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Brian A. Thompson

When Dian Holton told me that a Black designer was behind the new $100 bill, I had to reach out and have him on Revision Path. I mean, how often are you able to talk to someone who’s design work is literally seen all around the world? (You might even have it in your wallet right now!)

While we couldn’t go into specifics about the whole US banknote process. Brian and I had a great conversation about his inspiration as a banknote designer, and he talked about how he got into the field right out of college. He also spoke on how having Asperger’s is a design superpower for him, and shared information on the latest project he just finished called “Colors That Heal.” Brian is true living design history, and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share his story with you all!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Brian A. Thompson:
My name is Brian Thompson. I’m a senior journeyman banknote designer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. I’ve been there 32 years. Yeah, 32 years, but now I’m the old guy. I used to be the young guy at 19. I think I was the second youngest to be employed there but now I’m the old guy.

Maurice Cherry:
How has this year been going for you so far?

Brian A. Thompson:
It’s been different because of the pandemic but the work is still intense, and it still requires the same focus.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you changed over the past year? Have there been any lessons that you’ve learned? And this can be work-wise or personal, anything like that.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yes. It’s not that I never took life seriously, but you have a better time looking at yourself in the mirror and looking at what you need to change. I think this is probably the most relaxed time I’ve ever had while working because I’m able to balance out the different stresses and things, and the anxieties that come with work of this nature. It’s very intense. I’ve said this through interviews before that doing banknote design is like putting together the most difficult puzzle you can put together in your life, and I’m finding that I had an opportunity to look at every piece for a chance while working from home, and evaluating each piece, and knowing that each piece of that puzzle was more significant than ever before.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, to that end I know that you can’t talk directly about the work you’re doing because that whole bank note design process is super top secret but can you give just a broad overview for our audience about the work that you do?

Brian A. Thompson:
Banknote design is an art form that I don’t think people pay attention to. They’re look at the Mona Lisa, they’ll look at different pieces of artwork that have been deemed as art, and say yeah that’s a piece of artwork, but when it comes down to currency they look at it as a value or something that is used for spending or commerce, a vehicle of commerce to buy and sell. It’s currency. That’s what it’s for. It’s to buy things with.

Brian A. Thompson:
But if they ever stopped, and when they get it in their pocket and look at the art form that’s on there they would be blown away. There’s so many intricate details that are put into currency design that needs to be paid attention to from the sculpture or the portrait, the line work that’s in it, the different colors, the micro text, all of those different things it takes time to do. It’s not only just for security but it’s also for aesthetic points of view.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember being a kid and I wouldn’t necessarily say be into money design, but really looking and studying a bill and seeing how it’s designed and put together, but you’re right it has so many intricate little details. Of course, you’ve got signatures and you’ve got serial numbers on there. Some larger bills have a bit of a plastic strip that goes through it, and even as banknote design has changed here in the US I’ve just always found it really fascinating how much goes into the design of a bill. That’s really interesting.

Brian A. Thompson:
Studying different currencies all over the world I see how they’ve actually approached currency as well to get the attention of the user, and it’s amazing how they place certain things in the location of the banknotes to get people’s attention, be it color, or be it texture, even being substrates. Some countries are using plastic substrate versus paper, and that’s done so that people will pay attention to it, and not only pay attention to it, and not only pay attention to it but utilize the technologies within the banknote for their own security for something that’s authentic versus what’s counterfeit, and I think that’s pretty cool to watch how banknote design has evolved in the technological aspect as well as the aesthetical aspect and how it mergers together and becomes a piece of artwork when you first see it, but it’s also a piece of artwork that is being utilized for commerce.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned being a banknote designer for 32 years. How have your responsibilities changed over the years?

Brian A. Thompson:
I would say my first seven years I was training. I was training for the job, so I served a seven year apprenticeship while also going to school at the same time. I went to the University of District of Columbia and while I was there I was also doing the apprenticeship, and the apprenticeship was designed where it was six month increments and every six months you were evaluated to move to the next stop, but when I was there, when I first started there it was actually six months whether you were going to complete the apprenticeship or be dismissed from the apprenticeship, so you had to hit the marks that you were asked to by your journeyman and I was able to hit every mark, and I did all seven years, not one day was skipped.

