When Zach Thompson called me up in September and told me about the idea for his latest solo show, I knew it would be something special. Renting out an abandoned cathedral in Detroit to debut and showcase almost two years worth of work? I mean, how could it not be? Over the following month, Zach secured the venue – the Woods Cathedral in Northern Detroit. The 50,000 square-foot building was to soon be handed over to new owners, with its future unknown. So, there was a chance Zach’s show would possibly be the final event held within its historic walls.
A lot went into bringing this event to life. Benito Longoria developed a new experience in his QZ Gallery app, allowing patrons to scan paintings with their phones to be brought to a webpage where they could purchase it, thanks to augmented reality. LA-based filmmaker Leo Lovely was filming the whole show and behind-the-scenes process. A number of Zach’s friends and loved ones helped out in many ways as well to make Zach’s vision into a reality. I, too, was lucky enough to be on the team of people Zach assembled, so let me give you an idea of what went on behind the scenes.
We pushed around giant, decomposing gallery walls that were left behind by previous renters. Zach and his team spent hours hanging fourteen large scale paintings, as well as forty smaller pieces on the freestanding and cathedral walls. Benito and I ran to the FedEx print shop last minute to pick up handouts for all the guests. The days were long – and the cathedral’s interior was as cold as it was outside – but we had a lot of fun with it. And it all paid off on show day.
White light cast through the large windows on the cold, overcast November day. Adding to the intimate setting were tons and tons of burning candles (which we found in a cabinet in one of the cathedral’s many rooms), creating an ambiance that was perfect for the building and works of art they illuminated. The massive room felt much cozier now, welcoming viewers to an exhibit that felt extraordinarily personal – a glimpse into the artist’s soul. A large number of people came in and out that day to view the exhibit, many of which Zach knew, and many that he did not. Zach is living proof that if you work your ass off and never stop believing in yourself, you can accomplish your dreams. This was just one of those dreams he can now check off his list.
I caught up with Zach two months after the show to reflect on the experience and to get some further insight into it. I’m grateful to be able to share his words with you all, and I hope they inspire you as they did I.
You titled the show “When the Sun Comes Up” – what’s the meaning behind the name?
Opportunity. One day last spring I was shipping out paintings at the local post office. I was just about to leave when I overheard a conversation between two of the women behind me in line. The elderly one was preaching that, “We have to do what we can, while we can. When the sun is up.. because when it goes down, you can’t do nothing.” That really hit me in a profound way. I was deeply grieving the loss of my grandma at the time and kind of just letting my days drag on while not making much art. Something about that woman and that moment in the post office reminded me of the conversations we would have. It shifted my mentality at the time to have a deeper appreciation for each day. Like no matter how bad today was, when the sun comes up tomorrow, I have the opportunity to make it whatever I want.
Everything about the show felt very intimate and personal. How did it feel to share these new works in such a unique venue?
Good, I am really glad. I wanted it to feel like you were stepping inside my mind. It all felt so surreal and fulfilling to me. I grew up going to church like twice a week so once I saw the old Wood’s Cathedral it just seemed symbolic. You can’t find – let alone exhibit paintings in – historic buildings like that everywhere, so it felt like a perfect representation of Detroit’s potential too.
I know you took inspiration from Goya for some of these new works, and I think you mentioned Dali as well? Correct me if I’m wrong. Tell me about your perspective on the importance of learning from the greats.
Yeah, both works titled “The Sacrifice” and “Dawn of a New Decade” were inspired by Goya paintings. I did have a Dali inspired one as well, but it never made the cut and ended up getting painted over. That’s just part of the learning process and probably why I try to do the occasional master study. I know I am still a student and I have much to learn so these studies provide sort of an established arena for me to get my practice in and contribute my own style. It reminds me of when I was really into watching skate videos; you see someone do a trick you can’t really wrap your head around, but it gives you the motivation and courage to go out and try it yourself.
Now, I know you wanted to do a livestream of the venue the night before the show opened, but it didn’t end up panning out. The idea was reminiscent of Kanye’s streams for the Donda listening events – did revealing this new body of work feel like an album rollout almost?
I just wanted everyone that supports my art to experience that opening night. I really think the livestream didn’t work out for the best, though, because there was a certain magic to just being there and present with all the people I love. It did kind of feel like an album rollout, though. The way galleries usually announce shows seems so rushed and repetitive, but when I’m doing this by myself there are no “rules” for how that is supposed to look. That is where a lot of the fun and excitement comes from for me. Like I just put my entire life into these pieces, I want as many people to feel the same level of anticipation and appreciation I have.
Not everyone may be aware, but you made this show happen entirely on your own, without the gallery system or worrying about any representation. How does it feel to be in that position? And do you have any advice for others who want to do the same?
It was entirely a leap of faith for me. I knew it would be a lot of hard work and risks involved, but I also knew how rewarding it would be to accomplish that independently. I had done it on a smaller scale before, but nothing like exhibiting over 50 original works in an abandoned cathedral with no gallery representation or funding. I just feel so grateful to finally be in a position to invest in my ideas like that. I also feel so loved because the community of people that support and surround me are the most inspiring and selfless individuals; they just really want to see me win with a smile on my face. It would not be possible without them and it is the best feeling seeing how we can all come together and bring these dreams to reality. I would tell anyone trying to do the same to find their community of people they care for and are appreciated by, create until you are content, and disregard any sort of fear of failure because failure usually feels better than not trying.
What’s next for Zach Thompson?
I am either going to become the best artist I was meant to be or disappear somewhere in Italy with my girlfriend and become a lemon farmer … or maybe both [laughs].
Art events, interviews & more. Making opportunities for young artists. Based in Philadelphia & Chicago.