Friday, August 18, 2017

Tuesday Artist Talk: Jonathan Thunder @ Duluth Art Institute


Tuesday evening the Duluth Art Institute hosted an artist talk featuring Jonathan Thunder, whose work is currently on display in the Morrison Gallery, Kathy McTavish serving as moderator. Thunder, who hails from the Red Lake Reservation, grew up in an urban Twin Cities setting. His interest in art as a vocation led him to study painting in Santa Fe for three years. After this period of study he proceeded to isolate himself in order to paint without the influence of others and find his voice. What emerged was something of a blend of American cartoons, Southwest art, and a "magical realist" sense of the everyday... though it's evident that there's much more than meets the eye.

Thunder acknowledges that his first paintings were filtered through a Santa Fe lens. When the paintings sold it served as an encouragement to continue in that style, but for an artist it was more important to produce work that was honest. He took an inward journey to find this authentic self.


The artist, who grew up in an urban setting, noted that many stories are tragedies. He cited Shakespeare, who also wrote tragedies, and how the Bard would find light in the darkness. He described the process of chiaroscuro in which one begins with a dark foundation and layers the light over the dark surface, pulling everything forward.

Most of the paintings feature a single character which is often cartoonish, but which has layers of meaning. "I've met with a lot of different responses to my work," he said. Because it doesn't fit the mold of a traditional Southwest style, he added, "It would be hard to get into a Santa Fe gallery. They don't know how to sell it."

"I like to paint truthful pictures," he stated. As a result, his work doesn't perfectly align with a Native or Non-native gallery.

Thunder moved to the Twin Ports four years ago and has appreciated the warmth he's found in this community. He's also begun some collaborative work that has taught him new things about the "beauty of collaboration.


Most of the paintings show strong, defined characters, but two of the pieces in the alcove feature softer imagery. He assented that it was a change of direction, that the softer imagery has become more painterly and is "a reverse of what I normally do," beginning with defined images that he washed over and repainted and washed again. Like many other painters in the room it was evident that he likes paint.

The artist also discussed his interest in animation, which was triggered by his seeing a remarkable black and white film of a shadow boxer at the Walker Museum. Quoting Charles Bukowski he said, "If you're going to try, go all the way."

Nearly all the seats were filled when Kathy McTavish introduced the speaker at the beginning, but as more people arrived, more chairs were brought in. One could tell that everyone was engaged for when the Q&A began. A dialogue commenced between audience and artist for near forty minutes, discussions about every aspect of the work it seemed. One recurring theme was in regards to how far a painting should be explained by the artist. I think a case could be made for taking opposing sides on this, but I did appreciate one observer's remark: "It's like explaining a joke. If they don't get it..."

The impression I was left with afterwards was of an artist whose skills have been honed, as well as his vision. His "voice" has an unrestrained quality, like the singers who accompany the dancers at a powwow: bold, evocative and seriously moving.  It's been good having this voice in Duluth. It will be a worthwhile endeavor to follow him as his career unfolds.

* * * *
EdNote: There will be a September 8 opening for Wendy Rouse, and a September 9 workshop.
Also, Jonathan Thunder will be featured in an exhibition at the All My Relations Gallery on Franklin Avene in Minneapolis.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it!

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