Brian A. Thompson:
I really am happy I did not skip any years because everything I learned was apply-able and [inaudible 00:08:33] right now. It actually gave me an opportunity to have longevity within this career because of everything I learned within that seven years. I felt like if I missed something or if I would’ve skipped a year I would’ve missed something very important and vital for the current conditions that we’re in, in dealing with the coronavirus and just this pandemic, because I’m able to work without a computer. I’m able to work with just processing and thinking about designs in my mind and doing doodles and just shaping out different things I need to shape out to problem solve, and that’s something you learn in the apprenticeship is that it’s a lot of thinking versus drawing. You have to think about the entire banknote front and back and the different layers of it, and think about the counterfeiters that are going to try to counterfeit the banknote.

Brian A. Thompson:
You have to be four to five steps ahead of them mentally while you’re designing and I think that’s a very, very important thing for people to know it’s that we’re not just throwing anything out there. We’re really calculating and thinking about every single piece and where it’s put.

Maurice Cherry:
That is both fascinating and extremely rigorous. So, you had these six month check ins over your seven year apprenticeship and at any point in time for one instance you didn’t come up to a certain point in the check in you could be dismissed, right? That could be it.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. You can be dismissed out of the apprenticeship immediately, if they didn’t think you could cut it you were gone. It was pretty simple. But you couldn’t really go into it thinking that because if you went in with fear you would pretty much fail.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Brian A. Thompson:
That’s one thing I would never allow myself to do is walk in fear. I said, you know what? I’m confident, and I gave it 110% every single day to the point where I remember my journeyman telling me, this was so funny, the first day at work I came there at 6:00am on time because I worked from 6:00 to 4:00 10 hours a day four days a week.

Brian A. Thompson:
And he would say, “It’s 6:00. You’re late.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” He says, “Well, if you show up on time you’re late. Always be here 10 minutes before schedule. You have to condition your mind to be always ahead of the curve.” That’s one thing Mr. Sharpe used to always tell me. Always be 10 minutes, or always be ahead of the curve no matter what, and he was right, and I actually live by that.

Maurice Cherry:
And the Mr. Sharpe that you’re referring to is Ronald Sharpe who’s the first black journeyman banknote designer in the history of the country.

Brian A. Thompson:
Absolutely. Yeah, Ronald C. Sharpe, and Clarence Hilbert was the second, and I’m the third.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So, has it always had this black lineage.

Brian A. Thompson:
I don’t think the hiring was based on color. It was always based on ability, whether you could do the job or not, and Ron he was a police officer first, but his whole emphasis of becoming a police officer is so he could become a banknote designer, and one thing about being at that time when he was there, and I remember him telling me, is that hey I wanted to be a banknote designer so I started as a police officer and I waited for the apprenticeship to open.

Brian A. Thompson:
When it came open he applied, and that’s how Ron got in. That’s also how Clarence got in too. Both of them technically were police officers when they first got in. I came in right out of high school.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask how did you first learn about banknote design?

Brian A. Thompson:
I learned about that particular job from my father. My father actually was a cylinder maker for the actual printing presses at the bureau and I was in high school when he told me, and at Suitland Visual and Performing Arts School under Dr. Thompson at the time, and Ms. [Dodi 00:12:09], they really pushed us for four years to develop a portfolio, so our portfolios when we graduated were equal to anyone that went to any art school. It didn’t matter where, SCAD, or any Pratt institute, our portfolios pretty much were just as equal as any college portfolio, and that was their push is when we graduated from high school that we could get into any college we wanted to, or we could pretty much cut it wherever job we were going to and they were correct. My portfolio was ready to go and I applied.

Brian A. Thompson:
And clearly, at that time the bureau liked what they saw and I got hired in the apprenticeship.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Right out of high school you went into the apprenticeship. So, when you went to the University of the District of Columbia you were doing these both at the same time.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. And I’ll tell you what’s interesting about that story is I was actually … When I went there I was under Dr. Yvonne Carter, and Dr. Yvonne Carter, she was an African-American woman and her artwork was unbelievable. She was a contemporary artist, pretty well known. From our research from her she was from the Carolinas and she actually started teaching at the University of District of Columbia and then she was the chair person of the art department, and I remember her sitting me down. She never yelled or raised her voice. Dr. Thompson had a very calm voice, but she had a way of talking to you to really line you up real quick.

