Flipping through a portfolio of some of her earliest work, Elaine Faith Thompson lands on a drawing from college of a skinny, frizzy-haired cartoonlike girl, swinging a golf club and grimacing in concentration. Thompson gasps.
"I didn't even know this was in here," she said, joking that she must have been destined to paint golfers.
For years, Thompson, 70, was known regionally for her paintings of Long Island landmarks -- the Big Duck in Flanders, the Smithtown Bull at the fork of Routes 25 and 25A, and a colorful cafe scene in downtown Sayville, among others -- all set against swirly, inky skies resembling Vincent Van Gogh's "The Starry Night."
But the Bohemia resident expanded her reputation internationally after painting a series of posters for the United States Golf Association (USGA). She was first asked to paint a commemorative piece for the U.S. Open in 2002. The original three-tiered oil painting of the Bethpage State Park golf course, "The Black Course," combined bucolic scenes on the green from three different eras, and sold for $100,000.
The next year, Thompson was commissioned by the USGA to paint the commemorative artwork for the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton. In 2005, Thompson was tapped again, this time for the 2006 U.S. Open poster illustrating the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck. And in 2008, Thompson was selected to do the poster painting for the 2009 U.S. Open, again held at Bethpage.
"Her work stood out, mainly from a local flavor," said Mary Lopuszynski, director of merchandising operations for the USGA. "She showed us work we thought was really compelling and thought it would appeal to the spectators who come to the U.S. Open. . . . We come back to her because her work has had a good response."
This year, Thompson, working in her home studio, created the poster for the U.S. Women's Open tournament at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton and signed reproductions of her work at the competition in June. The original poster was also a combination of three different scenes at the course, including a highly detailed, hand-lettered close-up of the winner's trophy.
That ability to paint minute details, Thompson said, comes from her training as a graphic designer, before computers.
Computers can't do it all
"We did hand-lettering, which is now all done on the computer," Thompson said. "The artists that are coming out of school today can't do what I do because they haven't been trained, so the younger artists can't do these paintings."
After graduating from Farmingdale State College in 1963 with an associate degree in commercial arts, Thompson worked for an advertising agency for a few years. Her first husband, Richard Polizzi, died of a heart attack in 1969; at age 26, she was a widow with two small children and still working. In 1970, she married her second husband, Red Thompson, and made a career move to have more time with her kids. "I didn't want to leave the babies alone," she explained, "so I decided to open my own advertising and graphic design business in the house."
Her first client, she said, was the Suffolk County Republican Committee, with whom she had worked before she struck out on her own. Then, Smith Haven Mall signed on. Soon, through her growing political contacts, she was creating -- by hand -- campaign literature for Republican candidates countywide, with some work for Democrats sprinkled in. Her accounts grew to include the county water authority, and her designs of annual reports for Off Track Betting won advertising awards, as did her work for Smith Haven. Eventually, malls in Bay Shore and Huntington Station also became clients. In 1982, Thompson designed the graphics for the first "Stop DWI" campaign in Suffolk; and in 1983, she was hired to design the county's official logo to mark its 300 years.
Her first commissioned painting -- a floor-to-ceiling mural on canvas for the Holbrook Fire Department -- didn't come about until 1996, but in the decades before that, she left her mark all over Suffolk County. Whether it was the lettering on town marriage certificates or drawing the puppy and kitten that adorn a decades-old poster urging residents to get their pets licensed, she left her creative imprint.
But some of her influence is more palpable. In the early 1980s, she was chosen to design the official poster commemorating the Three Servicemen statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. In 1987, Thompson, who in the 1980s became an active Republican committeewoman, was hired by the Town of Islip under then-
Supervisor Frank Jones to design a new recycling campaign in the midst of the town's "garbage barge" fiasco. (The barge, loaded with 3,100 tons of the town's solid waste spent more than 100 days sailing up and down the East Coast, as port after port rejected the landfill cargo because officials feared it contained toxic elements.) She thought it would be easy, "but the first day on the job, I worked until 2 a.m. because we had a press conference the next day on the garbage barge," Thompson said.
For the next 10 years, she did graphic design for every town department, and her work was used for Islip's aggressive recycling campaign, which often featured the face of her husband, who co-owns an asphalt company with her, as the cherubic spokesman for proper pollutant disposal.
Suing over loss of a job
Thompson's career with the town ended when her job title was abolished under then-
Supervisor Pete McGowan in 1996. In a federal lawsuit, Thompson called the firing retaliation for her union involvement during a period of contentious contract talks. Nearly two years later, the town settled on the conditions that she not discuss the case.
"After the case was closed, government work dried up, Thompson said. "I couldn't make a living anymore." That's when her painting career took off -- more or less out of necessity, she said. Now for her most recent work, her name is in the foreground, and she says she's garnered a following of roughly 20,000 collectors, as far away as China and Australia.
Her paintings of golfers and famous local courses have a vintage flair -- her Lady Golfer, a painting of a woman posing daintily before taking a swing, features the subject in a flowing blouse and long, velvety maroon skirt, sun hat and white gloves. The background incorporates one of Long Island's most treasured scenes -- the Great South Bay as it washes ashore along a reed-filled marsh at Timber Point Country Club in Great River.
She's delighted to use family members in her works. The model for the Lady Golfer was her daughter, Dawn Mas of Sayville, one of her three children. For the 2009 U.S. Open poster, her model was grandson Jamie Mas, who was 9 at the time. In the painting, he is depicted in vintage caddie attire, carrying a canvas golf bag with clubs over his shoulder, in front of a rolling green at Bethpage. "He was the perfect size," Thompson said. Of her nine other grandchildren's modeling potential, she added, "I use them all the time. They're accessible."
Her artwork is especially popular among local collectors: The owners of Shippy's Pumpernickel Restaurant in Southampton recently redecorated its interior with Thompson reproductions.
John Glaz, a 75-year-old collector from West Hempstead, has purchased multiple originals, including "The Big Duck" and the "Fire Island Lighthouse." "I just fell in love with her work," Glaz said. A longtime golf enthusiast, he loves the nostalgia evoked by her paintings of a bygone era on the Island's most beautiful courses. "The detail that's in her paintings -- I don't even know how she does it."
For those who can't afford originals, Thompson emphasizes that her art is accessible -- available on $3 postcards, including one featuring her bestselling Fire Island Lighthouse painting. She also offers a $2,000 embellished, 5-foot reproduction that she stretches out on canvas by hand. And there are many options in between. Her top sellers are 8-by-10-inch inkjet reproductions that she mounts in 11-by 14-inch frames, which she and her husband make.
"I've touched the lives of practically every Long Islander," Thompson said of her two careers. "So, so many people have my artwork."