Jonathan Thunder

Constellation is a cohort of seven artists, Constellation: Video Storytelling, each creating a short video to be presented in a looped series that will be projected onto the Downtown Saint Paul Public Library – George Latimer on Rice Park. Videos shall interact with the architecture of the library building, transforming it into new visions for public space and public knowledge. Artists include: Za’nia Coleman; Boo McCaleb; SEE MORE PERSPECTIVE; Witt Siasoco; Miko Simmons; Jonathan Thunder; and Moira Villiard.

Thunder infuses his personal lens with real-time world experiences using a wide range of mediums. He is known for his surreal paintings, digitally animated films and installations in which he addresses subject matter of personal experience and social commentary. Jon is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, and makes his home and studio in Duluth, MN.

You said you feel that the Ojibwe culture is more prominent in Duluth than in the Twin Cities. Why do you feel that?

When I moved to Duluth, I met some new folks, and one of them said “miigwech” to me, which is the Ojibwe word for “Thank you.” That was something I rarely heard from strangers in the Twin Cities growing up, because it’s such a kind of a melting pot. I thought that was really cool. I don’t know a lot of Ojibwe language, but I knew what that meant, and I knew that it was a sign of respect. I felt as an Ojibwe, I would learn more about the culture here, and I have.

And immediately you felt it?

I would say not too long after I moved here, I started to realize that there was a concentration of Ojibwe culture here, because of the location in Minnesota through programming – stuff that was easily accessible to me. Not only did I start to engage in it, I actually started to use my practice to contribute to it. 

How do you feel that you did that?

I would get asked to help with illustrations. I’ve done murals, coordinated art gallery exhibits around culture, and I continue to do murals that are Jonathan Thunder-centric, and a part of that recipe is my Ojibwe upbringing.

If somebody sees your work, are they going to know that it’s a Jonathan Thunder piece?

If they know about my art, they’ll recognize the technique and style and content. They might need a little help with. But the painting style, I try to keep it [consistent]. It’s hard not to keep it consistent, because it’s your hand, right?

What is your medium of choice? Do you have one?

I always say that my medium of choice is visual storytelling. Painting is one of the most spiritual versions of my practice, but I really get a kick out of creating digital video, design, animations, and stuff like that.

You talk about growing up in the Twin Cities, and you said you got into trouble there. Was art always an option for you when you were growing up? What did you plan to be?

As a kid, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. At one point, I didn’t know that I would be an adult because things were so turbulent for me as a young man and a teenager. I always fell back on my drawings. Staying at home with my sketchbook was something that probably kept me out of trouble. When I graduated high school the career counselor told me I should go to college to be an artist.

Did you see that as an option? Were you excited about that?

At the time, I didn’t know that people really went to school to be artists. I knew it might be fun to be an architect someday because it seemed like a really practical way to do stuff, and I was into drawing cars and stuff like that. All I knew about being an artist was these tragic tales that you read or see movies about, the tormented soul, which is true in a lot of cases, but there’s a practical side to the business of being an artist, and that is something that I didn’t know about.

Do you feel like that took learning and honing in on that practice to become an artist? Or did that come naturally?

I’d say it’s been a process of experience. In school I learned the technical stuff, but there’s so much more that goes into surviving and thriving as an artist. That has come through years, even a couple decades, of just learning how to make it happen.

Do you think you’re there?

I feel as though I’ve reached a certain level of success in my career. I can pay my bills, I can buy the espresso beans I want, from where I want. I have money to keep the lights on in my studio. I can make time to do my practice, so I’d say I’m there, in whatever sense of the term. 

What do you feel like 46-year-old Jonathan would tell 15-year-old Jonathan? 

To behave. [laughs]

Would he have listened?

It’s funny, because in my mind I just remember being so chaotic at 15. If you ask my mom, she would tell you that I was a happy kid.

Chaotic in your mind?

It just seemed nuts. I was growing up in the Twin Cities around the time that it was the murder capital of the United States. I was dodging getting recruited by gangs, just trying to stay in school. I feel like drug use then was much simpler than drug use now for teens, and there was a little bit of that around that I had to navigate. Ultimately I made it to high school, and I made it through college. I guess I would tell 15-year-old Jonathan to just draw more, or go to more art exhibits or something.