Brian A. Thompson:
And I was right out of high school, just got this hot job, and I came in her office pretty cocky. And she sat me down, and she said, “Son, no matter how good you are you always have to be ready to learn, because if you go in cocky in life you’re going to miss a whole lot,” and that stung me, but she was so calm at all times, and she was the one that pretty much tightened me up, her and Dr. Smith. And they took me under their wing when I was in college and really, really made sure that the skills that I had from high school were honed for this particular job and just as an artist in general. They always taught me, yes, that’s a great job but we want to develop you as an artist that works there, not someone that’s developing the art to work there, which I thought was amazing, and very right. That was very true.

Brian A. Thompson:
They wanted me to be an outstanding artist outside of the platform of where I was working.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Outside of those two professors, what else do you really remember from your time going to the University of the District of Columbia?

Brian A. Thompson:
One thing I do remember, and I remember Ron and Clarence telling me when I first got there to learn my history. Please learn your black history because you’re going to have to be two steps ahead. In reality, you just have to be two steps ahead as an African-American because we know about the racism within our country, and they were just getting me ready. And being at an HBCU it got me ready.

Brian A. Thompson:
We had so many people that came up there to give speeches such as Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, Chancellor Welsing, even Louis Farrakhan came up there, and we would hear all these different lectures from these black intellects that were really giving us knowledge on how to survive in the world that was stacked up against us as African-Americans or minorities. And I took all of those things, and those different principles, and just honed them to the point where if I felt like I was in a racist situation I knew what to do. I didn’t just be quick to react and get all upset. I would reflect back on those particular stories and the history that I learned about African-Americans and how we evolved above it, and that’s something I always stand by. There’s no point in getting upset. The point is understand how to evolve around it and to defeat it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s something about an HBCU education. They really try to drive home of course knowing about your history but then making sure that you contextualize it in your current place in the world and what that means. You know?

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m telling you. I’m so happy that I went to an HBCU to the point where I didn’t push my son, I just asked him if he will go to an HBCU. He is now at Bowie State University now.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Okay.

Brian A. Thompson:
As a senior, so he’s enjoying that. I wanted him to get that same kind of background like I said to understand how to deal with just the world as an African-American, or just a minority, and just understand how to posture himself.

Maurice Cherry:
Is he interested in art and design too?

Brian A. Thompson:
No. He’s an athlete, but he actually went the ROTC route, and he’s doing very well. He’s actually going to be going into the military as an officer when he graduates.

Maurice Cherry:
Very nice. Very nice. Bowie State also has a pretty good design program. We had on the show, I think it was, not last year, about two years ago I think, Jen White Johnson who teaches there at Bowie State, but they have a really great program that they’re doing some great stuff. I met a couple of the students there. Gosh, when was this? 2019 I think. There’s this conference that goes on at Harvard called Black in Design. They have it every other year. They started in 2015.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think it was 2019 there were a group of students and educators from Bowie State that were there, so they do a really good job in their design program.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. I’ve actually visited there, and I actually have a … I can’t think of his name right now, but he actually invited me to come over there to speak, but because of the coronavirus just really shutting down last year I didn’t have an opportunity to go up there to speak to them. But I try to keep my pulse on pretty much art programs within the HBCUs that are locally around here such as UDC I’ve not spoken at, but I have spoken at Coppin State probably three or four times mainly in their sociology department. I’ve spoken at Howard University at their sociology department as well, mainly coming from the aspect of being a person that has Asperger’s and going and speaking to their seniors about a person that’s living with it, and understanding what they’re going to come up against when they run up against somebody like me, and just understanding you can’t just throw a textbook at these individuals.

Brian A. Thompson:
There’s a certain type of love and respect you have to have for a person that flows like I do, that’s wired like I am. It was a great honor to speak to those two HBCUs and the seniors loved it. I actually enjoyed talking about my life with them and they got a lot out of it. I’ve actually gotten emails from students saying “Thank you for your lecture. It really helped me. It gave me a sense of focus and purpose. I knew I wanted to be a social worker, but thank you for doing so, for showing me a person in real life that I would come up against.” So, that was a pretty cool experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you just give a primer to our audience on what Asperger’s is and how it works for you as a designer?

