Three tiny hairless dogs guard the entrance to Lamar Peterson's garden. Bea, a 7-year-old Xoloitzcuintli and Chihuahua mix with no teeth and a pink tongue, is the smallest but barks the loudest. The other two pups, Daisy, 6, a Xoloitzcuintli, and Moo, 8, a Chinese Crested, try to overtake Bea's bark, but to no avail.

"They're extremely protective and Bea, she'll bark when I walk her … well, she'll just bark all the time," Peterson said. "It's funny, me walking with this multi-pronged leash."

Peterson cares for the luscious, wonderland-like garden with his partner, Michael Templeton, in the backyard of their south Minneapolis home. Variously colored pots spill over with greenery, oval-shaped silver raised planter beds with seedlings just hatching and satchels piled high with dirt cover the ground, making any grass barely visible.

Peterson is a painter with a fierce gardening hobby. The two are intertwined, particularly in his recent paintings that focus on gardening as an act of self-care. A native Floridian, Peterson moved to Minneapolis from New York in 2011 to teach at the University of Minnesota. Now, he's associate professor of art and director of undergraduate studies and is more rooted here than ever.

This spring, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship for $65,000. He'll head to Georgia, where his dad, Jesse "Pete" Peterson, painted many murals, like one of a Black Jesus on a church in Quitman, Ga. His dad was a prolific painter but didn't become a known artist.

"The project will focus on investigating marginalized artists and artists of color, Black artists in Georgia in the South, shedding light on artists that were important to our communities but weren't able to achieve exposure to be more well known," Peterson said.

His father died of cancer in 2022. When he goes to Georgia in fall 2025, he plans to look for his father's murals and those of other forgotten artists. He also hopes to take his mom, Penny Peterson, who still lives in Florida. Peterson's dad inspired him to become an artist.

"He had the ability to paint and draw and wanted to be an artist, but because of having a family he wasn't able to do that," Peterson said.

When Peterson was 12, his dad gifted him his oil paints. He learned to paint by watching PBS painter Bob Ross, checking out books from the library and, of course, watching his dad paint. His dad gave away every one of his paintings. Peterson still checks eBay to see if any will pop up.

Lost in the flowers

Now that school's out for summer, Peterson is busy painting in his studio or relaxing in the garden, where he and his partner have planted 30 types of flowers and 40 kinds of plants. Throughout his artistic career, he's moved through phases of surrealistic playfulness, anger, grief, calm and, now, self-care.

"I have always had flowers in the work pretty much as a metaphor for life," he said. "Totality and joy, I mean everything — in my view, it's all kind of wrapped up in a flower, and in flowers. They can even stand in for people, as well."

In "Two Eggs for Breakfast," a Black man cooks eggs in the kitchen. Peterson contemplates the painting, the figures, their movements.

"He's more masculine-looking and has something about his face that I kind of like," he said. "I don't know where he's looking. He's more in a daze."

Peterson, 49, is an introvert, but his paintings are loud and clear, filled with color, much like the Florida landscape and comic books that inspire his work.

Born in 1974 in St. Petersburg, Fla., Peterson grew up in Palm Bay, Fla. His parents relocated there after his dad left the Air Force and got an MBA. He's an older brother to Jarrett and Eric, who live in Florida. He eventually left Florida to get a master of fine arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 2001. Then he moved to New York City.

Two years later, Andy Freiser of the New York gallery Fredericks & Freiser spotted his work in a show at the Drawing Center, an exhibition space in Manhattan. In 2004, Peterson got his first big break with the solo exhibition "Milk and Cookies" at Deitch Projects.

He followed up that show with one in 2005 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and then his first solo show at Fredericks & Freiser Gallery the same year.

Peterson's early works feel delightfully macabre, equal parts absurd and surreal. A wide-eyed Michael Jackson wearing a red shirt against a crisp winter background stares hard. A Black couple with a pet cougar host a picnic in a faux nature landscape while a Grim Reaper-esque skeleton looms large.

"Lamar has this graphic sensibility that really hits an emotional core," Freiser said. "He's been dealing with the theme of Black joy for years, but that emotional tenor has really been all over the spectrum."

Minneapolis home

When he's not in the garden or at home, chances are that Peterson is in the maze-like, fluorescently lit, cinderblock-walled U art faculty building. In the studio, there's a table covered with half-used paint tubes. Elsewhere, a Black mannequin torso and a lone rubber ducky. On the wall is a photograph of his aunt, Betty Jordan, smiling on the beach, palm trees in the distance.

"I'm always looking for flowers and butterflies and puffy clouds and crap like that," he said. "So, mostly just kitsch."

Peterson's early work was his take on the idea of the American Dream, growing up in suburbia as the first Black family in the area.

"The earlier work was more about traditional family, a mom and a dad and two kids, and you know, I'm gay obviously," he said. "It was mostly about my own parents, who were together until my dad died a couple of years ago. It was about them but not them — I felt like my personality was representing in all the genders, the couple and two kids, a boy and a girl."

Over time, the work "eventually became about Black men or pseudo self-portraiture," he said.

Peterson's Twin Cities community has sprung up around art. He has mentored local artists like Sayge Carroll, owner of Mudluk Pottery, and artist Leslie Barlow.

"He has this playful kind of vibrant, primary color thing going on that makes me think of childhood," Carroll said. "And then just an honesty and this really beautiful mixture of Black men or Black families in green spaces, which is not what we normally see a lot of."

Barlow met him when she was in graduate school at the U, and they immediately clicked.

"I love the kind of playful style that also feels a little nostalgic, but also a bit tongue-in-cheek," Barlow said. "And just Black people in nature, and Black people gardening."

The Minneapolis Institute of Art recently acquired his painting "The Late Spring Arrival," 2022, which he created after George Floyd's murder.

"After George Floyd's murder and the uprising, I started to return to thinking about flowers — trying to think about what gives me solace, and what gives me self-care," he said. "And I think when I have an opportunity to garden, that's when I feel really at ease and happy."