FARGO — After photographer Leo Kim and painter Charlie Thysell died in recent years, friends looked to their work to remember their lives and achievements.
Those friends and the public can revisit the late artists in two new local shows of their art.
North Dakota State University, where Kim studied, opens “A Photographic Journey: The Life and Work of Leo Kim” at the Memorial Union Gallery on Sept. 21. Across the river, The Rourke Art Gallery + Museum, where Thysell had exhibited for decades, recently opened “Connecting the Dots: A Charlie Thysell Retrospective”.
‘A painter’s painter’
“It’s a very good representation of his creative decades and represents his major interests as an artist,” says Jonathan Rutter, executive director and curator at the Rourke.
The show features about 50 works, including the last piece Thysell painted in March of 2020, weeks before he would die at 70 after a long battle with cancer. The exhibit includes two pieces from the Rourke collection and the rest on loan from friends and collectors. The Rourke also has a mix of about 60 sketches and paintings by Thysell to sell.
“It’s really rewarding to be the venue where all of this can happen,” Rutter says. “I’m excited to bring works of our late friend to our museum community.”
Thysell got involved with the former Rourke At Gallery as a teenager, tending bar during opening receptions and by the early 1980s was exhibiting there and working there. His last show with the organization was in 2012.
Throughout his career, his use of color and forms, whether in still lifes or pictures of people, earned praise.
“In portraits, still life and landscapes, he finds the common heart,” longtime friend photographer Keri Pickett told The Forum after Thysell’s death. “I see that humor, that trickster, that child within looking out on the world.”
“He had a great knack for finding the essential nature and character in a subject,” Rutter says. “He was a painter’s painter. You would be hard pressed to find a painter in Fargo-Moorhead that doesn’t admire his approach.”
An American story
Just as Thysell created on canvas and paper, Kim captured the world around him on film.
Born to Korean parents, he lived in Hong Kong, Macao, and Austria before studying architecture at NDSU where he began taking photos for the school’s newspaper, The Spectrum. He would later photograph for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and The Standing Rock Star in Fort Yates at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation before moving to Minneapolis to work as a commercial photographer.
Despite, or perhaps because of his worldly travels, he was drawn to the openness of the North Dakota landscape, which he would meticulously shoot for his book, “North Dakota Prairie Landscape,” published in 2003.
His North Dakota photos make up the bulk of the new show at NDSU’s Memorial Union Gallery. After his 2019 death at 73, following a period of declining health, Kim’s photos, negatives and notes were donated to the NDSU archives.
“His images of North Dakota are just stunning… He captured the beauty and the unique features of the state,” says Hallie Pritchett, interim dean of libraries, which oversees the archives.
She points to a favorite image, “Rainstorm, Brampton, ND, September 2001,” part of a permanent display of Kim’s work in a stairwell at NDSU’s main library. “It’s very dramatic. People don’t often think of North Dakota like that.”
“Leo’s photos had a spiritual side to them and Leo had a spiritual side to him,” photographer Dan Koeck recalled after Kim’s death. “He once told me that nature was his religion and I saw that in his work. He really felt comfortable out there. You could tell that he really felt at ease outdoors.”
Pritchett says Kim’s books and posters will be available for purchase during the exhibit. Digitized images can be ordered through the NDSU archives.
While Kim had strong ties to North Dakota and Minnesota, his story is an American one, Pritchett says.
“He is the epitome of the American dream. His story is an American story,” she says. “He fell in love with the land and created a career here. He was able to share the beauty he found in North Dakota.”