Brian A. Thompson:
Asperger’s is a form of autism. There are two types. There’s a high functioning form which is Asperger’s and there is a lower functioning form. Where I’ve always locked in with Asperger’s is socially you have social issues. Some people have social issues where if they go in a crowd they get nervous. There’s so many layers to it, but for me personally I don’t drive. It’s very difficult for me to drive a car because of the anxiety and high anxiety with it, and my wife will tell you that. I’ll be sitting on the passenger side and she’ll make a sudden move in the car and I freak out.

Brian A. Thompson:
But I realize those are my triggers. You know? There’re certain triggers I have. I’m another person where everything has to be really in order for me. My house is immaculate. Everything has to have a place, which gives off vibes of a person that has OCD but that’s actually an Asperger’s type of thing. So, with me having Asperger’s has given me a sense of focus where if I lock into something such as being an artist I’m going to go very far with it. I’m going to search, research, draw. There isn’t a medium I haven’t tried, and I just want to master it, because it’s such a sense of focus, and that’s one thing I can say about the person that has Asperger’s. It’s actually a superpower to me. It’s not a disability, because I can really lock into a subject matter and try to master it as much as possible.

Brian A. Thompson:
Pretty much as a banknote designer it gave me an opportunity during those seven years because I was laser focused, so I had no intentions of ever messing up because of how I’m wired. But one thing when sudden changes hit me it does throw me through a loop sometimes but I have to lean on my foundation of what I know and I stick with that and just figure out what those sudden changes are where it doesn’t throw me off too much.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine the superpower part you mentioned. With banknote design being as meticulous as it is the fact that you can really hone down and focus on those details that is a real superpower. That’s a real benefit.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. Through high school I was totally engulfed with knowing who MC Escher was. Escher was a really, really detailed illustrator. I’m telling you, from high school even till this day I still look at Escher drawings and just blown away to the point that I was focusing so much on Escher I had to learn Georgia O’Keeffe’s stuff as well to balance myself out, because O’Keeffe works so loosely and big and broad with colors, even though her colors are very muted, and her colors also had a lot of desert thematic to it because that’s pretty much where she did a lot of her art.

Brian A. Thompson:
I work in that world, so I’m in the middle of those two particular artists, and I zero in on those things to the point where if I feel like I’m working on something too tightly I will actually do a contemporary art form just to loosen my mind up to just keep going to make sure I’m balanced, because I can become very technical and when it’s time to work loosely it’s hard for me to gauge back into that, so that’s why I’m constantly doing contemporary art as well as very tight illustrations just to keep a balance so that I can just function as an artist.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to go back to your time at the University of the District of Columbia. Once you graduated because you were doing this and your apprenticeship at the same time, what were those early days of you being a journeyman designer like? Can you give us a sense of what that was like?

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. I was actually in college as well as doing an apprenticeship and I was a father and a husband.

Maurice Cherry:
You were juggling a lot.

Brian A. Thompson:
It was a lot happening. My day would start with me leaving with a heavy portfolio headed straight to the school, and I think I would finish up on campus around maybe 3:00 or 4:00. That was the early years, because I would actually work six months, and then I would actually go to the job for six months, the apprenticeship, and my apprenticeship would freeze until I return back.

Brian A. Thompson:
Later on, what I would do was go to school at night, so I would work my day and then go to school at night, and that was just tough because I would only spend time with my kids when I got in the door, which was pretty late. I would get in maybe about 6:30, 7:00 coming in from school. I think at that time I just had maybe two kids, which was my oldest two boys, [Tayvon 00:23:52] and BJ. Those were some tough days, but I pushed through it. I pushed through it.

Brian A. Thompson:
But it was a lot on my shoulders, but like I said me being laser focused it didn’t really rock me and I came off kind of rigid at times because I was so focused in on the art that the perception was that I was arrogant, and that’s just one of those Asperger things. People would look at me, “Oh, he’s so arrogant. He doesn’t talk.” I was just focused. I was just laser focused on what I had to achieve and I had to finish that apprenticeship. I had to graduate from college.

