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Letter: Lessons from artist/sign painter James Rosenquist

WASHINGTON—Growing up in Grafton, N.D., I learned about a painter from Grand Forks who pioneered Pop Art with Andy Warhol in faraway New York.

Grand Forks native James Rosenquist, 83, died March 31, leaving an art legacy and important lessons:

Those lessons include:

▇ Artists come from everywhere, including Grand Forks. Warhol was from the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Jasper Johns from Augusta, Ga., Robert Rauschenberg from Port Arthur, Texas and David Hockney from Bradford, England.

▇ Art is an important part of the economy. In the U.S., 3.5 million are employed by the arts, and they live in every corner of the nation.

"In the 1960s, one of those jobs was held by a small-town kid from North Dakota named Jim Rosenquist," wrote art historian Maxwell Anderson.

"As a college student in Minneapolis, Rosenquist hand-painted billboards for Coca-Cola and other advertisers. Learning to scale small objects onto large formats, Rosenquist is considered a founder of Pop Art."

▇ Art is part of our culture. In 2014, five leading museums identified 100 top works of American art. Online voting trimmed this list to 58, from Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington to contemporary art.

One of the winners, featured on billboards nationwide, was Rosenquist's 1973 painting, "Paper Clip."

In North Dakota, Rosenquist's legacy lives at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, among other places. His large mural, installed in 2010, greets visitors with a collage of bold images representing the land, sky, history and bounty of his native North Dakota.

"The landscape in North Dakota is the sky—the stars at night, the clouds in the daytime," Rosenquist wrote in his book, "Painting below zero: Notes on a life in art."

"At night, I thought about the stars and light-years and the speed of light and everything that was sort of inexplicable."

Thank you, James Rosenquist.

Jorgensen Fletcher is president and CEO of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.