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DARK HUMOR ON CANVAS: Duluth artist’s Native American, nature themes on display at Zeitgeist

Jonathan Thunder talks about how he uses sketches while creating paintings. He made the drawing in the foreground while creating the piece“Drunken Rabbit.” (News Tribune)1 / 4
Duluth artist Jonathan Thunder stands in front of a 48-inch-wide by 64-inch-high work in progress in his Washington Studios apartment while talking about his work. Eight of Thunder’s paintings are on exhibit at Zeitgeist. (News Tribune)2 / 4
Four of the eight Jonathan Thunder paintings on display at Zietgeist: "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Jackalope" (from the left), "The Deafening Tones of Thunderbird Woman," "Deer Woman Gets a Manicure" and "Kill the Wabbit." (News Tribune)3 / 4
The finished piece “Drunken Rabbit,” acrylic on a 20-inch-wide, 24-inch-tall birch panel. The piece is one of eight of Jonathan Thunder's paintings on exhibit at Zietgeist Artium. (News Tribune)4 / 4

Covered in various shades of red, a canvas measuring more than 5 feet tall sat on Jonathan Thunder’s easel.

His intention is for the red canvas to become an acrylic painting of an owl in the Cubist art style. On an easel nearby, a smaller painting of a tree with a red background has been an artwork-in-progress for more than a year, and Thunder said he’s determined to finish it, but sometimes feels like painting over it.

He explained about his thought process while painting, “Sometimes if I take myself out of the equation, my painting becomes stronger. It just comes from somewhere else and not me.”

He’s usually working on a few paintings at the Washington Studio Artist Cooperative in the Central Hillside neighborhood, switching between canvasses when he tires of a painting. Right now, four pieces are underway in his studio, encompassing a former math classroom in the closed Washington Junior High building.

He finishes his paintings when his intuition — “the voice, little painter pixies in my head” — tells him the painting is done, and he feels that the details of the painting look complete, he said.

Eight of his finished artworks can be viewed in his show, “Underwater Dreaming Bunnies,” on display in Zeitgeist Arts Atrium during the month of May. An opening reception is scheduled Monday from 5-7 p.m. at Zeitgeist.

Andy Bennett, Zeitgeist Arts creative director, said he and an intern were compiling a list of artists whose works could be exhibited at Zeitgeist. After reaching out to the local arts community, Thunder’s name kept coming up. In addition to the solo show, Bennett said they also chose Thunder as one of three local artists to complete a painting representing what arts in the community means to them.

Thunder’s artwork is vibrant, unique and daring, with a sense of fun and a tongue-and-cheek feel to it, Bennett said.

“For me, I love the intersection of the Native American themes and the nature themes with pop culture sensibilities,” Bennett said. “He has a real sense of playfulness about his work. They’re really, really beautiful pieces, but you can see he’s got a sort-of loose style, which I really like.”

Anne Dugan, director of the Duluth Art Institute, is excited to see Thunder have a solo show at Zeitgeist. His artwork stopped her in her tracks the first time she saw it, she said.

“I think he’s a wonderful voice to have in our community because he’s exploring a lot of really interesting ideas and the fact that he’s willing to go to these dark places is, in my mind, what art can do really well — create a space where we can talk and have an exchange and it takes that one person to bring us there, and I think that’s what Jonathan’s doing,” she said.

Darkness with love, humor

Containing dark humor, Thunder’s paintings contain human and animal characters painted in deep blues and reds with stark lines as a part of a “dreamscape representation of the seen world,” he explains in his artist statement posted on the wall of his Zeitgeist show.

“The characters in my paintings come to me as any dream would, as messengers and pivotal roles that carry out the story. They change identities and faces just as fluidly as most of the characters in our lives change on a daily basis with and without notice or reason,” his statement reads.

From his studio recently he said, “My artwork has always come from a spiritual place. It comes from wherever dreams come from, wherever intuition comes from. I’m part of the equation and not exactly sure where I come in, but it always is a reflection of where I am, where my journey’s taken me.”

Dugan said Thunder’s paintings explore darkness combined with love and humor. He’s not afraid of color, and the characters in his paintings are like fragments pieced together into a whole.

“You see a Jonathan Thunder painting and you know that it’s his work,” Dugan said. “I think he explores identity in a really interesting way, both his own as well as this sort of human condition. That’s where some of the dark comes through in a lot of ways, in a sense that he’s not shying away from anything, which I think is something that startles us a Minnesotans, to have that really honest and tough look at humanity. But it comes from this place of compassion, and I think that shines through.”

Born in Red Lake and raised in the Twin Cities, Thunder became interested in art in third grade. But, it was attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe, N.M., and the Art Institutes International Minnesota that taught him discipline, craftsmanship, different art styles, working as an arts professional and, he said, “what it really means to be an artist.”

His early paintings explored dark material because he grew up watching horror films and he’s drawn to Edgar Allen Poe’s work and William Shakespeare’s tragedies. His work reflects his life at that point and as he’s evolved as an artist, his paintings have taken on a lighter tone, he said.

“As I progressed in life and become more enlightened, they still are like dreams that reflect where I’m at in life, but the dreams aren’t as tragic,” he said.

His paintings don’t have commonly used Native American imagery because he believes it would be unethical for him to use it considering he didn’t grow up in Red Lake. But he said he’s been told that his paintings have a texture and intensity to them that reflect Native American artwork.

“I try not to exploit that imagery, though, since it’s not necessarily my lifestyle since I’m very urban,” he said.

‘Enchanting-looking city’

Needing a change, Thunder moved to Duluth from Minneapolis in 2014 because “Duluth has always been a very enchanting-looking city for me,” he said.

He’s found a community where he belongs through helping the American Indian Community Housing Organization with artwork and events. He also created a mural encouraging people to keep tobacco sacred for the Lincoln Park Children and Families Cooperative’s Kick Butts Day this year, and the mural can be seen on the back of a Duluth Transit Authority bus.

Sometimes, an organization’s deadline spurs him to paint. Other times, it’s an organic process of an image inspiring him, becoming “a blinder” until he paints it, he said. He also finds inspiration from work by other artists who take chances.

“When I’m following another artist’s work and he or she does something that’s really great, that keeps me fueled, keeps me brave with the work that I do,” he said.

“How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Jackalope” is his favorite painting and can be seen as part of his show at the Zeitgeist. The painting — one of two he completed during an artist residency in Sante Fe — depicts a man with a large skull greeting a rabbit. Spending four weeks in Sante Fe beginning in February made him more open to letting his environment influence his paintings, he said. His art usually reflects colors and imagery typically seen from southwestern American artists, “but while I was there, I just let it flow,” he said.

He tries to show his artwork a few times a year, but also spends part of the year completing commercial digital and animation art for clients to fill the financial gap. He said his big moment in his commercial work came last year when he created an animation of the Iroqouis’ creation story and the beginning of lacrosse, shown on a large screen during the opening ceremony of the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship. There was the pressure of wanting to get it right with people from 13 countries viewing it during the event, and he spent 16 hours a day for weeks completing the animation because, he said, “the world is watching.”

When it comes to his work, he wants people to have a reaction to it. He has his own narrative about what is happening in his paintings — and sometimes that narrative changes during the creation of the piece — but he wants viewers to form their own opinion about an artwork.

“I want them to feel something when they look at the painting because I think there are a lot of paintings in the world that you can walk by and it just looks like part of the wall or it doesn’t affect you in any way. I want them to feel something and I encourage them to create their own narrative from the painting,” he said.

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