MOORHEAD — Friends are remembering Charles Thysell for a personality that was as big, colorful, direct and determined as one of his paintings.
The former Moorhead man died in his Minneapolis home Monday, April 6, under the care of friends. He was diagnosed with lung cancer last summer, which was treated with surgery and chemotherapy. In early March, shortly after his 70th birthday, he discovered it had returned and spread.
“Right up to the very end, he was putting me in my place. Ornery, stubborn and a single-minded focus,” says Keri Pickett, one of his care team, also known as Charlie’s Angels.
The two met in the early 1980s when Pickett studied dance at Mahkahta Dance Theater in Fargo, where Thysell worked with his then-wife, the late Kathy Foss Bakkum.
Pickett recalls visiting Thysell in his studio on Eighth Street South in Fargo.
“He had a deep philosophical mind that was mixed with all of that trickster, all that humor,” says Pickett, now an internationally known photographer and filmmaker, who had a midcareer retrospective at her alma mater, Minnesota State University Moorhead, last fall.
Those characteristics emerged in his paintings, which combined a playfulness with a sense of mystery and could call to mind works by Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso.
“He had a wonderful control of color. It leapt off the paper at you,” says Ron Ramsey.
Thysell had his first solo show at the former Rourke Art Gallery in 1982 where he met Ramsey, a professor of architecture at North Dakota State University and now the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum’s resident historian.
Ramsey says the painter’s work was as lively as the artist himself was.
“He just didn’t seem to have the burden of expectations the rest of us are burdened with. He was an infectious guy, one of the most engaging people I’ve run across,” Ramsey says. “He just had a way of willing an idea down to its essence.”
He recalls Thysell as both casual and intense with a wry sense of humor.
That sense of humor could show up in his art. Janet Bayliss, Thysell’s former sister-in-law and another member of his care team, has a painting he did of a roll of toilet paper.
“He loved life and he loved playing tricks on people,” she recalls.
Thysell took his work in the arts seriously.
After graduating from Moorhead High School in 1968, he moved to Minneapolis but returned seven years later and worked as a curator at the Rourke and the Plains Art Museum. He also was instrumental in the early years of the Creative Arts Studio, a project that paired artists like photographers Wayne and Jane Gudmundson, ceramicist Bob Kurkowski and writer Louise Erdrich with Fargo Public Schools students.
Thysell liked working with kids and would tour the state as a member of the Plain People Children’s Theater, showing off his performance chops as he also performed as a singer-songwriter.
He returned to Minneapolis in 1987, but maintained strong ties to the Plains and the Rourke, where he had his final local solo show in 2012. Both organizations include a number of his works in their collections.
“For me, and for many others in our corner of the world, Charlie was the best exemplar of a visual artist and of the artist’s life," says Jonathan Rutter, executive director and curator of the Rourke. “His absolute commitment to creative pursuits, his charm, his sense of playfulness and his generosity of spirit will be sorely missed.”
Pickett recalls how when she moved to Minneapolis from New York to fight her own battle with cancer in 1988, Thysell was there at her door.
“He was very supportive of me and so generous,” she says.
Their friendship manifested in two portraits he did of her.
“In portraits, still life and landscapes, he finds the common heart,” she says. “I see that humor, that trickster, that child within looking out on the world.”
Still, she says, he will be remembered more for who he was than what he created.
“People will think of his life more than his art,” Pickett says. “A big shining light, steadfast, uncompromising, honest and true.”