By Sam Mcdonald

In a flash, joy erupts on the sidewalk next to a trash bin on 46th Street.

"Ah, this is a good one — Yes!" gushes artist Sarah Thompson as she bounces excitedly.

Thompson has just retrieved a funky, abstract pinhole camera image, one she captured — guerilla-style — by placing an ultra-simple, homemade camera in an out-of-the-way public place. Extremely long exposures create gauzy, geometric patterns mirroring the sun's track across the sky. Details aren't visible, just shapes.

"You never know what you're going to get," she says. "It's always a surprise."

A 47-year-old mother of two, Thompson draws on her sense of wonder as she creates remarkable works of three-dimensional art.

This spring, just before accepting her undergraduate diploma from Old Dominion University, she was honored as the school's Outstanding Student in Studio Art. 

A woman works on a piece of artwork.

Around the same time, she won a Peter Bullough Foundation Residency. That means she'll spend an expenses-paid month living and creating at an artists' retreat in Winchester.

"To have access to a studio and not have to worry about daily tasks — it's going to be amazing," she said.

The residency was built to serve emerging artists. That fits Thompson perfectly. "I'm emerging in so many different ways," she said.

Thompson's path to artistic realization includes sharp twists and turns — some courtesy of the U.S. Armed Forces.

At age 26, reacting to the horror of 9/11, she joined the Air Force. She served for years, much of time working as a vehicle body mechanic. While stationed in Germany, she met her future husband, also a mechanic.

When she left the Air Force in 2010, her husband continued to serve. A few years later, the family of four landed in Hampton Roads.

Thompson, who had always been devoted to creativity and crafts, started taking art classes at ODU in 2017.

Early on, she was unsure of herself.

"I called myself a midlife crisis artist," she said, laughing. "So, if I failed, I could throw it away. It was just a midlife crisis.

"After a year of being here, I gave up that notion. I was like, 'No, this is something I really want and I'm succeeding at it. I'm doing well at it."

She credits her instructors for shifting her mindset.

"They were guiding and directing me without saying, 'this is the right way,'" she said. "You were able to make those discoveries on your own. The professors have been great. They focus on the students and really want what's best for them."

John Roth, head of ODU's Department of Art and one of Thompson's teachers, admires her focus, work ethic, and drive. "That drive, coupled with insatiable curiosity about materials, processes, ideas, and possibilities — all that combined to make an outstanding student," he said. 

A man and a woman pose for a photo.

Thompson works in mixed materials — wood, bamboo, metal. Sometimes the geometric designs captured in her pinhole camera experiments inform her 3D work.

"Her adventurousness and curiosity have led her to many different places," Roth said.

Circumstances interrupted Thompson's artistic journey. She headed back to Germany in the middle of her studies at ODU when her husband received orders to Spangdahlem Air Base. At the peak of the pandemic, she worked at a craft store there serving the military community.

When the family returned to Virginia in 2021, Thompson headed back ODU and picked up where she left off.

Her instincts told her it was the right move. "All of the best decisions of my life have been spur-of-the-moment ones," she said. "No deep thought. Just, 'I'm going to do this.'"

Her children are older now. She has more time to invest in herself. Her husband steadfastly supports her creative work.

She's also forged strong friendships with her fellow students. Thompson is part of a loose, intergenerational group that calls itself the Bandsaw Banshees. Members were born from the 1960s to the 2000s.

"Sarah's art evolves as she works on it," said Jess Fleick, one of Thompson's young art friends. "I've always admired her level of experimentation through her artistic journey."

At ODU, Thompson found personal and artistic growth and refined a vision for her future.

"I'm not sure what I was expecting," Thompson said, "but it was much better than I could have ever conceived of."