With strong color and broad brush strokes, Jessie Thorson captures on canvas the essence of her subjects in ways that are playful, straightforward and loving.

That subject is usually someone's cherished pet, placed in a situation or pose that evokes a smile or a memory, or some kind of personality quirk their owner adores.

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It's Thorson's wry sense of humor that distinguishes her approach to painting-an approach so bold it grabs you and doesn't let go until you feel the animal's unique character or the story she's trying to tell.

Thorson describes her artistic style as "colorful, whimsical and, I hope, funny," she said.

"I think I'm a fairly funny person. I'm probably not, but if people can laugh at my work, if people can get the humor in it, then I've done my job."

She was relieved when city council members laughed when she turned them into animals for her "Ode to Grand Forks" series that hung in City Hall for several months after she received the Mayor's Choice Award, she said. "I turned the mayor into a stork-because he delivers babies."

Thorson recalled a client who asked her to create a painting of her Great Dane that "was terrified of squirrels," she said.

"I drew the Great Dane with a squirrel on top of its head, looking down at it."

For a Florida couple, she painted their dog and cat in a moment inspired by the old Coppertone sunscreen ad: the dog is pulling down the cat's bikini bottom.

"How I think of some of these things, I don't know," she said with a laugh, "but it's fun."

With three canine companions under her roof, it's clear the Grand Forks artist has a special affinity for dogs. As she chats about various breeds and their personalities, the golden retriever springs to mind.

"They're like a human caught in a dog's body," she said with certainty and a chuckle.

Painting animals attracts her because of "the texture," she said. "The fur, the eyes. But most of all, I've always been an animal lover. I think that's why I started painting animals."

Background in business

Born and raised in Bemidji, Thorson credits her parents, Pam and Scott Thorson, for encouraging her to explore her interests. Her love of art began early, she said.

"As a child, I loved to draw, color and paint. I was always sketching."

After graduating from Bemidji High School in 2000, Thorson enrolled at UND where she earned a bachelor's degree in graphic design and sociology.

She landed a job in graphic design and advertising with Brown Corp. That position led to a job at the former Suite 49, where she was asked to create artwork for the restaurant's "barren walls," she said, "until we could get some actual, like, real art.

"That was the first time I picked up a paintbrush and acrylic paint."

The results were paintings of a UND hockey goalie and a dog with sunglasses.

She prefers acrylic paint for its "vibrant color, but mostly because it dries quickly," she said.

About a decade ago, along with other artists, Thorson began showing her work at an "art party" that evolved into the annual TAG, or The Art of Giving, event, where artists exhibit and sell artwork.

Thorson sold her first painting in the first TAG sale.

"That was my first time selling art," Thorson said. "It's terrifying every time. It's such an honor, but it's terrifying."

Also "absolutely terrifying" was her decision a few years ago to leave a full time job to devote more time to painting, she said.

She had been working in graphic design, marketing and human resources for about seven years when her employer, Sally Opp Miskavige at Opp Construction, encouraged her to make a bigger commitment to art.

"She said, 'Do you really like what you're doing? You need to really think about focusing on art full time,' " Thorson remembered.

"A desk job has never really been for me. So for a couple of years now, I'm painting, painting, painting."

These days, she fits her painting around her work as manager and bartender at The Toasted Frog restaurant where she handles marketing, advertising and promotional activities for Toasted Frog locations here and in Bismarck and Fargo.

"I don't like to do one certain thing," she said. "That can get mundane."

Surprised by success

Thorson's artwork has attracted art-lovers in this region and beyond, including clients in Tennessee, California and Florida, she said.

Word of mouth and referrals account for many of the requests that come her way. She's sold more than 100 paintings, and seems more than a little surprised by her own success.

"Looking back, I am so freaking blessed," she said, noting the long-time support of her parents and encouragement of friends and coworkers.

"The time in my life that I'm able to have right now is so cool-to be able to paint and be around my dogs is something that's hard to believe," she said. "Sometimes I feel like I don't deserve it, but I'm going to freaking take it. I'm going to ride this train as long as I can."

The roots of that journey can be traced to a deep appreciation for art and its effect on people.

"I love looking at art," Thorson said. "I think art can be funny too. I think, why not?"

For example, her large painting above the kitchen at Sky's restaurant depicts "a bunch of dogs sitting around a bar," she said. "I like having dogs that kind of act like people."

Some art evokes emotion, she said. "Some art is serious and should be viewed as serious."

Just not hers.

"For me, I like people having fun," she said. "I think art should be a party."