By Shiloh Appel
The old white building just south of the Chicago and Northwestern Depot in Redfield has been receiving an abundance of attention in recent days. Young and old have stopped to take photos in front of its freshly-painted surface and many more have shared those photos on social media. A new mural painted on the building’s surface facing west is the source of all the excitement. The brilliant display, painted by artist Robbie Jelsma of Springfield, South Dakota, features a snowy pheasant hunting scene in a dormant corn field: A young girl plays in the snow with her back against the family hunting dog as the wind plays with her hair. A father, son and grandfather hunt in the distance, immersed in a warm orange sunset. Small patches of grass and clumps of black soil peak through the snow, adding contrast. Not too far from the girl, a vivid pheasant looks on.
The scene, titled “Across the Generations” was painted in honor of Redfield’s 100-year pheasant hunting legacy, which will be celebrated next month on October 30th with the Redfield Pheasantennial. The scene successfully evokes memories of pheasant hunting from generation to generation.
On Monday afternoon, September 9th, Jelsma undertook the task of scraping the 30x30ft building that belongs to Jim Ellenson. After scraping off the old paint for two days, Jelsma set out to prime the building on Wednesday afternoon, September 11th and began painting on September 12th. With the overcast skies on September 12th, Jelsma, armed with spray cans and balanced on a scaffolding, aimed to complete as much as possible before the rain hit that afternoon.
“I just work my way in layers from the back to the front, essentially. Then I go through with the brushes and do the highlights and all of those little things. This surface is a little harder, because it is shingles. It is not like a flat wall. You always have to step off and look at what you are doing,” said Jelsma. “If I had just five sunny days straight, I could get it done.”
After battling with the weather, Jelsma finished the mural on Monday, September 16th and covered the mural in a clear coating to ensure it will last for many years.
“The first thick layer I put on will last five or ten years. Even after that, if the paint is good and stuff, it will last longer than that. It is good to spray a new [clear] layer over it every five or ten years because sometimes you’ll get a bad storm or the sun’s UVA will fade things a little bit,” said Jelsma.
“Across the Generations,” now joins Jelsma’s band of distinctive murals: some in Brookings, some in bars, and some in individual homes in other states. However, painting murals is only one way Jelsma uses his artistic creativity to impact others. He also makes a living creating large oil paintings and intricate tattoos.
For Jelsma, art has been a big part of his life since childhood. It runs in the family, or, one could say, “across the generations.” Jelsma said he first started to pick it up as he followed in his older sister’s footsteps as a child.
“She is seven years older, so she would draw a lot in the house and I would just copy her, mostly,” said Jelsma. “My mom is artistic…I don’t know if she draws much anymore…neither of them do, but when I was little, that is who I tried to copy. I [also] have artistic great-grandparents who I never got to meet. They were alive when I was born, but they passed away shortly after. Apparently, they were the artistic generation and I just got some of that.”
Jelsma said he started out with pencils and charcoal. His reward system was the encouragement of his family. Other than elementary and middle school art classes, he taught himself over the years.
“I just thought, as an artist, it is better to teach yourself than to learn too much from other people,” said Jelsma.
After graduating from Bon Homme High School, Jelsma went on to pursue a degree in engineering and construction management at SDSU. He also played football as a Jackrabbit before tearing his ACL in a game against North Dakota State in the playoffs of 2012. While resting his knee, Jelsma bought his own tattooing equipment.
“I thought, ah, whatever, I’m down for awhile so I will try that. So I tried that and kept doing that and then I got asked to do a painting for their scholarship auction at SDSU. That is when I started painting. I was always just drawing and doing charcoal images before that,” said Jelsma. “I kind of overcommitted before I realized what I had committed to. So then I had to teach myself to paint. I didn’t really have an option, because I didn’t want to look like a dummy for committing.”
Jelsma often used Youtube tutorials, but says he would become impatient watching videos. He would usually get the ‘gist’ of the video and then sit down and figure it out.