Brian A. Thompson:
And once I achieved that goal, on to the next task.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some of the highlights of your career as a journeyman designer? You’ve had over 30 years of work in this industry designing banknotes. What are some of the highlights?

Brian A. Thompson:
I think the major highlight right now for me was designing the new $100 bill because I watched how pop culture gravitated towards it and it was embraced very quickly with pop culture. And not just pop culture, the hip hop culture. If anybody knows me they know I’m a hip hop head. I just love old school hip hop.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Brian A. Thompson:
The Tribe Called Quest. The Goodie Mob. The Wu-Tangs. That’s my era of hip hop and it always has been, and I even go further back than that to the Boogie Down Productions to the Public Enemy. I just love hip hop and I watched how hip hop embraced it and actually gave the 100 a nickname, and the nickname they’ve given it was called The Blue Face.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, I’m like, wow. And I’ve watched how it evolved in pop culture where it became clothing, where it became artwork, or pop art. And I’m like, wow, look at how this design just blew up around the world. My daughter sent me something where they had taken this design and made it a purse.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Brian A. Thompson:
I have a niece that works in a museum where she sends me stuff all the time. She says, “Look at this. They made this product out of it. They made this product.” I’m like, this is crazy. So, to see that design just go out into the world and become a part of pop culture is huge. I was designing it for a purpose and I’ve actually watched it become pretty much a very iconic piece.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s even a rapper called Blue Face.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. That’s right. That’s the part I’m talking about. It’s like it evolved. It went further. I was just doing my job. That’s the focus. I’m trying to make sure I’m creating a banknote that can be utilized in circulation and not fail. I had no idea it was going to become this artistic phenomenon, which is unbelievable, and it still blows my mind today. And you know the crazy thing, a lot of people don’t even know who I am, which is okay, which is fine.

Brian A. Thompson:
People will find out who I am and they’re like, “Oh my god. I met the guy that designed the 100,” and that thing came out 2013.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brian A. Thompson:
And people are still finding out about me. And actually, if you look on IG I only have 1,700 friends, but I see other people that do art and they have 1.5 million. You know? And it’s cool. I just sit back like, wow. People really just don’t know what I do, and I really stay away from the lime light for that very reason.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, I have very good artist friends that have reached out to me that I’m really good friends with and they respect what I’ve done, and they’re like, “Dude, you made history. When you designed that 100, dude, you made not only American history you made African-American history as well.” You know? Which was unreal. It’s still an unreal experience and when I look at it I’m like, wow. I cannot believe this one thing I did, and I was just doing my job, I actually made Clarence and Ron proud, because they didn’t have an opportunity to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say more than history. You have contributed to the culture. I know there’s this saying among … I’m saying millennials. I’m an elder millennial myself. But in millennials and Gen Z about how people are doing things like quote unquote for the culture. What you’ve done has been such a contributor to the culture in general. You need to be in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That’s major.

Brian A. Thompson:
What’s a trip is that I’ve heard that so many times, and I’ve not gotten a phone call from them yet. I don’t know if they’re waiting for me to retire. I don’t know what that’s about, but it’s okay. It’s okay. I’ll wait. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it’s all good. My focus is I just want to be the best artist I can be for me, and for the general public. I just want to always be a creator where I don’t get boxed in with one job that I’ve done. I want to be known as a great artist one day, just a guy that has done multiple things with his art, and that’s really my goal is just to be a great artist and leave a legacy which I’ve already done. I’ve already achieved that.

Brian A. Thompson:
And one thing I tell students when I do go to those … I do a lot of … What do you call them? Where they call people in to do their professions. I do a lot of those kind of things where I’ll go to high schools.

Maurice Cherry:
Like career day or something like that.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. I do a lot of career days, and I tell those kids, I say when you hear about African-American history it’s always within the pages of a book, but you’ve never actually met someone that actually made African-American history that’s right here in living color that you can ask questions. And that’s one of the biggest things I will say about the 100 that has been so rewarding is that I’m able to speak to students while living, and they can talk to me and ask me any questions because I’m living history. I’m living African-American history, and just to see their eyes light up is the most rewarding thing. That’s the most rewarding thing is actually seeing a kid’s eyes light up and just like, wow, I’m speaking to history. I’m not just reading about it, or reading about this person because he’s dead. This guy’s standing right in front of me. That’s huge.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I really appreciate your humility. You and I will talk offline about seeing what we can do to get you in touch with someone at the museum because I think the work that you’re doing … Wait, actually, have you been to the museum yet?

