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Former Emerson Men’s Basketball Star Becomes All-Star Quilter

By David Ertischek ’01

That’s probably a headline you’ve never read before.

That is the life Michael Thorpe ’16 is stitching together as he’s quickly drawn praise in a very short time when he decided to make a career of quilting in 2018.

His work has gained so much attention that he’s featured in a Dove soap commercial airing during the NCAA March Madness tournament. Thorpe said he received an Instagram DM asking him if he was interested in the ad, which focuses on celebrating Black athletes off the court. As part of the campaign, he’s also participating in a panel with current collegiate athletes in April.

At Emerson, Thorpe starred on for the basketball team all four years, leading the team as its point guard and captain.

“On the court he was a smooth, creative player who had great court vision and a great understanding of spatial awareness,” said Bill Curley, men’s basketball head coach. “It is not surprising to see that he has used his vision to create such beautiful quilts.”

  • A quilt of a man sitting wearing a purple suit, sitting on a stool with an American flag behind him
  • A quilt of a man
  • A quilt of a person
  • A quilt of a man holding an orange ball
  • An artistically made quilt
  • A quilt showing sunglasses and hands
  • A quilt showing a head
  • Quilt of a woman

Through quilting, Thorpe has pieced together his own unique artistic space, creating works that are selling for thousands of dollars.

Thorpe, a Journalism major at Emerson with a concentration in photojournalism, was looking for an artistic outlet after college. He thought about becoming a painter, but said he got serious about quilting after his mother got a new sewing machine.

“This machine came into the house, and I said, ‘Oh, I got to learn it’,” said Thorpe. “I started messing around with quilting, and after that I saw I can basically paint with fabric and thread. That set the course on what I am on today.”

That path is inspired by life, and he hopes his view of the world brings happiness to other people when they see his work.

His solo exhibition, Meandering Thoughts, opens at the LaiSun Keane gallery in Boston’s SOWA Art District on April 15, and runs through May 29. The exhibition’s title is exemplified by random topics, such as an imagined trip to space, beer consumption, and Dick Gregory’s 1968 presidential run.

“I look at me as a person, being a contrarian, I’m interested or fascinated by so many things. I want to portray that in my art. There’s a lot of recurring themes like my friends and family,” said Thorpe. “But that’s definitely not just what I want to be known for. I want to make all types of subject matter. That’s loosely the basis of my upcoming show. It’s all rooted in these ideas. My new wildest dreams.”

Journalist Ronnie Forchheimer ’81, who has taught Sports Communication at Emerson, produced a video on Thorpe hosted on Only Good TV, run by Rob Hess ’81.

Thorpe’s quick ascendance in the art world is not lost upon on him. He said he appreciates already having a solo exhibition so early in his career when there are artists who struggle for years to just get one piece in a show.

“A lot of it is luck. Basketball is an easy metaphor for life. Basketball and art are similar. There are so many uber-talented people in basketball and art who don’t make it,” said Thorpe. “There’s no rhyme or reason of all the success to coming my way. I attribute it a lot of hard work.”

Thorpe said being a biracial man who used to play basketball also garners attention, as it’s an interesting and nontraditional story.

“Think about art and you have a lot of painters. There’s a really long line. Instead of standing in the painting line, you’re standing in a quilting line. It’s super-duper short. Then on top of that the line of male quilters is shorter,” said Thorpe. “In the Northeast, quilters are predominantly white. In the Northeast [being a male quilter] is more of a novelty.”

It also helps that quilting runs through his lineage — his mother is a quilter, as was her mother.

But as on the court, his skills are what has led him to the front of the line.

“Michael Thorpe’s basketball game was pure artistry, as everyone else on the court was running, Mike’s movement was like poetry in motion as he glided around the court,” said Stan Nance, senior associate director of athletics.

Some may consider his Emerson life nontraditional, as he didn’t just hang with the jocks.

“Being a student at Emerson was a vastly different experience. It really opened my eyes, coming from a popular jock in high school to going to Emerson allowed me to see the world. What’s actually in the world,” said Thorpe. “There were amazing, creative people I got exposed to and it allowed me to by myself unabashedly. That was a great lesson.”

Thorpe said one day, he wants to be one of the few artists who are written about in textbooks and go by just one name, like Picasso or Basquiat – or Thorpe.

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