Joel Jonientz

Yesterday we lost Joel Jonientz, one of my closest friends, collaborators, and neighbors. He was 46 and has a wife and three small kids. It sucks.

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Joel was a remarkable guy. He had vast knowledge ranging from painting, drawing, and comics (his scholarly specialty) to music, technology, baseball, football, and (while he refused to discuss it as a Seattle sports fan) the NBA. He knew how to use a circular and a table saw (and rebuilt my front porch while I helped). Whenever there was something to do, he’d remind me: he could read how to do it on the internet, and he had a masters in FINE arts. He could go from moderating a panel of poets, artists, and writers at the UND Writers Conference to complaining about an offseason move by the Seahawks in a moment.

He co-produced a podcast and you can hear it here.

He maintained a blog that documented his art here.

He has videos on Vimeo here including this one in Mayan.

He designed an amazing poster for Punk Archaeology here for free because he though the entire thing sounded fun. He laid out the book and designed the cover art.

He always stayed to the end of the game when watching sports at my place. When things were going well for one of our teams, he would insist on high-fives. I don’t do high fives.


He understood that it was just as important to hang out when things were going poorly. In 2011, he was the only person watching the NLDS with me (in a crowded house) and we both noticed Ryan Howard limping after running hard to first on the final out of the Phillies’ losing effort.

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More than any of that, he was a family guy. He loved his wife and kids in a way that gave perspective to the entire world and gave him a consistent set of priorities that guided his life, work, and friendships. When he and I were stressed out about something, he’d smile and tell me that when he got home, he had three little people who would remind him of what was really important in life and produce joy.

Whenever I needed something, he would be there to help. He was supportive of most of my ideas (and he was supportive of most of his friends’ ideas) even if it was largely because “he loved a bad plan.”

Yesterday, I was barely able to function, but today, I think I’m seeing a bit more clearly. Anyone who met Joel – even just for a moment – remembers him, and we’ll all feel his loss for a long time.

Joel and I had plans! He was the co-director of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota with me. We had both worked hard to direct the disparate energies of the Working Group in Digital and New Media (there was even talk of us getting a web page!). He was fascinated by my work in the Bakken and, when we last talked on Easter, he was excited for my plan to excavate Atari games in the New Mexico desert.

If yesterday, I was wracked by grief, and, while today I don’t feel any less sad, I also realize how much work I have to do to live up to Joel’s legacy.

A little update : This post has received over 400 page views in the last few hours. Joel used to tell me that a mention on my blog was worth about 30 page views on his. He and his friends are returning the favor 10 fold. So take a few minutes to click through to his blog, listen to a podcast, or check out a video. This image was touching today.

One update more: My good friend Tim Pasch shared this with us today. It’s a cover of Grateful Dead’s Ripple.

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.


  1. Thank you for this tribute. What a crushing loss for the community and more importantly his family. I didn’t know Joel well, but we crossed paths frequently, and I loved his work and enthusiasm. I’m stunned and angry.


  2. Thanks, Bill, for this. I’m still numb. What a loss.


  3. Bill, thanks for this. Joel is a dear dear friend and I’m still in shock over learning this news. It’s just not right.


  4. Joel was one of those people that I wanted to be friends with, but hadn’t given it the time or opportunity. I am thankful for crossing his path, and he will be missed.


  5. Michelle Bowles April 22, 2014 at 11:21 am

    Thanks for posting this lovely tribute. My only experience with Joel was when he moderated panels for the Writers Conference. His knowledge, humor, and respect for the authors and the audience made his panels a delightful experience. I always left thinking he would be a fun guy to spend an evening talking to. He obviously was. Sympathies to you, all his friends and colleagues, and especially his wife and children.


  6. I found out yesterday and have been in shock. i couldn’t believe it was real, than i saw this and realized it was. He is/was my adviser, hes taught me since my first semester and I’m on year five right now. We got pretty close over these years and the art department won’t be the same without him. He would always tell stories about his kids in class and you could tell how happy he was to be a father. He was a great man who can never be forgotten.Thank you for posting this.


  7. This just makes me sick. Thank you for this.


  8. A fitting tribute to one of the best mentors I have had in my life so far. So many small details of his personality touched on here that made for a sort of therapeutic read. Thank you for that.

    I’m still stunned, and so much more. He’ll be greatly missed.


  9. Really caring and thoughtful entry, Bill. Thanks. I especially appreciate the photos of Joel and the links. Last time we played cards together I’ll never forget him holding court describing the importance of his beloved Hawks winning the Super Bowl. I’m sure this post is helpful for many of us. It’s a weird day to be in Hughes and know he isn’t.