Brian A. Thompson:
Yes. Me and my wife went there. We went from the basement all the way to the top and I was floored. I’m like, wow, this is so great, and she looked over at me and said, “Why are you not in here?” I’m like, “Look, babe, you already know my …” She knows me. I’m very humble. I’m not going to push myself. I’m not going to push it. But that is something that I would love to do is make sure that not only I’m there I want to make sure that Ron, Sharpe, and Clarence are there that are a part of my story. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian A. Thompson:
Because when they hear my story they’re going to hear theirs as well, because like I said these guys deserve honor big time for what they instilled in me. What they gave me … And I’ll never forget what they told me in the backroom my second day there. They said, “Come to the back room. We want to talk to you. We know you’re at an HBCU. We know you’re at UDC. We want to give you everything that we know about this job and about our art ability and put it in you,” and a key thing they said is, “We want to leave this world a gift in you,” and they weren’t wrong. They said, “You’re going to be able to achieve stuff that we never had the opportunity to do.”

Brian A. Thompson:
Now, it’s not that they weren’t able to design currency. At that time, currency wasn’t being changed. It just wasn’t being changed at that time while they were there. They were later in their careers, so a lot of times they were just doing other projects, but they knew that I would have an opportunity, and those guys worked. They made it hard for a reason because they knew it would be tough sometimes when they weren’t there. So, I want to be able to give that honor to them.

Brian A. Thompson:
And I’m still in touch with Ron Sharpe’s daughter. We’re friends on IG, as well as Facebook, and she checks in on me just to see how I’m doing and also see how she’s doing. But Ron and Clarence have both passed.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, you are the one that’s holding the torch now for this particular kind of type of design which is very specialized.

Brian A. Thompson:
It’s very specialized, and like I said it’s only been us three as African-Americans to ever do it, and their story has never been told. And I’m telling you I’m going to tell their story along with mine, because they’re a part of my story. If it wasn’t for them I would not know what I know. I just wouldn’t. So, I understand how that works.

Brian A. Thompson:
And that’s something that most artists need to be humble about as well is that it took someone to pour into you for you to pour out. For you to pour out it took someone to pour into you and to labor with you and show you how to get your craft to a certain point of expertise. Don’t forget those individuals. You just didn’t birth out great. It took somebody to make you great, and that’s something that I will never forget.

Brian A. Thompson:
I remember Dr. Thompson from high school who pushed me. I remember Dr. Smith and I remember Dr. Carter in college who pushed me, and I remember Ron and Clarence who actually trained me on my job as a journeyman who pushed me. All of them made me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We’ve got to see what we can do to get you in the museum. We’ll talk offline about this because I think even just that part that you said right there and learning about the history of how you had other black banknote designers that helped you out that’s a story that everyone needs to know. I think that’s something everyone needs to know.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of projects. You are an artist outside of being a banknote designer, so I want to talk about that. There’s a project that you finished just recently called Colors That Heal. Can you talk about that?

Brian A. Thompson:
Man, that right there was one of the most rewarding projects. I had just started teaching at PG College last year as an adjunct professor, and I taught a class called Art as Therapy, and what it was designed to do was to get people to slow down in their life and just pick up a paintbrush or a pencil and just relax. So, I actually taught that class to teach people how to use art as a therapeutical thing for their own life because it’s always been therapy for me, and I turned it into a course.

Brian A. Thompson:
And they did so well where PG College actually called me back to actually do it again this year where I’m going to be teaching families which is going to be children and their parents on how to just connect together as parent and son or daughter where I’m going to be teaching them how to do art to just relax and actually tighten up their bond as parents and children. But my point is I flipped it again because it’s the same principle but Colors That Heal was a project that I thought about when my cousin called me, and he says, “Hey man, do you have any artwork laying around the house? I need like 25 pieces.”

