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Jasmine Maki, Forum News Service, Published October 20 2013

Artist Rosenquist returns to hometown of Grand Forks for birthday bash

GRAND FORKS – Dancing up to the podium, cracking subtle jokes about old age and making comical gestures in his seat, James Rosenquist may have been celebrating his 80th birthday, but it was obvious that the artist is still young at heart.

Rosenquist, considered by many to be one of the protagonists in the pop art movement along with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, returned to Grand Forks to celebrate his 80th birthday Sunday at the North Dakota Museum of Art. A North Dakota native, Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks in 1933 and spent much of his childhood in Mekinock.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who introduced and welcomed Rosenquist, said the painter has a great understanding of North Dakota.

“Whether you’re looking at his picture of the meadowlark (in the Plains Art Museum in Fargo) or catching a few stars in the sky here, you know that he comes from this place,” Dalrymple said.

Standing in front of Rosenquist’s 17-by-46-foot painting, “Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil,” the governor led the gallery full of old friends, distant relatives, young artists and art appreciators in singing “Happy Birthday” to Rosenquist.

The Cankdeska Cikana Drum Group continued in welcoming the artist by performing an honor song, while members of the audience formed a line to greet Rosenquist and his wife, Mimi Thompson.

Following the performance, Laurel Reuter, director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, took the microphone and said, “I don’t know what to call you – Jim, James, Mr. Rosenquist, your turn,” handing over the microphone to her longtime friend.

Looking into the audience of friends, family members and fans, Rosenquist talked about the importance of art, congratulated Grand Forks for its strong art community and recalled his childhood memories of North Dakota.

He said he visited his childhood home in Mekinock and hardly recognized it.

“I used to sit on the porch of the house and see for miles; now, that whole area is covered in trees,” he said.

Rosenquist added: “North Dakota is a fascinating place because it’s where I started dreaming about doing things because of my mother and father who were aviators here.”

Judith Goldman, curator of the exhibition, took the podium next and began talking about 1933, the year Rosenquist was born.

“It was the year that Franklin D. Roosevelt became president… it was the year that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. ... It was the year FM radio was invented. ... It was the year the banks reopened,” she said. “And it was also the year, five days after the prohibition stopped, that James Rosenquist was born at what is now a Chinese restaurant.”

Goldman said she wanted the audience to get a better idea of what life was like when Rosenquist came into the world. She also gave the audience a bit of an explanation for the painting, which was homage to Rosenquist’s mother, who was an aviator and great adventurer.

She said she’s always thought of the sparkling high heels in the painting as a memorial to his mother’s life of glamour and freedom. She explained that the needle, pin and anvil represent inspiration.said she’s seen his painting “Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil” in many places, including New York, London and Germany, but it’s never looked better than now.

“I have to say it looks the best here,” she said. “I’ve never seen it looking so good. It’s fantastic.”

Rosenquist’s cousin, LouAnn Merriam, of Brainerd, Minn., echoed that.

“This (painting) is so beautiful,” she said. “I hope some wealthy oil man or something steps up and buys this, so it can stay here. It belongs here. It just belongs here. This is where Auntie Ruth was from and married her husband and where Jim was born.”

Merriam said she and Rosenquist have always been like brother and sister.

“I have got to just about everything, every show he’s had, but I haven’t seen him because I’m 75 and Jim’s 80 and it’s getting difficult,” she said. “Mimi and I write back and forth because he’s been sick… I was so scared he wouldn’t make it, so to see him, and looking so good, is great.”

While the event was a bit of a family reunion for some, for others it was a chance to meet a role model and inspiration.

“I was an art major in college and I remember studying him and had no idea that he was from North Dakota,” said Julie Olson of Arvilla, N.D. “Just being here and seeing his work and meeting him has just been a huge inspiration.”