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Artist spaces: Jonathan Thunder makes dark, playful pieces at Washington Studios

Jonathan Thunder applies black paint to a large canvas in his studio/apartment space in Washington Studios in Duluth. Thunder's show, "Vignettes from the Peripheral," opened this week at Duluth Art Institute. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 9
A painting of Hunter S. Thompson by Jonathan Thunder sits prominently in the Duluth artist's space. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 9
Jonathan Thunder's recent work has centered on masked superhero-like figures based on the stories from Anishinaabe culture that he heard while growing up, mixed with urban and contemporary settings. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 9
"How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Rabbit" by Jonathan Thunder. The dreamscape is Thunder's preferred style of storytelling in his paintings and animation. Submitted photo4 / 9
A drawing sits among paint tubes in Jonathan Thunder's Duluth studio. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)5 / 9
Jonathan Thunder's "Defend the Sacred" is one of his signature playful pieces about a serious topic -- in this case the Dakota Access Pipeline. Image courtesy of the DAI.6 / 9
A variety of paint brushes in Jonathan Thunder's studio. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)7 / 9
A used palette hangs in Jonathan Thunder's studio in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)8 / 9
A work area at Jonathan Thunder's studio space in Washington Studios in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)9 / 9

By the time you read this, Jonathan Thunder will have moved out of his fourth-floor apartment in Washington Studios and down to the second floor. This is probably good news for his cat, Benicio (named after Benicio Del Toro), who once took a flying leap from the window — but walked away with some scrapes and a limp and was fully recovered two weeks later.

Thunder, a painter and animator who lives-works-practices yoga within the same square footage, is looking forward to the change — not to mention the sunrises.

"It's bigger with different lighting, and it overlooks the lake," he said.

Earlier this week, Thunder was still on the fourth floor, where he created the works featured in "Vignettes from the Peripheral," an exhibition that opened Thursday at the Duluth Art Institute and runs through Sept. 4. The show includes 16 pieces, mostly large-scale acrylic paintings, animation and a catalog with essays by the art institute's director Anne Dugan and Twin Cities-based arts writer Mason Riddle.

Thunder's recent work has centered on masked superhero-like figures based on the stories from Anishinaabe culture that he heard while growing up, mixed with urban and contemporary settings. And the dreamscape is his preferred style of storytelling.

"I like the way dreams are put together in the sense that none of it is linear," Thunder said. "Time changes, places change, people change without warning. We could be sitting here and then suddenly I'd be a totally different person. But if it's your dream, it makes perfect sense. You'll never question that the person you were sitting in front of turned into someone else."

Dugan said the work is intensely personal, but also relatable.

"Audiences will be able to connect with them because of the rootedness in pop culture, folklore culture and his own Native traditions," she said.

The studio

Thunder's studio is standard for the building at 315 Lake Ave., which was once a junior high school and is currently owned by the Minneapolis-based company Artspace, which rents apartments to working artists. There are high ceilings, tall windows, open floor plans with spare rooms tucked into the edges.

Thunder had been using most of the large square main area of the apartment as a living room until he realized it was pulling him in the wrong direction.

"It was too easy to come home and just flop on the couch and watch TV," he said. "I had a couple exhibits coming up — one was the Duluth Art Institute show and another was in Bigfork — and I was also taking on a lot of animation projects.

"I figured I better reconfigure my home space so it's more work and less play."

So he moved the furniture into the bedroom, added a couple of easels and spread out his tools.

"I decided if I live in this giant studio, I should take advantage of making it more conducive to making artwork," he said. "That's how my life is anyway."

Most of his paintings are currently at the art institute for his show, but a bent and twisted likeness of Hunter S. Thompson — one of Thunder's favorite writers — was propped, in progress, on an easel. Nearby, a blank skateboard deck was in line for Thunder's bold color treatment.

Thunder uses one of his rooms for his steady stream of animation projects and during a recent visit, another cat, Uma (think Thurman) was just hanging out. Another room, just inside the door of the apartment, is where he stores his tools and canvas. The next tenant has plans to turn it into a recording studio, he said.

It's hard, Thunder admitted, to find balance in a space where his life and his work are entwined.

He pointed to a clearing in the middle of the room: That's where he lays out his yoga mat.

The work

Thunder's work has such a presence, Dugan said, that each large-scale painting deserves its own wall. "Defend the Sacred," a statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline, is given that space in the show. In it, Sasquatch cries blood, while spirits poke their heads up from the water.

"I love that it has really serious meaning," she said, "but it's drawing from Bigfoot, which can be a kind of fun figure."

In "The Bullet that Killed Me," A cloaked and masked figure holds a small bullet in its greenish hand while a squirrel with a skeleton belly plays a horn. In "9th and Hennepin," a male figure in a horned mask holds a small owl in his hand outside of, seemingly, a strip club. A deer head is mounted on top of a female form in "Deer Woman Gets a Manicure." She's surrounded by ladybugs and her nails are fresh pink.

Artist Shawna Gilmore, whose paintings also have a dreamy quality, said she relates to Thunder's work. She likes his bold colors and themes, and his sci-fi fantasy bend.

"I appreciate his playfulness and ability to not be afraid of using a sense of humor, but also having an edge, a darker side that is truer to life than a lot of us like to admit," she said.

Taking root

Thunder can trace his art impulse back to third grade, when his teacher asked the class to draw a happy face and a sad face. He was stumped. He took the assignment home and his mother easily made the faces — something like the modern-day emoji.

"I knew in my mind that I wanted to draw like my mom," he said.

Thunder grew up in Minneapolis, studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., and then got a BFA in visual effects and motion graphics from The Art Institutes International Minnesota.

He had his breakthrough moment in the early 2000s. He'd had a modest exhibition, a first mark on his resume, but nothing had sold. Later, the same work was shown at a gallery at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

The result was "A little romantic, a little bit of magic," he said.

Before the show, he added a zero to the price of each painting. You're the expert on your own art, he said, and if you say it's cheap, it's cheap. He wasn't saying that.

"I sold a bunch of work," Thunder said. "That solidified that maybe I can do this artist thing."

If you go

• What: Jonathan Thunder's "Vignettes from the Peripheral"

• When: through Sept. 4

• Where: Duluth Art Institute, 506 W. Michigan St.

Related events

• July 20: Screening of Thunder's animation at 7 p.m. at Teatro Zuccone, 222 E. Superior St.

• Aug. 15: Artist talk, 5:30 p.m., Duluth Art Institute

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