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m like, “No. I don’t have 25 pieces hanging around. If I did they would probably be sold or I’m trying to sell them.” So, I said “I’ll tell you what I do, because I’ve been doing all this research on art therapy I have an idea.” I said, “I’m going to create pieces that have colors in them that help people heal and relax when they see them.” So, I created 25 pieces that when people see those pieces they immediately will relax. They will immediately calm down.

Brian A. Thompson:
And these pieces are actually in the lobby of a hospital, where this hospital was switching from one … One organization bought them out, and now … It’s called Luminous Health actually bought them out. It’s Luminous Health Doctors Hospital. And he said, “Man, can you come up with some pieces.” I said, “Sure, I got it.” So, I came up with 25 pieces for them and they literally just hung those pieces up this past week, and they look amazing. They look absolutely amazing.

Brian A. Thompson:
And like I said, they’re designed for people when they walk in that lobby to immediately just calm down and just have a sense of peace. That was the whole point of that project, is because people don’t realize how art is impactful. Art can change how you feel immediately when you see it. Colors can make you react a certain way. And I picked colors, and I did research, on what colors heal people and I used all those colors within those pieces, different shapes, different forms, where when folks see them they immediately calm down. It’s not an aggressive type of a picture.

Brian A. Thompson:
Everything’s very laid back. I used watercolor by the way because I wanted to have translucent imagery in it. I used air brush as well where you have different colors fading into another color. The project was beautiful. I’m very, very happy with that project. It is a brand new project. It’s like a month old technically, but it just got hung up. And I got a phone call from my cousin and said, “Man, thank you for this outstanding job. Thank you so much.” I’m very proud of that project, and plan to do more of that kind of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was just going to ask do you plan on expanding that out, maybe doing that with more hospitals, or with a health system, or something like that?

Brian A. Thompson:
I would love for it to go in that direction because I just think there needs to be more of it. My wife noticed that when she goes to the hospital, because she’s a nurse, when she goes to the hospital she notices that there are pieces like that, that look similar to mine, but they’re very generic and they just kind of throw them up there. And they pay millions of dollars for these type of exhibitions to be up on their walls.

Brian A. Thompson:
And she was like, “You did this for your cousin.” She said, “I’m blown away.” She said, “You did this because you really wanted to help people heal.” I’m like, “Yeah.” So, I just believe in giving bach, man. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brian A. Thompson:
I just believe in giving back and art has been such a vehicle for me to express myself. I just want to see it become more of a tool to heal people and to make people feel good when they see it, not to be an impulsive spender where they’re like I got to buy this because it’s going to have value later on in life, but when they look at this piece that it’s a reflection of themselves and it hits them in their core, their heart, saying you know what? I like this piece because it’s a reflection of myself.

Brian A. Thompson:
I think if more artists looked at it that way instead of trying to make a dollar then I think you would probably have more artists that really were humble and would create more because when you start grinding to try to produce art just to make sales you kind of lose your edge, but if you’re creating art to help people, man, that’s a different level. It’s a totally different level.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We’ve had a few fine artists on the show before that have said pretty much very similar things to that, like being able to create without … I forget who it was. I think it might have been Fahamu Pecou who said this, or maybe someone else we interviewed, but it was along the lines of how the art just seems to be better when it’s not tied to money, like when you don’t have to tie it to some financial goal or something the art just tends to be better.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. Yeah. I agree with that 100%, because as artists we’re always looking for inspiration and when I get inspired I start painting, or I start drawing, and I’m doing it because I want to do it. I’m not doing it for a dollar. You know? Or commerce. I’m doing it because I want to get an expression out and I want to get a reaction from people that is healing. My background is I’m also a pastor too, and I have a ministry called Easel Outreach that it’s for creatives. It’s for creatives to have a spiritual balance within their life. That’s one of the other projects I’m working on, and that’s going very well.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m not really obsessed with anything. My main focus right now honestly is to evolve myself as a fine artist. That’s my push. I really want folks to know me as a creative, as a person that is extremely creative and can go in several different directions from either art or music, because I compose music too. I create music that has no lyrics so it’s pretty much in the realm of ambient music. I have two projects on pretty much any music platform, and it’s called Instrumental Witness.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, I don’t use my name particularly. I have an artist name, which is called Instrumental Witness, and I have two projects out there and both of them reflect healing. The second project was geared towards people that do yoga and meditation. It didn’t get a lot of sales, but that wasn’t the point. Just like art I want to put something out there to help people heal, or to help people feel good, and that’s what’s out there. And it sounds pretty good. I get emails sometimes saying “Thank you for creating this piece. It gets me through my day. When I’m cleaning the house, or if I want to relax and chill I put your piece on.” So, I love just that kind of background, or should I say response from the music that they’re listening to that I created.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice has stuck with you the longest? It can be personal advice, professional advice. What do you find yourself coming back to time and time again?

