Artists take on Duluth head shop controversy

A four-year long war waged between defiant “Last Place on Earth” owner and synthetic drug hawker Jim  Carlson and the city of Duluth — which played out on newspaper front pages, TV screens, and eventually in federal court — is now the subject of a new art exhibit.

Carlson was convicted in federal court last October on 51 counts of selling banned substances. He is appealing the verdict.

Duluth artist Joe Klander painted a series of cartoon-like images portraying Don Ness and Jim Carlson as pop culture characters.

“Hero/Villain/Savior/Scoundrel: Portraits of Jim Carlson & Don Ness” opens Saturday at Zeitgeist Arts Cafe in downtown Duluth, with an opening reception scheduled for April 10.

Many of the portraits are funny, others serious, and some surprising, exploring conflicting notions of “hero” and “scoundrel.”

“Most of us would think right away that Jim Carlson is the villain,” said Duluth artist Joe Klander, who contributed paintings depicting Ness and Carlson in classic good vs. evil scenes from Ghostbusters and The Karate Kid.  “But for some folks it might be the other way around.”

Duluth artist Adam Swanson painted this portrait of Jim Carlson for an exhibit titled “Hero/Villain/Savior/Scoundrel: Images of Jim Carlson & Don Ness”

Duluth artist Adam Swanson painted a sympathetic portrait of a smiling Carlson, in part, he said, “because I am a firm believer that all of us have a little bit of hero and a little bit of scoundrel in us.”

Swanson also said it was difficult to find a picture in the media that portrayed Carlson in a positive light — most feature him with dark bags under his eyes, or with police cars in front of his store.

This image of Jim Carlson as Che Guevara by artist Tyler Scouton has been printed on t-shirts and stickers around Duluth.

And there are a contingent of people in Duluth who truly view Carlson as a hero, someone who stood up to what they saw as heavy handed law enforcement, who was willing to put his freedom on the line to fight for what he believed in (as well as hefty profits).

Swanson said he still sees a lot of people wearing “Free Jim Carlson” T-shirts, with a likeness of the head shop owner as Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, which is also included in the exhibit.

Artist Adam Swanson wanted to portray Duluth Mayor Don Ness "like a regular dude out on the town."

Anne Dugan, Executive and Artistic Director of the Duluth Art Institute, said it’s time visual artists had their say in an issue that has consumed Duluth for several years. Portraiture, she said, “can add nuance to very un-nuanced portraits in the media.”