Midwest. Thompson says his seven sculptures in Farmington’s Riley Park are among some 40 or so columns he’s created in total — and that’s not including his other works made since he first started sculpting in 1978.

(Photo: David Lewinski)Thompson’s columns are a variation on a theme, he says. And he’s glad that seven of them, and not just one, have found themselves in downtown Farmington.

“I like to cluster them together so you can see the relationship between each of them,” Thompson says. “It’s all about relationships. It’s about human relationships — we’re all different but similar. We’re all different forms of human. We’re all variations on a theme.”

When his columns are installed in groups, he says, “it’s like they’re having conversations with each other.”

(Photo: David Lewinski)
Thompson came to Farmington by way of his Midwest Sculpture Initiative (MSI), a public art organization he formed in 2003. MSI connects communities with artists, creating more opportunities for public art. Thompson says they’ve installed 350 to 375 outdoor sculpture exhibits since forming MSI. The organization operates in other capacities, too: Thompson was calling from Toledo, where the city hires MSI to clean and perform maintenance on their dozens of public art installations each year.

That’s how Thompson came to Farmington. The city’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) reached out to him to see about having MSI install some new sculptures in Riley Park. With MSI booked for the year, Thompson proposed installing some of his own sculptures instead. His seven columns will be there for the next two years.

“I’m really happy to have the opportunity to be there in Farmington. It’s a neat little town and I was excited to be asked to do it. And I hope the relationship continues when the two years are up,” he says. “I think they’re planning an art walk in the future and I might be part of that. And they want me to come up and talk about my work. When they call, I’ll be there.”

(Photo: David Lewinski)
Thompson’s seven sculptures are the latest public art installations to go up in downtown Farmington, thanks to the DDA and its Public Art Committee. The Public Art Committee was formed in 2018 to execute the goals of their Public Art Blueprint, which the DDA finalized in 2017. John Martin’s “Welcome to Farmington” mural, Doug Delind’s "Faces of Farmington" sculpture, and the Civic Theater, Vines, and Sunflour Bakehaus murals are among some of the committee’s earlier successes.

(Photo: David Lewinski)Public art can generate a lot of different things, be they civic pride, tourism, or otherwise, and Thompson has his own ideas.

“Whether you’re a small town or a big town, it doesn’t make any difference. We’re always trying to figure out how to make the places we live more attractive — whether it’s painting your front door a different color or putting art in your downtown,” Thompson says.

“Public art is great because some people are intimidated walking into museums and art galleries. This way, all you have to do is just walk out your front door.”

(Photo: David Lewinski)
Thompson is a public art machine. Some sculptors that make public art, he says, only do one or two pieces a year; Thompson does 40. To be fair, Thompson follows that statement to acknowledge his staff at Flatlanders Sculpture Supply and Art Galleries, a company he owns and operates in Blissfield, Mich. He says his staff helps him achieve such production.

His major works include the Reclamation Archway for Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Detroit and the Peace Arch for the city of Toledo, in honor of the veterans of the Vietnam War. He has more than 70 large-scale public sculptures to his credit, mostly spread across the public squares and university campuses of the Midwest — but also reaching as far as Florida. And that’s not even including the smaller sculptures, like those found in Riley Park.

Similar columns were recently purchased by a condominium development in Ann Arbor and the city of Toledo. In fact, the columns found in Riley Park are currently for sale, ranging in price from $3,500 to $18,000. The city of Farmington does not own the sculptures, as they are being rented, so to speak.

“I like to put the prices on them because some people are afraid to ask. Some people think that it’s expensive and some people don’t,” Thompson says.

“It’s all about perspective.”

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.