  10. Very nice, Bill. I didn’t know Joel well, but I do know Amanda, and this is a heartbreaking loss for her, the kids, and everyone who knew Joel and his family.


  11. Nicely said Bill. I’m still in shock with this news Joel, you and the rest of the Working Group made a huge difference in my work while working on my MFA. I’m now teaching at Cumberland University and tomorrow I will show my Intro to Art students my work and the work of the people that have influenced my work. Joel will by a big part of that. I’m lucky and proud to have been his student.


    1. Thanks, Jim. I’m glad you heard. We were worried about how his students would find out.

      That Thanksgiving we shared with Joel, Amanda, and the kids was memorable (not just because we all got horribly ill afterward… never let a kid lick your watch…).


      1. I know a lot of his student are being contacted on face book. My thoughts are with you I know this was a huge loss for you. I did get so sick after Thanksgiving but it was such an honor to be there. Still just don’t have the words.

  12. Suzanne Gonsalez-Smith April 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    We are all numb here in Art and Design and will miss our friend and colleague. My twins are a year younger than his girls so I can only imagine. Having lived through the death of a mate before I know what Amanda is going through. I am glad she has a good supportive group around her. Thanks for this.


  13. Emanuel, Emelie, and Eathan April 22, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    Joel’s son and mine (Eathan) are best friends in class. My wife (Emelie) and I had plans of inviting Joel and Amanda over for lumpia (Filipino egg rolls), which we found out Joel loves and my wife makes. He and I had just talked about these plans a week ago before I left. We wish Amanda and the children strength during this time of sorrow…


  14. Thanks, Bill. We’re all stunned by this but appreciate you putting something out there now for us to consider as a community. I honestly don’t even know what to say about it, so I am especially appreciative of your efforts to begin talking about it.Joel’s left a void that UND will never really fill, and it won’t be the same without him.


  15. Thank you for writing this. Joel is my uncle. Still in shock and so sad and was hoping I’d find some things on his work. His incredibly infectious and identifiable laugh, that unmistakable Ha! Ha! Ha! still rings in my ears. Everybody just loved him, elderly people, family, friends, peers and especially children. The world lost a bit of its sunshine yesterday.


    1. Brit,

      Yeah!! His laugh!!! That’s right!!! What a great thing to remember.



  16. Chris Jonientz April 22, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    My daughter Britt shared this with me. I’m far away & angry. I thank you so much for making me smile. I was remembering his laugh today. He had such a deep full laugh as a baby just a few months old, I’m afraid we tortured him with tickling just to hear it often. As a young man he always was bent on making a life in art whether it fed him & paid the bills or not. It makes me feel a little better today to hear about the legacy of students he created. He lives on in his family, his friends & his students. Much love to all of you.


  17. What a strange day today. As a graduate student I met with Joel a handful of times, but one meeting changed my approach to making images. I’ll never forget that meeting. I told him a crazy idea and he looked at me and told me to do it.. Plain and simple… no fuss, just do it. Somehow, him speaking those words made everything possible. So I did it, and its pretty awesome.. he was really supportive of the project, too. I’m sorry he didn’t get a chance to see what he started in me. He later told me that he was going to take the “F” out of my MFA, but that’s another story.. I always wanted to tell him what he could do with that “F”, something I think he would have appreciated.. There are these things that I always thought to say, or wanted to say, but never did.. maybe these words will reach him. Thank you Bill for making this space to write this down.


    1. I had a similar experience with joel and his “just do it!”


  18. I was so shocked by the news of Joel this morning, and even now am in tears. Joel was my advisor and also a mentor. I owe him many words of thanks and appreciation that I was never able to tell him before I graduate this year and wish I still could. He was a huge inspiration for my BFA Show and an inspiration to all of his students and those who met him. UND art department will not be the same with out his comedic comments and wit. What a wonderful tribute. My thoughts and condolences go out to his family and all who knew him.


  19. I lost my brother yesterday, and in hindsight, my best friend who knew me better than just about anyone else. It will take me a log time to come to terms with this loss – of never talking to him again, hearing his laugh (which honestly, would embarrass me if we were in public but he never cared because he was being HIM), getting his advice, or just talking about the Mariners or Seahawks. I already miss him so much, but most of all, I am so saddened how his kids will grow up without being raised by my brother who loved them so dearly.

    It’s no surprise to me to read about the affect he had on others on hear; he was such an amazing person and inspiration.

    I love you so much, Joel.



  20. My condolences on the loss of a remarkable person. I only knew of him through things my cousin, Chris would say. He was a remarkable person. Thoughts and prayers of support during this difficult time to his family, friends, and colleagues, in addition to the lives of countless students he touched.