“Colors are more intense than just shadows and stuff like that. Color tones. It is a whole different thought process,” said Jelsma. “…But in school, you know, when you are doing construction, managing big electrical power line construction jobs and things like that — that is what I was learning for engineer management. When you are doing that, there is zero creativity.”
Nevertheless, Jelsma fine-tuned his painting skills and kept his commitment. He now sells large, brightly-colored oil paintings, each one often taking months to complete.
“Traditional canvas oil painting is super frustrating because it never, ever works like you think it is going to the first time, so it is something you have got to get used to,” said Jelsma. “Spray painting is a little easier because you can make stuff softer. Blend stuff easier.”
During his final year at SDSU, Jelsma became established as a professional tattoo artist. He also completed his first large mural on the NAPA building in downtown Brookings that year.
“Art was going well, but I still aimed to finish my degree, because I didn’t know how else to pay the bills,” wrote Jelsma in a short bio.
Jelsma began with a landscape architecture major and finished in construction sciences, graduating from SDSU in 2015 with a focus on construction and engineering management. He took a job with Burns & McDonnell, an engineering firm in Chicago, and worked with them for three years, often moving around the country as a project manager and consultant.
“In each of those locations I’d have my project manager day job, and on nights and weekends I’d either be painting or tattooing. On a couple home visits back to South Dakota, I also stopped back in Brookings and painted a few other murals in town,” wrote Jelsma.
However, Jelsma was continually pulled back to the idea of pursuing creativity full-time.
“The people I worked with in that firm were good people and they knew I was a tattoo artist, too, and they didn’t care. It was as good of a place as I could have hoped to work for out of school,” said Jelsma. “I want to say it is the best electrical engineering firm in the country, or was ranked that when I worked there, so it was a pretty big honor to work there and the people were really cool and the money was good and all that, but it was just not what I wanted to do. And I knew that. In my mind it was like, ‘why would I keep doing this another twenty years if I know I don’t want to?’”
A major turning point for Jelsma was a Facebook message he received about one of his paintings.
“It was of a little girl on a gravel road with a sunflower and all that. I put it up on my Facebook and within ten minutes a lady wrote me a big, long message about how her little girl had passed away in a farm accident and they buried her in her white dress and her cowgirl boots. It was everything I had in this picture. That was when I was at work in Kentucky and it shocked me. I got goosebumps,” said Jelsma. “That was when I [thought] I would like to do stuff like that all the time instead of sit here and fill out these budget numbers and [attend] all of these corporate meetings.’”
So Jelsma did. He quit his job at the engineering firm on good terms and set out to pursue a full-time career doing what he loved. Making art.
“On an individual basis, art can do more for people, sometimes, than words,” said Jelsma. “A picture is worth a thousand words. Every painting I do means something to me, but it could mean a hundred different other things to other people. Whatever their mind tells them. That is why art is so cool to me.”
Portfolio 51 and “Across the Generations”
Today, Jelsma has his own art studio, Portfolio 51. According to Jelsma, the number 51 has special meaning to him first, because it was his college football number and second, because it represents a tipping point.
“ Fifty percent is where you are in the middle,” said Jelsma. “It just takes 51 percent to gain momentum in the right direction.”
Jelsma said he now spends most of his time tattooing and the rest of his time working on paintings, his property, and ‘an endless list of projects.’
“When the opportunity to paint in Redfield came up, I took it almost immediately. I loved the idea of representing a South Dakota tradition spanning generations. It brought back vivid memories of my childhood and family, which is what I tried to represent in the artwork,” wrote Jelsma.
Already, Jelsma’s mural in Redfield is impacting many families, and, if all goes well, it will continue to do so “across the generations.”
Jelsma can be found on Instagram at: robbie_portfolio51. He can also be contacted via email at [email protected] His work can be found on Facebook at Portfolio 51 and his website is www.portfolio51.com.