Jessie Thorson has tapped into her animal spirit with the help of a paint brush. The Grand Forks artist has built a regional following painting dogs, cats, bears and birds. She’s painted pigs and fish and moose, too. If you are a pet lover, or an art lover, with a sense of humor and appreciate any combination of mesmerizing brush strokes, bold and unique color patterns or the type of art that makes you smile in the moment while you remember the past, you’ve most likely already seen or own a Thorson piece.
If you are new to Thorson’s work, you can find it in several places throughout the region. Her work is displayed at fine-dining restaurants, major institutions, and the homes of art lovers with budgets that range from little to a lot. In 2018, she was a featured artist picked by the city to display a collection she called “Ode to Grand Forks.” She creates the type of work you want to gift to a friend or family member, but once you’ve given the gift away, you regret that you didn’t keep it for yourself.
Her paintings are named to reflect the mood and tone of the images she creates which typically include some kind of animal. Her titles infuse a bit of literalness with a lot of playfulness. The style she’s developed seems to match perfectly with her approach to painting, or life, two subjects she shares the same motto with.
“I trust my gut,” she says of her painting style and life motto.
You can see it in her brush strokes and compositions. There is a comforting confidence in her work that shows up through the thickness and amount of paint that is left to dry as part of the final image. Her paintings aren’t meant to be 100 percent accurate or dance anywhere near photorealism. Yet, they most clearly reflect the best qualities and attributes of the original image in a way that will always make the onlooker smile and quickly laugh before offering a verbal, “that’s cool,” response to an unforgettable image. (How does anyone forget a painting Thorson has done showing a moose and a bear riding a bicycle together?)
Her painting titled, “Rocky Bearboa,” shows a brown bear wearing boxing gloves. In her piece, “Going Stag,” she shows a massive brown stag dressed to the nines in a fancy bow-tie and sport coat. On a large 72-inch tall door, she painted a huge walleye and titled the piece, “A Tall Tale.”
“I try to add humor to my art. If people are laughing at my art or looking with a smile I feel like I’ve done my job,” she says.
A graphic designer and director of marketing when she isn’t painting, Thorson painted her first public display piece for former employer, Suite 49, a restaurant once operating near the Ralph Engelstad Arena. The walls needed art, she says, so she created a painting of a dog with sunglasses and a different painting of a dog as a hockey goalie. “I just did what I thought would fit the space and this place.”
Those early paintings caught the eye of several from the community, and eventually, another boss, Sally Opp of Opp Construction, convinced her that painting was her path. Leaving a steady-paying job to become a full-time artist was scary, she says, but she had her life motto to trust. Today, she has sold more than 100 paintings and sees no end to her opportunity.
Living With Paint
Her life as a painter has partially taken over her living space as well. The walls of her home feature some of her favorite originals and several pieces from other local artists. Her painting station of choice is situated in view of her TV, in a quaint space of her kitchen. (When we were there a Hallmark movie was playing). All three of her dogs are used to lounging at, or near her feet as she works. As an acrylic lover, her paint pallet can be left out alongside the pile of brushes she’s accumulated and set on her supply table next to her easel. If a painting is too big for one easel, she adds a second to support her canvas. If that isn’t big enough, she paints out of her garage. At one time, she stretched her own canvas, but those days are gone.
Most of her work starts with an idea or photo of a pet from a client. Some ask for a simple recreation in Thorson’s style. Some request a bit of adaptation. “I’ve painted dogs driving a Corvette before because the client liked Corvettes,” she says.
She still gets nervous when her clients receive their paintings, and, she still loves it when she receives an update via email or text or sees a post on social media showing where one of her paintings has been displayed.
The subjects in her paintings have transformed over time. Dogs and cats and the simple joy they exude still represent her preferred subject matter. Her style does drift from painting to painting, she admits, but she always takes the same approach to every painting. Although she says she mostly wings it with each work, her follow-the-gut mantra has allowed her to live (like her father) as an artist and a creative. G
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PHOTOS BY: MANSTROM PHOTOGRAPHY
From Issue 1, 2019