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A contemporary palette of Ojibwe dreams

"Defend the Sacred" by Jonathan Thunder1 / 2
Jonathan Thunder and Duluth Art Institute Director Anne Dugan.2 / 2

In late June, the Duluth Art Institute (DAI) hosted an opening of Jonathan Thunder's latest show, "Peripheral Vignettes," of large-scale paintings and animations. Fellow Ojibwe artists including Jim Denomie and Karen Savage-Blue, The Tweed's Director Ken Bloom, DAI staff and board members, and young and older aficionados of contemporary Native artwork crowded the series of narrow high-ceilinged rooms. Briand Morrison, son of renowned Minnesota Ojibwe artist George Morrison, played an edgy upbeat jazz guitar in one room, next to a portrait titled "Defend the Sacred," in which a large Sasquatch figure in deepening shades of teal cries blood that pools in rivulets below his feet, a reference to the Dakota pipeline controversy. Poet Dustin Blacketter read his short poem inspired by Thunder's painting, "The Bullet That Killed Me." On a screen near the entryway, a series of Thunder's animated short films run continuously.

Jonathan Thunder is a Red Lake-enrolled Ojibwe who grew up in Minneapolis. With his mother's encouragement, he began drawing as a child, creating comics by age 11 and painting murals in high school, where a counselor encouraged him to go to college. After working in an AT&T cubicle for a stretch, he enrolled in the unique Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where his mentors encouraged him to work with themes from his own culture and find his own voice. After his schooling, Thunder remained in Santa Fe for three years painting and studying how to be a gallery artist. "But I was a better waiter than a gallery artist," he reflects. He began to see how the preferences of art buyers were shaping others' work.

Thunder decided to return to Minneapolis, where he completed a bachelor's degree in visual effects and motion graphics at the Art Institute International Minnesota. Moving to Duluth, he found a home in Washington Studios, the 1911 Washington Junior High School that Artspace Projects, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit, converted into cooperative artist live/work space in 1996. There, high ceilings accommodate his large canvasses. He paints in rooms with Lake Superior-facing windows, excellent light for his intense colors.

Thunder's move to our region freed him to work more intuitively. He was drawn to the modeling style of art deco artists, the geometric nature of cubist work, and the narrative work of surrealists.

"I can create visual stories that express my own narratives, but the imagery comes to me from all over," he said. "Sometimes it seems like a series of small epiphanies."

Thunder has recently experimented with softer colors, including teals, dark turquoise and reds, shades generated from work with a colleague who helped him research color palettes. His narrative paintings explore the integration of traditional Native values with instruments of modern living.

Young artists often find it difficult to make a living from large-scale works. Gallery shows like the one at the DAI do generate income. From his 2016 exhibit titled "Singing our History," at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in Minneapolis, Thunder sold about half of the work he showed. Thunder practices a second art form that helps him pay the bills: illustration and animation. In recent years, he has created visuals for Ojibwe language videos and learning materials for the Fond du Lac schools and college, the Minnesota Historical Society and Wigwaas Press in Minneapolis. He teamed up at times with a former Disney imagineer, a man who has helped him learn the technical side as well as linking him to markets. In his most exciting animation gig, he created the opening ceremony visuals for the 2015 FIL World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in Syracuse, New York.

"I learned a bit about my Seneca heritage that comes from my great-grandmother and was advised on designing with the aesthetics and concepts of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)," he explained. "The animation was projected onto a four-sided screen that ran from the ground to the ceiling of the arena. They flew me out to New York to attend the event which was broadcast in 13 countries."

You can view his animation on youtube at Thunder's films and animations have won national awards from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (2014, 2015, 2016).

Thunder's show, "Peripheral Vignettes," will run through Sept. 4 at the Depot in Duluth. The catalogue for the show contains a lovely introduction by DAI Director Anne Dugan and a longer essay, "Walk in Dreams: The Work of Jonathan Thunder" by Mason Riddle, both excellent reading. On July 20, there will be a film screening at Teatro Zuccone, and an artist talk and book signing at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 15, both at the DAI.

If You Go

Jonathan Thunder's show, "Peripheral Vignettes," will run through Sept. 4 at the Depot in Duluth.

There will be a film screening at 7 p.m. July 20 at Teatro Zuccone, and an artist talk and book signing at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 15, both at the DAI.