  21. I’m so sad to hear this news. Facebook is such a horrible way to find out. Having recently gone through the unexpected loss of a loved one, and the constant questions about life and death from my own child because of it, this hits close to home. Joel was a good man, full of integrity. We weren’t close, but having attended UND for my MFA, he was a constant presence and person who could challenge you even from a distance. He will be missed. My deepest condolences to his family.


  22. I’m shocked and saddened to hear this. Joel was a fantastic instructor and one of the best things about the UND art department. He will be greatly missed.


  23. My sympathies on your loss of a good friend. I know words are often not sufficient to express the pain of grief, but I hope you all can find solace in sharing fond memories.


  24. I am another student who Joel has greatly affected. I was lost at UND before Joel took me in, and helped guide me through. I cannot express how grateful I am to have had him in my life. His funny comments and insightful remarks will stay with me forever. I feel for his family. I know how much he loved them.


  25. David Suchoski April 23, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    Bill, Thank you so much for putting together this memorial.
    Joel has been my best friend for decades — indeed he was the best man at my wedding. It is painful and so sad to have lost him. Joel was a man of principle, and great integrity. He was a trusted friend with a brilliant mind, who gave me so many alternate and astute perspectives to my own. As noted repeatedly in the comments here, Joel brought joy, laughter, and love to so many people who crossed paths with him. He also energized people to act on their thoughts and dreams — especially because Joel was not one to be idle. He always had a wide variety of projects and activities in flight.
    Joel, I miss you my dear friend. Thank you for all the good times, great conversation, and adventures we shared. You have always been there for me. My heart pours out especially to your wife and kids.
    To Joel’s family, friends, UND colleagues & students, and acquaintances who feel the pain of his absence, let’s all remember Joel by taking time to help each other in any way we can. Joel Jonientz lives on through us.


    1. David,

      Thanks for the comment. It’s perfect.



  26. Craig Garaas-Johnson April 23, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    Just one of my favorite people. I don’t think I ever had a conversation where we didn’t laugh, or where we stayed on the same topic for more than 10 minutes. So quick, so kind, and so bold. I am really going to miss him.


  27. I was one of the lucky ones I had Joel for several semesters and he was always so understanding and helpful being one of his older students I entered his class at age 58 and didn’t know a thing about computers, I had a love for drawing and ceramics, painting etc…he would always give me the what we called pick me up talk about you are never to old to learn, I learned a lot from him and when I found out today through a faculty member I just cried for him and his lovely wife( Amanda) and those beautiful children he has. What a loss for all of us. I was fortunate enough to have him in my life to enrichen it. My hardest task this semester is going to be to walk into the classroom tomorrow and know he is never going to grace us again with his wit and humor. I know all my classmates will miss him as I do and UND just lost a great instructor. So sad for all of us.
    Ginny Valentino


  28. Bill,
    This is a terrific tribute to Joel. I’m devastated. Like you, I can’t quite function. What a truly unique man. He’s had an impact on so many lives. He was my go to guy when I have personal problems. My long distance adviser. We had each other’s backs. Having him away from us for several years now, it’s hard to know what his new life in ND has been like exactly. He would come visit & tell us, but without meeting all his new friends & students, it’s difficult to really grasp how wide the ripples of grief spread at a time like this. It’s easy to look at our direct relationship with Joel, or our particular group of friends that share him & think it’s just me or just us. We all loved him. He was all the things you and the commenters have noted, so it’s no wonder so many are affected by this tragic & unexpected loss. Thank you for this chance to hear from those that I will never know. So much more to say, but you & Dave have both put it better than I ever could.

    Thanks for everything Joel Jonientz. We are all better off having known you.


  29. I am still a little stunned and very saddened by the news. I am very sorry for his family for this terrible sudden loss. I knew Joel from ’94 to ’03 and did not keep in touch like I should have. I tried to think of a response three or four times before I finally got up the words to make some kind of response here.

    Joel was one of the few people I did not mind losing $10 to in a poker game. First, he was not the kind of person to make you feel bad when that happened. Second, a friendly, expressive, happy, caring person isn’t exactly a prototypical poker player. This is an excellent sign of character in my opinion.

    I felt bad for Joel in ’96 when Jordan and the Bulls knocked off his Sonics in the finals. And Joel was there to make me feel a little better when Elway’s Broncos beat my Packers in the Super Bowl in ’97.

    I know a sudden loss can be hard to deal with. His family will be in my thoughts. I hope those closest to them give the support they need.

