Jonathan Thunder Q&A

May 3, 2021
Jonathan Thunder infuses his art with humor and surrealism.

“I’ve been working on a series about Native Americana. It’s about how mainstream media and American culture are designed to erase the history between tribes and colonizers to make our troubled past cute. Context is important to set the stage for a real conversation about current events. Take Paul Bunyon for example. What better way to make displacing tribal nations in MN look honorable than to dress it up as a big strong man with a cute blue ox?”

You employ both surrealism and naturalism in your paintings. How important is it to you not to self-edit in the concept stage?

It’s hard to ignore the images that pop up in my head when I’m creating. It’s usually based in some sort of poetic orgy of reality and my thoughts around a subject. It’s important to let it go all the way. In consideration to my audience I do trim some things that I might see as off topic. It’s a hard line to walk when I’m indulging the intuitive. I’ve taken things out of a painting or film after the fact, and added things in as well. Process is a big part. Process and experimentation.

How do you know which ideas of yours you should spend time with? 

It’s a matter of how bad do I want to paint this. On any given day, I have tons of ideas that never make the cut. I like to make notes, sketches, research the subject, then I have a better idea if its right. I have quite a few drawings that never made it to the canvas yet. I say yet because I always think there’s a chance that they might make more sense at a later time.

Your work has always reminded me of Ralph Steadman. Was he an influence? Whose work do you admire?

I dig Ralph Steadman’s ink drawings. What I like about his work is how it was connected to Hunter S. Thompson during their collaborations. There’s a story behind those messy images and a messy truth, with his spattered ink and distorted subjects. I identified with Thompson’s writing style and his way of painting the truth through exaggerated reporting. That’s when I discovered Steadman. By then I was already using a combination of washes and drips, exaggerated forms and violence. Earl Biss was a big influence on me in college when I was studying painting in Santa Fe, NM. His use of allowing a modeled image to trail off into drips spoke to me because I was exploring the line between our world and the supernatural, or interdimensional sight. I like to follow artists who work like me. Truth, beauty, beast and a little drop of poison. Writers have had a big influence on how I think creatively, ’90s hip-hop artists, Ice Cube for example, independent films and poetry. A local poet, Heid Erdrich, has been able to bring me to tears at her readings because her balance of dark and light speaks to me in just the right way. We’ve made some surreal poem films together too, her voice, my animations.

You’ve spoken about the process of chiaroscuro, in which an artist begins with a dark surface and pulls the light forward. Do you find this process can result in a more comprehensive experience for the viewer?

I do like to work from dark to light. I was studying the work of a painter named TC Cannon in my early years. His painting style seemed to play on the dark to light method. I appreciate how you can create layers and depth by allowing underpaintings to show through. I’m not quite at methodical but I do like to work back and forth through the layers until it feels right. My commentary on the sociopolitical state of things often mixes naturally into my material. How I see the world is my still life. I try to arrange the objects in a way that create a synopsis. The dry humor comes natural for me, although I’m told it’s hard to tell if I’m joking. There’s an audience that can see my humor. The gallows-style humor helps me think straight when discussing difficult material. My most memorable teachers would teach with a dash of wit.

You now live in Duluth. How does living there influence your work?

Duluth has had a big impact on me since I migrated from Minneapolis seven years ago. In my first year here I moved into a loft at the Washington Studios in central Hillside. The tall ceilings, huge windows and rugged hardwood floors are a perfect playground for a painter. I started working on large canvases almost exclusively. I since then have had other studios, some large some small. But that time at Washington Studios helped me find some big ideas. Duluth has a great mix of Ojibwe cultural events and the art scene here is alive and well, two things that feed my spirit.

You’re also an animator and filmmaker.  How do the satisfactions compare between paint on canvas and images on screen?

