Duluth artist uses modern tech to connect with Native traditions

Jonathan Thunder's "Manifest'o"
Installation of Jonathan Thunder's "Manifest'o" at the Tweed Museum of Art in Duluth. The multi-media installation wraps around the front and back of a 60 foot-long display case.
Courtesy of Jonathan Thunder

Walk into the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and your eyes are immediately drawn upward.

A glass display case has become a screen onto which Duluth artist Jonathan Thunder has projected a trio of animations that refer to different stories from Anishinaabe mythology. There's a goldfinch that flits from branch to branch in a stand of birch trees; a star woman who descends to Earth and transforms into water lilies; and an underwater creature that is part lynx and part dragon. The case also displays a trio of sculptures that relate to the stories.

Thunder has titled his 120-foot multimedia work "Manifest'o." In it, he is using modern technology to bring Anishinaabe mythology to life ... and to revive the Ojibwe language.

"I wanted to tie the current contemporary modern-day Native artist through time and space all the way back into legend, and just make a connection in the most contemporary way that I can think of," Thunder said. "Through digital storytelling, projection and 3D-printed models."

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Thunder explained that the underwater creature with the head of a lynx is Mishu Bizhiw — the keeper of the Great Lake.

"I introduced the character in a mural at the Lincoln Park Middle School earlier this year and spoke to the kids that go to school there about it," he said. "And none of them had heard about it — this mythology about the lake that they live right next to. I thought it was important to bring it back — to reawaken the great underwater lynx."

Artist Jonathan Thunder
Multi-media artist Jonathan Thunder says moving to Duluth five years ago has improved his spiritual wellbeing and helped him to focus on his work.
Courtesy of Jonathan Thunder

Tweed Director Ken Bloom described Thunder as a "wunderkind."

"He's an extraordinary painter, he's a very accomplished animator and he is also a very engaged artistic citizen of our community," he said.

Installation of Jonathan Thunder’s “Star Women”
Installation of Jonathan Thunder's "Star Women" at the Tweed Museum of Art in Duluth.
Courtesy of Jonathan Thunder

Bloom said Thunder's installation at the Tweed has transformed the whole museum experience. "Our audience is transfixed by it," he said.

Jonathan Thunder was born on Red Lake Reservation. He grew up in Brooklyn Center, skateboarding and listening to Black Sabbath. Thunder studied painting and sculpture at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. Back in the Twin Cities, he explored film and animation.

But Thunder credits his move to Duluth five years ago with having a profound effect on his life and his artistic path.

The 3D printed “Supernaut” by artist Jonathan Thunder
Artist Jonathan Thunder worked with 3D printers to create sculptures that pair with the animations. He calls this helmet "Supernaut," after the song by Black Sabbath.
Courtesy of Jonathan Thunder

"This piece, for me, is my gift to the community as a way of saying thank you for all the gifts I've received," he said.

When he lived in the Twin Cities, he said, he spent more time at the bar than he did in his studio. When he moved to Duluth he got clean and dove into his work. He attended Ojibwe storytelling events and started learning more about his own culture and heritage. He's worked on videos that are used as Ojibwe language teaching aids. He has illustrated a children's book and designed multiple community murals.

Poet and author Heid Erdrich has collaborated with Thunder on several projects. "I think he's a genius," she said. "I think there's much more to come."

Erdrich said Thunder is able to create creatures and images that are simultaneously lovable and menacing. And it's true. Thunder pointed to the sculpture of a male torso with the head of the aginjibagwesi, or goldfinch. He explained that the goldfinch is traditionally seen as the keeper of the Ojibwe language.

"So the mask that I created for the bust over there is composed of a leather bondage mask with a zipper over the mouth," he said. "It's about the boarding school era. It's about the bondage and muting that went on, of culture and language during that era."

Meanwhile, in the accompanying animation, the goldfinch flies from branch to branch, counting the leaves in Ojibwe, narrowly avoiding a nearby owl. Thunder said it's been a close call for the keeper of the Ojibwe language. And in some ways, it's been a close call for Thunder.

"Life has handed me some experiences that have been uncomfortable and a little frightening at times," he said. "Somehow I've been blessed with the ability to use it to better my perspective."

Jonathan Thunder's multimedia installation "Manifest'o" is part of an exhibition featuring the work of 19 Minnesota-based Native artists. It will remain on view at the Tweed through August 2019.