Meet Artist Judy Thompson

Judy Thompson: Silver Lake ReflectionsAdorning the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is a stunning watercolor by award-winning artist Judy Thompson.

Made possible through a donation from De Smet Farm Mutual, Thompson’s Silver Lake Reflections captures a glimpse of Laura during her homestead years in Dakota Territory. In the painting, Wilder is depicted as a young person sitting in the lush prairie surrounding Silver Lake. This image is based on an early photograph of Laura Ingalls with her sisters, Carrie and Mary.

Born and raised near Chicago, Illinois, Judy Thompson now lives in Orange City, Iowa.  Predominantly self-taught, she has been selected twice as an artist-in-residence with the National Park System and is an approved teaching artist for the Nebraska Arts Council. The Iowa Arts Council awarded her a grant in 2012 that enabled her Homestead Series to tour the Midwest in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act. This year, one of her projects can be found in the South Dakota 2014: Artists Respond to the State’s 125th Anniversary exhibitat the Center for Western Studies in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She teaches drawing and painting techniques and is a member of the National Art Education Association and South Dakotans for the Arts.

Ingalls, Carrie, Mary, and Laura id126 LIWHA

Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls, ca. 1879–1881. Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum

When asked about her inspiration for the painting, Thompson said, “Like Laura, I have a love for the prairie. Its wide horizons, wild grasses, and endless skies provide a boundless landscape for an artist to grow in, explore, and create. In Silver Lake Reflections, I wanted to portray Laura in her prairie setting as a young person who is inspired by the wild beauty which surrounds her Dakota home. The setting of the painting is taken from Wilder’s book By the Shores of Silver Lake, after Laura and her family have moved to Dakota Territory, where they eventually acquire a homestead claim.” Thompson emphasized that Wilder’s own descriptions of the landscape surrounding Silver Lake inspired the composition. “Laura is depicted as a teenage girl, feeling the prairie wind in her face while she sits by the shores of the lake with a newly built town suggested in the background” (back cover).

About her technique, Thompson says: “Watercolor is a very spontaneous medium which creates a fresh, free-flowing feel to a painting—just right to portray the graceful grasses of the prairie and the wide, deep Dakota sky. The impressionistic style of this painting creates a sense of place without restricting the viewer’s imagination. Multiple washes of color provide just enough detail to describe the essence of the subject.”

To see more of Judy Thomson’s work, visit

Jennifer McIntyre

18 thoughts on “Meet Artist Judy Thompson

  1. I take it back! There IS a photo of loose-haired Laura. The pedantic historian in me is completely happy now. 🙂

  2. It IS beautiful, and it was obvious to me the first time I saw the image where the inspiration came from, being very familiar with that photograph, which is most likely from 1881, since Mary and Laura are both corseted. However…a girl wearing her hair down for a portrait is irrelevant to how she might generally have worn her hair on a daily basis, especially on such wind-swept landscape as the Dakota prairie.

    We must remember that a portrait is a reflection of people who are persumably presenting themselves at their “best,” and many young women wore their hair very differently for a portrait, whether in a complicated, be-ribboned style atop their head or loose-flowing locks down their back, because that was how they or their parents felt best represented their features.

    Keeping in mind how infrequently portraits were taken, especially for poor families of this era, we can imagine the girls in the Ingalls family wanted to show their best selves. But keeping in mind how infrequently ALL women washed their hair at the time, and how limited the time was every day for girls and women to indulge in exercises of vanity, such as hair care, there is little chance Laura and Mary and Carrie and Grace wore their hair loose very often in Dakota, not to mention that unwritten social rules influenced these sorts of things once a girl reached a certain age.
    While in some regions, the weather would have less to do with choosing a hairstyle, in Dakota it just wouldn’t be practical to wear hair down, no matter how often television and movie designers have female characters running about with locks flowing in windy, dusty locales like that for filming. Hair as long as Laura’s would be impossible to manage if kept down in the wind, and dust would collect to the point where her hair would be filthy in a single day. Performing daily chores would make long flowing hair a nuisance, and an unlikely choice as well. Laura herself refers to keeping her hair plaited and putting it up…that was probably not only because she was becoming a “young lady” but likely a very practical and necessary thing to do. Anecdotally speaking, my own hair is halfway down my back and the one or two times I’ve worn it down while roaming all over De Smet and the area I quickly regretted it…but I had the luxury of a hotel shower and good conditioner and styling tools. Laura and her contemporaries did not.

    I’m going to have to say that while the painting is a gorgeous piece of art, it is simply art and not an accurate reflection of day-to-day life. Of course, it probably wasn’t meant to be…that’s why it is called “artistic license.” In any case, the cover is lovely.

  3. Dorothy Killian. It is a beautiful painting. I am anxious to read the book. I went through South Dakota a year and a half ago. I really like it. it is beautiful. I live in Washington State,which is also beautiful in a different way. I would like to visit your state again and stay awhile to see more of it.

  4. The cover is stunning because it makes the book look attractive to the average reader. Coming from something of an academic press, as this title does, it needs to have a very enticing cover to draw readers to it. I only hope it gets absolutely great distribution and publicity.

  5. I imagine Laura walking away from the claim shanty with her bonnet on and hair braided, under Ma’s watchful eyes, and then as soon as she’s out of sight she takes off her bonnet and shakes out her hair, enjoying the feel of the warm prairie breezes blowing through her beautiful thick hair while she sits gazing at Silver Lake. Then when she’s all done she sighs, puts her hair back into a quick braid, puts on her bonnet and heads back for before dinner chores. And Ma sees strands of hair loose and knows exactly what she’s done and gives her a quick but loving chiding while Laura helps with dinner prep. And Pa looks at his half pint with blue eyes twinkling with an understanding that passes between father and daughter without a word needing to be said. That water color is speaking volumes to me, it’s outstanding!

  6. What a beautiful painting and a treasure to look forward to reading. I am curious as to why Laura is depicted writing. Was that artistic license, or did she keep a journal or notebook? I have always wondered how she could recall is such vivid detail for all the stories for her books when she started writing much later in life. I have looked and found no reference to her having the luxury of keeping written notes. I have simply attributed it to all the describing she had to do for Mary to be her eyes. I would surely love to know otherwise however. Thank you!

    • Perhaps Mary is away at the school for the blind and Laura is writing her a letter full of her descriptions of the wild prairie grasses, the sky and the light shimmering on Silver Lake

  7. It’s a pretty cover but more suited to a YA book than one meant for adults. If I were walking by a table and just glanced at it, I would assume it was a book for my 15 yr old and not me.

    • I agree. I would have preferred something more academic-looking – there are plenty of photographs to choose from, for example.

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