During his 70-year career, artist Jon Arfstrom painted pretty much anything and everything all the time.
As a founder and past president of what is now the Northstar Watermedia Society, he could turn out a transparent portrait or vivid landscape with confident brio.
As a staff illustrator for 40 years at Brown and Bigelow, the St. Paul-based publisher, he did portraits and helped prepare Norman Rockwell’s paintings for publication on the company’s popular calendars.
But it was as a pioneering illustrator of fantasy, science fiction and horror stories in the 1940s and ’50s that he won his most lasting acclaim. His early surrealistic drawings of ghoulish figures and cover illustrations for the magazine Weird Tales are considered classics.
He returned to the horror field in the 1990s and won a prestigious Stoker Award — considered the Pulitzer Prize of horror lit — in 1994 for his illustration work on “The Early Fears,” a collection of vintage stories by Robert Bloch.
Arfstrom, 87, died Dec. 2 at his home in Anoka from complications of various illnesses.
“He was so extraordinarily committed to his passion that he literally continued drawing until the day he died,” said son-in-law Mark Ferrey, who said “his body just wore out.”
Arfstrom, who was born in Superior, Wis., described himself as a largely self-taught artist. However, he did study with the Famous Artists School, a correspondence course founded by Rockwell and other members of the New York Society of Illustrators, and took classes at what is now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
During World War II, he worked on Great Lakes freighters and excursion ships, where he sold beverages and did portraits of passengers.
“He was only 14 [when he started] and lied about his age to get a job,” Ferrey said. By 16, “he was a freight foreman on one of those ships.”
In the late 1940s, Arfstrom began submitting fantasy and sci-fi illustrations to pulp magazines. He contributed many illustrations to Weird Tales and did at least three cover illustrations for the publication starting with the January 1952 issue. Simultaneously in the early 1950s he worked as an advertising illustrator at Gamble-Skogmo and turned out biblical illustrations for Lakeland Color Press.
He joined the staff of Brown and Bigelow about 1956 and continued working there as a portrait artist until his retirement in 1996. Initially, the firm had a large staff of artists, but as printing technology and public taste changed, the company dismissed many of the artists and “he was always afraid he’d be laid off,” Ferrey said.
Despite his fame among horror illustration enthusiasts, Arfstrom was a genial guy whose only hobby was art. Even after putting in a full day of work at Brown and Bigelow, he’d come home and draw for another eight hours, filling hundreds of illustrated diaries and sketchbooks. He also left hundreds of paintings.
“If you met him, you’d never have any idea he was an artist except that he was always drawing — at weddings, graduations, out on the town, in the hospital getting kidney dialysis,” said Ferrey.
In 1975 he and several others founded the Northstar society. “He was magnificent, a real master of watercolor,” said Susan Fryer Voigt, a society board member who recalls a painting demonstration by Arfstrom. “He had confidence and knew exactly what was going to happen, and watercolor is one of those media you have very little control over unless you’ve done it for a very long time as he had.”
Arfstrom is survived by his wife of 69 years, Norma (nee Siegford), their daughters Gayle Untereker of Ham Lake and Tory Ferrey of White Bear Lake, and sons Daryl and Gary of Baxter, Minn. A memorial service will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday at Gearhart Funeral Home in Anoka.