+ By Timothy Sayles + Photos by Allison Harbaugh
“Iam absolutely not an artist,” says Ashley Thompson. “I’m more of a craftsman.”
No disrespect intended, but that’s a distinction without a difference. You may agree if you’ve seen any of Thompson’s gleaming, muscular, low-riding hot rods—the 1956 Chevrolet pickup in his garage, for instance, or either of two 1949 Mercury coupes he has souped up and tricked out, or the sky-blue 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air. Or the meticulously powder-coated, nearly four-foot-tall engine he designed for one of his works in progress: a 1930 Ford Model A. This five-window coupe won’t be just any hot rod; it will have a World War II warplane theme, with bomber seats, gas tanks made of Navy practice bombs, and air suspension tanks from a P-51 Mustang. Thompson has been collecting period-correct airplane parts for the project for the past 12 years.
Thompson’s artistic bent is evidenced in and around the Annapolis home he shares with his wife and their two young children. It is beautifully decorated and restored—with many creations and built-in features of Thompson’s making—and bedecked with art, much of it by Annapolis artist Jeff Huntington. The yard surrounding the two-story mid-century home off of West Street is also a work of art, complete with a burbling, well-stocked koi pond. This is not surprising, as Thompson is proprietor of A.R.T. Lawn & Yard Management, which specializes in landscaping and interior renovations. He started the company when he was 10. Yes, 10. That’s around when he started collecting art and making things.
Timothy: You seem to have gotten a jump on the rest of us, starting your life in earnest at a very early age. Tell us about that.
Thompson: Well, I started my own business when I was 10, and I started making and building things [at 11 or so]. I wanted a GT Performer Pro Plus bike, but I couldn’t afford it at 600 bucks, so I said, “Well, I’ll just make my own.”
Timothy: And you did that?
Thompson: I did. I bought my own frame, had my own handlebars made, got my own mag wheels. I made these little fins that were like triangles, and I named it the NR 2. I don’t know why. Then I just got into millions of other things. I was building tree forts . . . real tree forts, with, like, interlocking siding and decks and all that stuff. My dad and I used to do that.
Timothy: Do you remember why you wanted to build your own things, or what drove you to do so?
Thompson: A lot of it was because I just wanted to, and over the years a lot of it was because that was the only way I could afford it. We didn’t grow up poor or anything like that, but my parents always made me pay for everything.
Timothy: When did you move on to cars?
Thompson: I got my first car from my mom. It was a 1979 [Volkswagen] Rabbit, diesel, with a blown-up motor. She said “Here, here’s your first car.” I didn’t know how to work on engines at that point—and I’m still not a huge engine guy, I’m more of a car builder—but we put a junkyard motor in it and I started working on it. I wanted to make it look like a GTI and I didn’t know how to do body work. I used to go to body shops and hang out. I’d ask, “How do I do this, how to I do that.” I still have dreams about that car. I dream that I’m driving it around. No other car, only that one.
Timothy: What came next, car-wise?
Thompson: After college, I really got into hot rods. I started on a 1958 split-window Volkswagen bug . . . but my first real hot rod was my ’56 Chevy pickup. It went from there—a couple of Model As that [didn’t work out], a ’59 Chevy Bel Air, a 1949 Mercury, which I sold to a man in New Zealand, and now another ’49 Merc, which is almost done. And another Model A, which will be my last car.
Timothy: Your last car? Why?
Thompson: Well, the kids are getting older and [cars are] so time-consuming. I’ve been building cars for 20 years, and I just want to do different things . . . different types of art. I want to do more stuff with furniture or painting, or be involved in other [facets] of art.”
Timothy: Do you have anything in particular in mind?
Thompson: I don’t really know, just stuff that appeals to me personally. I like building cabinetry. I’ve started working with wood again. I like working with wood a lot. Like in the house, I built all the radiator covers.
Timothy: You and your wife are similarly inclined toward artistic endeavors, yes?
Thompson: Oh yes, Adrianne is very creative in her own right. She has a degree in graphic design. She designed the A.R.T. logo. We’re very focused on art and creating. We do an enormous amount of projects with our kids—painting, drawing, constantly making things. I played with LEGO™ [bricks] like crazy as a kid.
Timothy: Your fascination for art as a kid went way past LEGO™ bricks.
Thompson: I started buying artwork at a super-young age. There used to be an art gallery off West Street called the Pendragon. Every time we’d go downtown, my mom and I, we would always go [there]. When I was really young, my mom would buy me paintings. She’d say, “What do you want for Christmas? Do you want that watercolor of your favorite castle in Holland?” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s what I want.”
Timothy: And this was something of an international hobby, too?
Thompson: My mom is Dutch, and I have dual citizenship, and we would go to Holland every two years. When we’d go, we’d visit all the museums. I wanted artwork so badly, but obviously a lot of that was beyond my financial reach. But I bought one of my first paintings in Paris. I think I was eleven years old. I’ve always had an art budget. When Adrianne and I were working on our house and didn’t have a lot of money, we would buy a lot of poster artwork, inexpensive stuff, but we wanted to have nice images on the wall to come home to. That’s what we’re all about.
Timothy: That and low-rider hot rods—at least for the moment.
Thompson: The [’56 Chevy pickup] is not technically a low-rider . . . it’s just a hot rod truck that has [an adjustable air-ride suspension]. What’s so great about it is that you get a great ride quality, but when you set it down on the ground, it looks amazing. [The 1959] Bel Air is a cool car in its own right. With the suspension inflated, driving around it looks great, but when you slam it on the ground, it looks like a rocket ship from Mars or something.
Timothy: What is art to Ashley Thompson?
Thompson: Art is everything to me. One thing I have learned over the years is that you really don’t own the art on the wall or the car in your garage. You are just the creator and curator. You can’t take anything from this world, but you own the emotion you have when you’re creating or admiring art created by others. I am very lucky to create what I want with lots of other artistic, skilled people. As a craftsman, I hope my projects will evoke emotions in others. That’s what art is to me. █