At 46, I know how to put that chaos into perspective, and it’s true that when a person experiences hardships or adversity and survives and comes out in one piece, that person is usually a little more spiritually rounded. They have a better perspective on life. I feel like my perspective is pretty good – healthy – as a result of going through some of that stuff. I don’t know if I had to put myself through it as much as I did, but I definitely know how to use it now. 

How would you address that with your son?

They say that when a human being arrives on this planet, they have 400 personality traits that you will never be able to control. I guess all I can do is try to teach my son the ethics of being in our family and give him experiences under my roof that will teach him about the world.

When I see your work, I see the things that you’re trying to put out into the world. How do you talk about social justice, or the things that you go through, through your art? 

I feel like there’s always a conversation of social and environmental justice, consciousness, and personal growth in my work. All of that stuff is interconnected. Even though a lot of my work is very intuitive, I tried to keep it inspiring, and I wanted to uplift people and make them feel a little weird and crazy. When we sit down and talk about any one of my pieces, there will be a lot to unpack. Some people can look at it and just enjoy it for what it is, and if you want to talk to me what makes me, which is the person that makes a piece of art, hopefully it can tell you something that will inspire.

Do you ever care if you’re being preachy? 

I try not to be preachy. I think everybody has an opinion and a perspective, and I share that. I never tell anybody how to be. I just tell people how I am, how I think. I feel like changing people is like beating down on a concrete wall with your fists. Changing yourself is a lot better for you, and it’s better for the people around you, and through that process you might inspire people to change. If somebody tells me what to do, I’m gonna be like, “Fuck you.” Through my practice I think there are times when I have to be direct about my beliefs, but I usually try to just position it through my experience and not say it in a preachy or judgmental way – even though that’s what I’m feeling. I think people drink the Kool-Aid a little easier if you put a little sugar in there – or a lot of sugar. 

There’s the other saying of the fly being drawn to honey more than it is to vinegar.

Yeah, and that’s been my experience in my life. When I see people doing what I want to do or have what I want, I just look at what they’re doing. If they look healthy and happy, I’m like, “Okay, how are they doing that?” I think that led to me wanting to contribute more to our planet, our world, our universe. Even though as a human I have selfish needs, I want to be a better part of the solution, which means using my art to connect communities in positive ways. Putting that angry 15-year-old kid over here and hearing what he has to say, but also saying, as a professional grown-up artist, here’s how we should express that.

There’s a scientific study that says our cells change daily and eventually, every seven years it has regenerated that we are a new person altogether. We’re a whole new person, but it’s a gradual change.

Yeah, I like that thinking. When we talk about social action and social justice, working together to try to make change, and you bring up how every seven years, somebody is physically like a different person. During that time, you can change and there are people who won’t change. I’ve changed a lot over the years, and it took work. It took conscious effort. I think we’re all capable of it. It’s almost like, that’s what nature wants us to do, to evolve.

I noticed that you include a lot of natural elements in your work. Is there a reason for that? 

For the piece at MSP Airport, “Manifesto,” those stories take place in nature, so that was the proper setting. Although some of my work I try to urbanize a little bit. You can find messy spray paint on some of my paintings and some references to architecture. For me, I think that’s basically visual regurgitation. It depends on what I’ve been up to or what I’ve been paying attention to lately. I love to look at texture. Down in Central Hillside, I look at those old brick buildings and see what was there. I love urban noise. It’s all visual food, and it speaks to our human experience. When I paint, a lot of times that will come through. For “Manifesto,” those take place underwater. One is about counting leaves, so it had to be in the trees. The other one is a story about a visitor from outer space, so hence the kind of retro, illustrated-looking rocket in the middle of that story. There’s a little tech in there, but it is a story that supposedly takes place a millennia ago. My mind says it was probably a more natural world, so that’s why those stories are out in nature.

You talk about your sketchbook. What was the learning curve for you to move from “analog” to digital, what prompted you to push to digital?

