Freddy Krueger, Wolverine are a few of Ojibwe artist Jonathan Thunder's muses

Jonathan Thunder, 'Defend the Sacred'

Jonathan Thunder, 'Defend the Sacred'

Not many people would cite Freddy Krueger as an artistic inspiration, but one glance at Jonathan Thunder’s artwork and it’s easy to see the influence.

The Ojibwe artist, born on the Red Lake reservation and raised in the Twin Cities, became fascinated by the horror film character around 11 years of age. “One of my babysitters would always watch scary movies when she would come over,” Thunder explains. “I became completely fascinated by the genre. Freddy was always my favorite -- maybe because he was kind of funny but he was also really scary. I think the dream sequences in which he hunted his prey were surreal.”

“Surreal” and “scary” are two words easily associated with Thunder’s paintings. His eerie and unsettling style combines comic book-like characters, Native symbolism, human-animal hybrids, and dark humor. Thunder’s paintings are not horrific enough to make the viewer turn away, but rather inspire curiosity. Skeletal figures, contorted expressions, and malfunctioning robots evoke a moribund vibe.

“You could call it death. You could call it life,” Thunder says. “You could call it paintings that exist in both worlds: this world and a world that is somewhat a spirit world or a dream world. I like to explore that other realm.”

Thunder began collecting and creating his own comics around the same time he was introduced to Krueger. Often, he’d draw Nightmare on Elm Street comics with himself inserted into the story, battling Krueger. Thunder was also a fan of things like Archie, Calvin and Hobbes, Tales from the Crypt, and X-Men's Wolverine. “I love the over-the-top style of storytelling, fantastic voyages, and outrageous characters that are found in those worlds,” he says. Stylistically, Thunder is attracted to bold line work and ink drawings. “I have always appreciated the ability to exaggerate the features of a subject to show emotion or character,” he says.

In addition to painting, Thunder excels at animation, including video poems, animated short stories, and music videos. “When you work in animation, you have four dimensions to work in -- the 3-D space and you have time -- so you’re able to show movement and gesture and create dialogue. I have little vignettes that I write in my head and stories that I like to tell. When I get to work in animation, that’s an outlet for me to create that,” he says. One of his shorts, "Walk in Dreams," features creepy critters and ghoulish bunnies with pulsing eyes. It’s Tim Burton spooky with a lullaby-like soundtrack, a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.

“I like the way dreams are put together,” Thunder says. “Dreams are like stories written with poetry. They move freely with and without form. The people and places in your dreams change identity without warning. That is the beauty of dreams, and if it’s your dream it makes perfect sense. This is the same structure that I like to use to compose my stories for my paintings and for my animations.”

It was in high school that Thunder began to contemplate art as a career. A school counselor gave Thunder a pamphlet from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He held onto the information, but ended up taking an office job after graduation instead. Though Thunder was well paid and had benefits, he wasn’t happy working in a cubicle. In 1999, he quit his job, enrolled in IAIA, threw all his belongings in his car, and drove to Santa Fe. There, he studied multiple mediums --sculpture, performance art, writing -- before deciding painting was his strength.

Thunder eventually returned to Minnesota to study visual effects and motion graphics at the Art Institutes International MN. He now lives and works in Duluth at the Washington Studios Artists Cooperative, a restored school where classrooms have been turned into lofts that overlook Lake Superior. He has managed to make a living as a full-time artist thanks to painting sales, animation project commissions, and teaching workshops.

Thunder favors an audacious palette in his artwork. “I think it’s super fascinating to put bright colors on a canvas and see how they react to each other,” he says. As for the Native symbolism omnipresent in his art, “I think that stuff comes up naturally for me because of my culture and my heritage. It’s always in there because that’s the lens that I see the world through. That’s the aesthetic that I identify with.”

But just because he has a unique style and has established a name for himself in the arts community doesn’t mean the gallery world has opened its arms to him. “I haven’t had the easiest time finding places to show my work because it’s not what I would consider commercial artwork,” he says. “Galleries, for the most part, are businesses, so if they are not aware of how to sell something, they’re not going to represent it. Places that do show my work are generally art spaces that have funding or grant money, and institutes.”

His next exhibition, at All My Relations gallery, opens this Saturday and includes five of Thunder’s paintings as well as animation. Fellow Ojibwe artist Karen Savage will share the walls with him. Thunder also has a solo exhibit, "Peripheral Vignettes," on display now through September 1 at the Duluth Art Institute.

Even after his shows close, Thunder is sure to be a mainstay of the Minnesota art scene for years to come. “Art is my life. Art is everything to me. It’s not only what I do, it’s who I am.”


All My Relations gallery
The opening reception runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, August 26.