Emil Knutson, 84, works on a painting at his home in Medford. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]

A brush with genius

With each brush stroke, Emil Knutson captures the poignancy of a regal bison surveying an empty, windswept western plain. Like the lone bison, the artist is a survivor.

With each dab of oil, Knutson is rekindling “a flame lit” when he was a young boy.

Before he developed Parkinson’s disease and suffered a stroke nearly two years ago, Knutson was one of the Rogue Valley’s most prolific artists. His work hangs in public spaces, corporate offices and private collections throughout the United States.

Notable are the portraits of Jeld-Wen corporation’s 13 founding board members and one of the late President Ronald Reagan astride his horse at his Santa Barbara, California, ranch. That one was commissioned by one of Reagan’s former Secret Service agents.

Knutson has a thank-you note from Tiger Woods for an extraordinary portrait he did of the pro golfer.

As one of the area’s top-notch commercial artists, Knutson embellished the walls of restaurants, hospitals, schools and professional buildings around the valley. Well known works include the regionally and historically themed murals at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center and Porter’s Restaurant.

Knutson’s family members are hoping that his genius and legacy are not forgotten. Their goal is to have a retrospective exhibit or a gallery showing. They’re even considering converting his former sign shop into a studio to spotlight a lifetime of artistic achievement.

Recovery from the stroke has been slow and steady for the 84-year-old Knutson.

Patricia Knutson said her husband attempted going back to painting “almost right away” after his stroke June 30, 2015. He eventually completed just two small paintings — one of the Table Rocks and the other of pear blossoms. Both sold quickly.

While simple tasks still prove physically challenging for Knutson, it’s “hard to keep him away from his easel,” said his wife of nearly 61 years.

Knutson works in a makeshift workshop in his Medford home. He’s surrounded by decades' worth of paintings his wife said “he won’t part with,” including “Black Star” and “Mountain Man Roger Johnstone.” Other works tucked away include meticulous, detailed renderings of Southern Oregon’s natural wonders, including the Table Rocks, Crater Lake and the Oregon Coast.

Even though the self-imposed deadline to complete the bison — a commissioned piece — “was three weeks ago,” he said he will “keep pokin’ and pluggin’ away.”

In his prime, Knutson spent 18 hours a day painting: signs by day, portraits and landscapes by night. To lay down his brush and never work again is not an option. His wife said his “Norwegian work ethic, Polish stubbornness,” keeps him pursuing his first love.

Knutson has drawn and painted most of his life. His father, Emil Sr., was a major influence in both his artistic and professional endeavors.

With a bit of prodding, and assistance from Pat, the soft-spoken Knutson shares his story.

When health issues sidelined Emil Sr., he picked up a set of oils and brushes and began to paint on makeshift canvases. One of six boys, Emil Jr. was usually at his father’s side watching.

“One day, my father placed a small easel next to his. He gave me a brush and paint and told me to do as he did. I was 5 or 6 years old.

“A flame was lit in me.”

A Minnesota boy who came to Medford in 1947 via Southern California, he said his first painting was of a palm tree.

Later on, when Emil Sr. found work as a highway billboard painter, he took young Emil on the road with him. At his father’s elbow, Emil Jr. acquired a skill that came in handy when he had his own family to support.

After Knutson’s family came to Medford, he attended St. Mary’s School. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1951 during the Korean conflict and, after his discharge in 1955, he returned to the Rogue Valley. He landed a job as a sign painter’s apprentice at a small Central Point sign shop. His first significant assignment was repainting the Paul Bunyan-esque loggers that stand guard at the Expo.

In the meantime, he had enrolled in the Famous Artists’ correspondence course to sharpen his sketching skills and brush up on more sophisticated painting techniques.

“Those 10-minute sketches he had to do are works of art,” said Pat. Since then, he’s filled dozens of sketch books.

Without formal training, Knutson developed a style that one art critic described as “a recognizable combination of Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth.”

“He combines within his works some of the most interesting aspects of both artists.”

Like Rockwell, he did his storytelling with his paintbrush. And similar to Wyeth’s moody New England landscapes, Knutson’s ability to freeze a moment in time is almost camera-like with the play of light, shadow, texture and color.

In a style ala Alfred Hitchcock, Knutson often placed himself in his scenes.

He admits, with a twinkle in his eyes, that his hands were in “an awful lot” of his paintings.

After he met and married Patricia Pinniger Dec. 28, 1956, she became a favorite subject. One of his first portraits is a romantic study of his new bride clothed only in a woolen Navy blanket wrapped around her. Its title — “The Mother of My Children” — was prophetic. The couple would eventually have four daughters and three sons.

Another portrait of a very pregnant Pat completed just two weeks before their second daughter, Norma Jeane, was born hangs above their bed.

Scattered around the home the Knutsons have occupied for 49 years are landscapes — primarily pastoral scenes — and portraits of family members. One of Pat’s favorites captures the sweet innocence of their fourth daughter and seventh child, Kolleen. Another treasured piece is one of her grandmother Ruth Ina Jones.

Pat points out the glint in Grandma’s ocean-blue eyes and just a hint of a smile — a contrast to the somber Quaker she recalled from childhood.

“We never realized what a beauty she was,” Pat said.

A devout Catholic, Knutson is especially proud of a painting he did early in his career.

“I think this was my fourth (portrait),” he said.

The portrayal of a bloody Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns evokes sobs from those who view it, Pat said.

“It has such an impact on everyone,” she added.

In further testament to his faith, Knutson created several pieces for Sacred Heart Catholic Church, including an altar from marble imported from Iraq and a crucifix from a scrap of sugar pine lumber he found as a kid.

Mentored by notable sign painters such as Hal E. Bishop, John Eads and Harold Wehren, Knutson’s reputation as a highly skilled commercial artist kept him busy for nearly five decades.

When he worked for Coronet Signs, he was part of the team that created the old Cubby’s Drive-In logo and signage. He freelanced for other shops, including Hale’s Signs, and was Federal Signs' premier painter until about 1976. He then worked out of his own shop “for a decade or more,” Pat said.

The list of sites Knutson’s brush touched is endless, although, sadly, many have vanished with time.

The snarling Black Panther at South Medford’s gymnasium is his work, and so is the original Hedrick Hornets logo that buzzed the middle school for years. He completed murals for the Medford Skate Center, Colony Far East, Jacksonville Saloon, Ross Ragland Theater and The Louisiana Grille.

His Rembrandt-like portraits hung in Benjamin Franklin Savings and Loan and at Jefferson School.

He also was commissioned by well known area families — the Estremados, Carpenters and Chengs to name a few — and local corporations, such as Harry & David’s, Naumes Orchards, Providence Medford Medical Center and Medco.

He also created several pictorial displays for the Southern Oregon Historical Society and Rogue Valley Country Club. His caricature sculptures for the Pear Blossom’s Smudge Pot Art Contest were perennial crowd-pleasers.

Knutson is also renowned in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley and Solvang area for his paintings of California missions, vineyards, horse ranches and golden rolling hills.

He completed his last major commission — a life-sized mural of ancient astronomers and the heavens for musician Bob Bird’s estate in the West Evans Creek Valley outside Rogue River — just before his stroke.

Knutson told an interviewer in 1991 that he had “a need to do a painting and a desire to bring it to life.”

He added that his greatest reward was “the acceptance of the painting by the subject and anyone else involved.”

— Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at

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