Obituary: California Journal artist Dagmar Thompson, 67, grew up in politics

01/31/2014 5:46 PM

02/18/2014 7:54 PM

Dagmar Thompson, an artist whose upbringing in a well-known Sacramento political family informed her talent as an illustrator and graphic designer for California Journal magazine, died Wednesday of lung cancer, friends said. She was 67.

A modest, unassuming woman who painted and sculpted, Ms. Thompson followed her two elder siblings into the rough-and-tumble world of politics at the state Capitol. Her brother Steve Thompson was a force behind the scenes as chief of staff for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and later as a lobbyist for the California Medical Association. Her brother Rolfe Thompson III was a top aide to state Treasurer Jesse Unruh, a powerful Democratic politician.

Ms. Thompson made her mark for 13 years at the California Journal, a widely respected periodical that examined statewide public policy issues. She joined the staff in 1992 and served as art director. Besides laying out pages, she created or commissioned provocative cover illustrations and selected photos and graphics that explained and enhanced stories about weighty subjects.

“She empathized and understood things in such a way that she gave a visual voice to those articles that went far beyond the words,” said former journal writer Sigrid Bathen, who covered issues related to mental health, foster care, children and the elderly. “She was a gifted artist.”

Besides an inside understanding of politics, Ms. Thompson “had a good feel for journalism that allowed her to really be innovative in ways that were on point with the magazine,” former journal editor A.G. Block said. “The only argument she and I used to have is that I am a huge political cartoon buff, and she didn’t like cartoons to illustrate important stories.”

Born Nov. 29, 1946, Ms. Thompson belonged to a family with deep roots in the capital and California politics. She was the youngest child of Helen Münch and Harlan McBain Thompson, a lawyer who was one of the first U.S. attorneys in Sacramento. Her grandfather, Rolfe Lyon Thompson III, was a state appeals court judge.

She grew up in the Land Park neighborhood – where her brother Steve ran with childhood friends (and later prominent Democrats) Phil Angelides and Bob Matsui – and graduated from McClatchy High School in 1964. She was active in the Free Speech Movement and earned a political science degree in 1968 from UC Berkeley, where she also studied art.

“Her family was so steeped in politics and current events and what was going on in the world and the community,” said her sister-in-law Nancy Miller Thompson.

“She was the youngest in the family, so she always felt like she had to fight for her position in a family where everyone was so accomplished. She was the artist, and that’s how she made her living and made public her own opinions.”

Ms. Thompson married William Jordan and lived in Germany, where he was stationed in the U.S. Army. They settled in the Bay Area, where she taught art at an elementary school and ran an art gallery in Marin County. The marriage ended in divorce, and she returned to Sacramento in 1991.

When California Journal stopped publication in 2005, she served as art director for Comstock’s Magazine and then worked for Children’s Action Inc. until retiring last year. She also free-lanced artwork for fundraising events for schools and charities.

Besides painting in oils and drawing with pastels, Ms. Thompson sculpted and created pottery. She attended reunion lunches and dinners with former California Journal staffers and created original cards for loved ones for birthdays and important events. She lived in Land Park and enjoyed spending time with close friends at familiar places.

“Dagmar was part of our family, and she came to dinner every Friday night for 20 years and watched our children grow up,” Block said. “Every Friday after dinner, we’d walk down to Vic’s and have some ice cream. She ordered rocky road.”

Ms. Thompson was predeceased by her brothers and had no children. A celebration of her life is set for 10 a.m. Sunday at Vic’s Ice Cream, 3199 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento.

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