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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Scene queen
Jessica Thompson links local music with local art
Thompson builds bridges on her Web site Contessa Says.
Thompson builds bridges on her Web site Contessa Says.
Credit:Pete Olsen

Jessica Thompson, 28, is remaking the Madison music scene with the help of her adopted persona, Contessa. Tagged with that nickname by a local musician (Dan Clark of Null Device and Stromkern) more than a year ago, Thompson has since used it as an emblem of her style and the goals of her work.

"A contessa refers to an Italian countess," explains Thompson. "She's regal and knows everything that is going on within her region, yet lacks the aloof and pretentious nature of some others in the noble hierarchy."

That's an apt description of Thompson, who brings a sense of executive elegance to her passion for punk, hip-hop and indie rock. But it also reflects Thompson's knack for building bridges between things that may not share an obvious relationship.

She's spent the past year forging a link between the local music and visual art scenes through her weekly Web journal, Contessa Says (

It's an effort motivated by her preference for music shows that "utilize all the senses." And it's reaping benefits for Madison musicians and artists alike.

"The music and art communities in Madison are fairly fragmented," says Thompson. "My idea was to draw in people who may only have an interest in one of those scenes and to expose them to the other."

Thompson's Web site provides a weekly calendar of notable music shows and art receptions. Each month, Contessa Says spotlights one local music talent and one visual artist via extended features and other coverage.

The monthly spotlight culminates in a sponsored showcase event at a local club. The event is one part music gig, one part art reception.

Thompson's enthusiasm for Madison's music and art scenes has only grown since she relocated here more than two years ago.

"When I moved here from Stevens Point, I became enraptured with the city and what it had to offer from a cultural standpoint," she says. "Then I realized there were people who had lived here their whole lives who didn't know about these artists at all."

Thompson, who graduated from UW-Stevens Point with a degree in communications, seems well her on her way to becoming the unofficial executive director of the music scene.

She's already the official executive director of a nonprofit organization she recently founded. The Foundation of Retaining Creative Energy (FORCE) will focus on promoting the work of Madison musicians and artists. A goal is to stem the migration of local talent to cities deemed more supportive of their craft.

"Just last year we lost these amazing people like Brody Rose, Rob Dz and Carl Johns," says Thompson. Hip-hop artists Rose and Dz moved to D.C. and Chicago last summer, while Johns relocated to Philadelphia to be closer to the East Coast touring circuit.

"If we don't pay attention to these artists," says Thompson, "they're going to go away."

From that starting point, Thompson's agenda gets significantly more ambitious. FORCE will operate the Madison Area Open Art Studios, a citywide fall weekend event in which artists open their studios so the public can come see where they create.

By this spring, FORCE will also include Leigh Artistic Promotions, a public relations agency aimed at assisting area musicians and visual artists through press releases, show fliers and other media materials.

Finally, Thompson is planning to have FORCE publish "musician and visual art start-up booklets."

According to the fledgling FORCE Web page (currently embedded in contessasays. com), the booklets will "offer information and advice on starting a music or art career. They'll be written to meet the audience need of both emerging talent as well as individuals moving to Dane County."

Content will include "helpful tips on gaining exposure and shows" and "listings of relevant vendors, venues and media contacts."

Earlier this month, Contessa Says celebrated its one-year anniversary with a show and reception at the Common Wealth Gallery. On the music side, the event featured the Buffali and Nick Venturella. The reception featured works by Paul Hendrickson and eight other artists.

"It was an incredible success," says Thompson. "More than 300 people attended the event."

Below her photo at (where she poses in a business suit and a sparkly crystal choker) Thompson lists this among her recent achievements: She was named one of In Business magazine's "40 Under 40" for 2006.

But don't call her the queen of the scene just yet. She prefers Contessa.

Contessa Says presents "A Rockin Valentine's Day" at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 14, at the King Club. It features 500 Miles to Memphis, Sharp & Harkins Band, Todd Deatherage and Cudasigh.

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