Brian A. Thompson:
One thing my grandmother told me as a kid, and I stick by this, she said, “If somebody can upset you they can control you.” I’ve always stuck with that. So, what I do is when some people come at me trying to get a reaction out of me of anger I just remain peaceful. There’s a scripture in the Bible that says, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak.” I walk with that. So, when she said that to me that’s the first scripture that came to my attention, and I actually flow like that. I’m very quick to listen to people and I’m slow to respond, because I want to make sure that they may be speaking in anger but I’m always going to speak back at love regardless of the situation, and that’s how I posture myself.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s say somebody is listening to this interview, they’ve heard about of course your work as a journeyman designer, but also as an artist that wants to help people and help heal people. What advice would you tell them if they want to follow in your footsteps?

Brian A. Thompson:
Honestly, man, just follow their heart. If you want to help people follow your heart. There’s something that I talk about where there’s a certain rhythm that everybody has within their life. You have to follow that rhythm. If that rhythm is fast then you produce fast, you create fast. If that rhythm is very, very laid back ten you produce that way because that’s what you’re going to get in response. There’s something about the rhythm, and like I said that’s why I like hip hop. Hip hop has an aggressive rhythm with it, and I technically listen to it when I’m working out, but when I want to listen to stuff that’s laid back I’ll listen to piano chill where I can reflect and meditate.

Brian A. Thompson:
Pay attention to the rhythm in your heart and that will help you produce the art or creative abilities that you’re trying to produce. You’re heart will tell you what you need to produce. Don’t go off what everybody else’s doing. Don’t go off of what’s hot and what’s not. Produce from your heart.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want this next chapter of your story to really involve?

Brian A. Thompson:
I will probably be producing different pieces, or shall I say different collaborative pieces, not even collaborative pieces. I’ll probably be producing collections of different things, pretty much like the Colors That Heal project I’m going to be doing more of those kind of things. And the way I really focus on that I look at what’s happening in the world and I’ll look for something to help heal it. If there’s chaos happening, which there’s a lot of it going on right now, I’m going to try to produce pieces that cause people to relax and heal and be at peace.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, those are the kinds of projects that I’m going to be working on just so when people see it they just have a sense of peace, and that’s very important to me. But you’ll see different collections that will come out, maybe a collection of six, maybe a collection of 20, but they’re going to be a collection of pieces that give off a certain rhythm of peace.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to wrap things up here where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m on IG. I’m at Brian_TheArtist. I’m not saying it right. It’s Brian_The_Artist_Thompson on IG.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And of course, people can go to any bank and get a $100 bill and see your work there also.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. That’s the universal piece of artwork that’s there. Yes, it is. If they actually want to see the pieces that I did, the Colors That Heal, that’s actually at like I said Luminous Health Doctors Hospital in Lanta, Maryland or maybe Greenbelt, Maryland and they can actually see those pieces hanging up in the lobby. It’s like 25 pieces.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Nice.

Brian A. Thompson:
When I looked at the project it was like I’m going to look at it like I’m producing for a gallery, and that’s the way I’m looking at it. When you walk in there you’re going to feel like you’re in an art gallery.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Sounds good. Brian Thompson I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think the thing that probably strikes me the most aside from just the historic nature of the work that you do and the reach that it has globally is just how humble you are. You are super humble and to me that reads as someone that is really doing this for the love of the work, and the passion, and really reflecting on how it makes people feel, like the fact that you’re also an artist that does this work that wants to heal people is a good balance with the meticulous-ness of the work that you do as a banknote designer, so I think it’s good to one show that balance, but two also to illustrate to people that there’s a person behind this kind of work that does this sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.

Brian A. Thompson:
Thank you for having me.

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