Fine artist. Illustrator. Comic. Doodler. Husband. Father. Son. So many words to describe the life and professional experiences of this one man. All of them true, all of them accurate. Welcome to the world of Jon — one of color, imagination, and detailed reality.
Jon Arfstrom was born on November 11, 1928 in Superior, Wisconsin, and spent much of his childhood in the city of Duluth. Growing up, Arfstrom was drawn to art from a very early age, influenced by his father, Fred Arfstrom, and his older half-brother, Ralph Modene.
His earliest job doing art was on some of the cruise ships on the Great Lakes during World War II. At 14 years old (having lied about his age in order to land the job), Arfstrom sold concessions and did portraits of the passengers. Following the war, he married Norma Siegford in November 1945, when he was 18 and she was 16. They were quite poor in those first few years, and Jon worked many odd jobs, but ultimately he was determined to make a living doing art. By 1950, he had made a start on his artistic career. This time period saw him involved in two very different lines of artistic work that would remain as mostly-separate threads throughout the rest of his life.
Arfstrom began working as an advertisement illustrator for the Gamble-Skogmo company in 1950, and also provided illustrations of Bible stories of the Lakeland Color Press company. In 1956, he got a job as a staff illustrator at Brown & Bigelow in St. Paul, and would remain with that company until his 1996 retirement. For many years, he was the company’s portrait artist, and also did watercolor landscapes for many of their calendars. Other assignments included special items to celebrate the United States’ bicentennial in 1976, and some cartoon work. If you grew up during the 1960’s and 1970’s, then you have probably seen Arfstrom’s portraits of the U. S. Presidents or the Pope.
In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, at the same time that he was starting his work for Gamble-Skogmo, Arfstrom submitted cover art and illustrations to pulp magazines that were publishing science fiction and fantasy stories. In January of 1952, the magazine Weird Tales used one of his covers, and he did two other covers for later issues, as well as many interior illustrations. At home, on his own time, he began to paint more surrealist works, letting his imagination roam free as paint covered his canvases in vivid colors.
Always wanting to be better, Arfstrom took some classes at the Minneapolis School of Art and Design, and did the Famous Artists School correspondence course in the 1950’s, keeping careful track of his assignments, noting his grades and how long he spent on each one. The assignments came back with corrections and improvements, which Arfstrom incorporated into all of his other artwork, which became better and better over time. In addition to his line drawings in pencil and pen, his portraiture, and his oil and acrylic paintings, Arfstrom was a dedicated watercolor painter, and an early member of the Northstar Watercolor Society (founded in 1976). He also worked with markers, colored pencils, charcoal, and pastels – a very wide range of mediums for a single artist.
Arfstrom was known in several different circles of artists and admirers, but for the most part they were completely distinct from each other. While there was some overlap between his commercial work for Brown and Bigelow and the landscapes and street scenes that he painted with watercolors, for a time most of his surreal and science fiction work was kept private, seen only by family and close friends, or at European shows. Even the shelves in his art room at home are cleanly divided; all the watercolor books were kept on one side, the surreal art books on the other.
Yet, in spite of this separation, when you look at all of his work it is possible to see the cross-over, and the ways that each of his artistic passions influenced the others. The stippling and line-work in his early science-fiction and horror illustrations can also be seen in some of his commercial work for Gamble-Skogmo, and aspects of his watercolors frequently creep into his surreal paintings. His self-portraits (of which there are many), span a full range from simple line drawings, through straightforward watercolor portraits, to surreal visions of himself with strange skin or surrounded by impossible vistas.