I love both mediums. I always had an interest in movies. The best job I had in college was working at a video rental store in Brooklyn Center called Main Street Video. I grew up renting there. The job entailed a lot of discussing films, director’s filmographies, and genres with customers. Dave, the owner, always stocked some independent films, foreign, and a variety of classic horror. If I ever get a chance, I want to open a video rental place like it, where you go through the whole experience of coming into the store, browsing videos and talking about them with an employee who is on hand just straightening movie cases on the shelf, buy microwave popcorn and gummy bears at check-out, then leave with no actual video in hand, because you’ll go home and stream it. Another influence came in 2003, the Walker museum was showing this exhibit about boxing in contemporary art called “The Squared Circle.” I went because I was mostly excited about seeing paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. While I was there, I noticed some amazing video installations. These to me, were like paintings, done in video and performance art, short stories, vignettes even. I was so inspired by them I knew it was something I wanted to take on. Since then, I’ve been working on exploring video and animation, visual effects and animated paintings. In a couple months I’ll be installing a large-scale, animated video installation at the Minneapolis Airport. The work brings together three adaptations of Ojibwe stories in contemporary form and media. I’ve added my own brand of storytelling to it, but overall it will be an experience like no other.

You are a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation. How much is your work part of a larger narrative?

The connection between my work and Ojibwe history and culture is continuously developing and changing. Having grown up in the Twin Cities I wasn’t really immersed in the culture. But through my work and career I’ve managed to learn quite a bit about it by collaborating with culture bearers and language teachers. Naturally its integrated into my stories and paintings as a way of showing context. I try to pay attention to things that are impacting my community in Red Lake, other tribal nations around me, as well as here in Duluth and in Minneapolis. You can see some of this in my canvases and short films, which I keep open to discussion, but my meaning is there.

Minnesota is going  through a long-overdue reckoning about how minorities are treated. How much has the Minnesota experience impacted your work? Do you have optimism for progress?

I have optimism. It’ll take time. My family’s home was in Brooklyn Center on 55th & Bryant. Looking back, my main concern at Earl Brown elementary, was a lack of education in schools that would help people understand each other. It led to a lot of situations where I felt pushed out by staff and students. I think that’s the key, educate young people early. I see some great activity with the generation younger than me by way of understanding each other and progress. For my generation and older I still see some difficulty adapting to change. Real reconciliation and amends are important. You can say “sorry” 100 times and it only makes those “sorrys” less meaningful each time it’s said. America has yet to say sorry once, and real amends are barely visible down the road. This next gen, they have the right idea. I hope they can hang onto that momentum; we just need to set the example. I’ve been working on a series about Native Americana. It’s about mainstream media and American culture designed around erasing the history between tribes and colonizers to make our troubled past cute. Context is important to set the stage for a real conversation about current events. Take Paul Bunyon for example. What better way to make displacing tribal nations in MN look honorable than to dress it up as a big strong man with a cute blue ox?

What is next for you?

I was a 2020 – 2021 grantee of the Pollock-Kraser Foundation in NY, from February to February. It created momentum for me to paint more. I’ll be in an exhibit at the Joseph Nease Gallery in Duluth showcasing some paintings and digital canvases animated. In August I’m invited to show work at a group show in Brooklyn, NY. Covid limitations play a role in how the details for these exhibits will look. Currently I’m working on the install at the Minneapolis Airport called Manifest’o. The Arts@MSP team there have been great to work with. Recently my work was in an auction on Nifty Gateway, which is a digital market for collectors of NFTs. I had some great success there. I worked with a curatorial team that planned the details of the auction, and we’re working out the details of the next auction this summer, which I am making work for now. I’m working with the Hennepin Theatre Trust as a mentor to three artists with a focus on digital artistry and animation. All My Relations Gallery has been the community partner that hosts each meeting. The cohort has several opportunities that I’ll be consulting on, from a mural, digital billboards around Minneapolis, and eventually an exhibit. What else… The Tweed Museum is commissioning me to create a mural in their main gallery in the fall, I’ll be working with UMD students there. In between all that, I just want to get on my 18-speed bike and get some miles in up the shore, and perhaps do a road trip with my wife who is a writer, Tashia Hart. She’ll be publishing a book about wild rice through the Minnesota Historical Society. Its open to pre-orders now. I’m not great at it but I try to keep up with my Instagram and Twitter if you want to holler at me there. And you can see my site at