It was a decision I made after fine art school. I decided to go to school for visual effects, motion graphics and filmmaking. I wanted to be able to use my creative practice to make money. I was like, “Alright, if I learn these tools, I’ll probably have a better chance of doing that.” That served me well. I remember seeing one of the first Pixar movies, and I was like, “I don’t know what that is, but I want to do stuff like that someday.” I had seen a lot of artists kind of using the same tricks in the places that I had traveled. I just wanted to try something new, and that technology was new. Everybody’s done painting, there are a number of ways you can be innovative making a painting, but being 22-years-old, I wanted to learn this other thing so I could turn my paintings into animations, put them on monitors, and have them be a living, moving thing with sound. That will help me tell my story a little better. You can do a lot with painting, but I still wanted more. I wanted to be able to move them; I wanted them to talk. I wanted to have multiple scenes. That’s why I got into filmmaking, and that led me to projection work. Early on, I was doing event projections for corporate clients and stuff like that. Then it got to the point where I was being asked to create something in my style, so that’s kind of how it progressed. Now I can create digital projects that look like my paintings. They feed each other and inform each other, and visually, they help each other to be more refined. If I’m researching something on my computer to do an animation, I know more about how stuff looks, why it is the way it is. Maybe that’ll show in my next painting. I’ll be able to execute it that much better.

Obviously, doing your own work brings you more joy and fulfillment than working for a corporation. Am I guessing that right?

That’s been my experience, yeah.

What makes you say yes to a project?

A project has to be something that I can believe in. It has to seem fun and I have to have some creative license. I don’t want people showing me their favorite artist and saying, “Can you make us this?” Because I’ll say, “Then go hire that artist.” Those are a few factors that make me consider a project. The project has to make sense with my schedule and everything that’s going on, and if I can make that work I’ll usually get involved.

When an opportunity comes forward, do you prefer having parameters on what to create? Or do you prefer having complete freedom?

Unless there are specific details that somebody purchasing art or commissioning art really wants in their piece, I just try to be sensitive to what the project is about. I ask myself, “How do I fit into this? What is my truth about this particular subject matter?” Then I go from there. I don’t tell myself, “No,” a lot of times. If I try something, and it doesn’t look right or feel right, it can be removed. I try to be creative, I try to be uptempo. I want art to look a little crazy, in the sense that after watching the film, you feel like that was a wild ride. To me, that makes people feel alive. When dealing with this kind of subject matter, it also has to be respectful, which is important to me. That mutual respect between myself, my audience and whoever’s writing the checks. As long as their intentions are good, as long as it’s not the Indian being paraded at the Wild West Show, or something like that.

Tell me how you came up with your idea for Constellation.

I looked at the speech by M.L.K. and listened to it. It’s always very inspiring to hear those speeches. I sort of drew what I was getting from it. It was almost like I started to visualize the parts that really spoke to me.

I really liked what he said about the garment of destiny. I love that concept. I felt that it would fit well into my sort of dreamscape creative process. When I think about a garment, it’s something you can put on. People will see you. They’ll [see] a person wearing button-up shirts and think they must be preppy, or if they have a [shirt with] cutout sleeves that says ACDC that’s a different kind of dude. So yeah, with garments, I like the idea of destiny. It kind of romanticizes what we create versus what we’re zoned into?

How did you know when you were an artist? Or were you always one?

I feel like I was always a thinker. Being an artist has been a process, and you are what you do. To me, artistic projects were about the only thing that I ever showed up for consistently. I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve worked day jobs, you know, pushing brooms and warehouses, fast food. I didn’t mind them that much. To me, work was work, but I didn’t care about them. I’ve always been a bad employee. I’ve been let go for absenteeism many times. If a job was kind of meaningless, I didn’t feel like I needed to show up for it. 

But showing up for my art I was always able to do more, to be more active. I didn’t always see it going that way. When I was a kid, I just saw the movies about the tortured soul in gallery selling crazy paintings where they just went nuts on a canvas, and then they cried all over the studio floor. That was my initial concept. I ended up with people reaching out to me because of the kind of work I do, and I like trying to educate and inspire people. I think that’s something the world needs.