    Doug Bath


  30. Today is day two of finding out about Joel, still stricken with grieve I won’t be attending my classes today. All I could do last night was think about all the things he did for all of us and the way he treated us. Joel was a true artist and never took on the I’m better then you mode that most artist do. He was a down to earth man with a heart of gold and a funny laugh that was contagious to say the least. I am feeling the impact of this so hard as his last words to our class was ” Go have a good Easter see you when we get back” the realization here is he’s not coming back and that is hard to deal with for all of us. I spent many hours last night looking at all his art work and who he was there aren’t any words to release the pain and loss….one of the main things I remember is he always said” you can do it, you just have to try” and that worked for me. Not being able to say good-bye seems undone. So my goodbye to Joel has to be here with his family and friends. We all loved you Joel and will miss you so much look down on us all and know we are missing you, but promise to take what you have taught us and use it to the fullest. I promise bye my instructor and friend….


  31. Thank you Bill and all those who left a reply about Joel, what an amazing guy! For someone who only knew the legend and heard about his work and deeds all this helps me get in cahoots with Joel and all those who love and admire him. As someone who experiencing the slow, methodical loss of a loved one I have a small taste of what Amanda and his children are experiencing. I shall hold them close in my thoughts and prayers that this community of friends, family and scholars will embrace and support them during this tough time.


  32. What a wonderful tribute to my uncle Joe. It’s comforting to know that others in North Dakota love him as much as his family here in Washington do. He was born to be an artist. I treasure the days as kids we spent picking colors from large shoe boxes of crayons and laying on our bellies on the living room floor drawing. I can only imagine the murals underway in heaven.


  33. Great artist- Great humble human being, is great loss to UND. We loved you Joel and will miss you.

    Ashok Bhatia


  34. I still can’t believe this is real. Joel was such a fun creative person and professor. He had his own way of doing things and was such a presence in the Art department. He has had such an impact on myself and my fellow classmates. I’m going to miss his wisdom and knowledge that he enjoyed sharing with all of us students and his laugh was priceless. Not too sure how we are all going to go to class monday knowing he won’t be shuffling in the door a few minutes late. This is an awesome tribute to him and his memory will always live on. My heart is heavy and full of thoughts and prayers for his family.


  35. Hiroko Nagatake April 25, 2014 at 2:27 am

    I have recently learned about the sudden death of Prof. Joel Jonientz at UND. Although I was not a MFA student of his, he offered kind and useful comments during my faculty reviews. We are saddened by his passing, and I offer my sympathetic condolences to his family.


  36. What happened???


    1. David Suchoski April 25, 2014 at 3:30 pm

      Hello Michelle, Joel died of a heart attack early on Monday morning. If you are up to it, please share some thoughts about what he meant to you. Thank you.


  37. I’ve known Joel since high school… It is still unbelievable that Joel isn’t with us anymore. Even though I hadn’t been in touch with him in the last decade or so I will always remember him as a good friend who was loyal, giving and fun! Way back after high school when I still considered myself an artist, I marveled on the passion and dedication Joel had for his art. It’s something to call yourself an artist, but to have the belief in yourself and drive to keep going – the true spirit of an artist, is something to be admired. I always thought I would be able to say that to him someday in the near future… I will miss him.


  38. David Suchoski April 25, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    Hello all, I have set up a fund-raiser page to help support Joel’s wife Amanda and their kids. Please give generously if you can. Your support is greatly appreciated!

    Bill – Can you link this within the article? That way people won’t miss it down here in the comments. Thank you.


    1. Dave – I will put a link to this fundraiser on my blog too.

      I just want to say Suchoski was a name I heard ALL the time growing up! I think our family would consider you much more than a best friend, you are just part of the family,


  39. I never met Joel, but this blog combined with this NPR article tells me that I really really wish I had.


  40. Joel was our Warehouse Manager just out of college, we knew we would only have Joel for a short time as he had so many interest and talents. He appointed himself in charge of human resources. You have to remember we only had 5 employees. He was in charge of making everyone laugh anyone who was down or was having a bad day he would make sure it did not last long. We only had him in our company for a short time and he is so remembered for touching us all. Joel job well done you did a lot in a short period. Well done my friend


  41. Hello Friends of Joel,

    Well, I feel I can finally put some thoughts into words. Joel had a lot of good friends, and it makes me smile to see everyone’s comments about him. When I think about Joel a few words jump out to me; blunt, endearing, charismatic, crass and caring all wrapped together. He would tell you the truth whether you wanted to hear it or not, but he was a master of encouragement. He surrounded himself with good people. I mentioned this to Amanda, and I said he wouldn’t put up with anyone less, which she phrased perfectly, “He didn’t suffer fools gladly.” She hit it on the head, so feel proud to be his friends, I certainly do.

    Too many stories to tell, but I feel I need to write down some random thoughts as therapy for myself, and as reminder to all the memories. Please forgive the poor grammar.

    -His love for art of all kinds. Going to Bill Cummings’ shows when we hadn’t even started painting yet. Both of our shows at coffee shops, pubs, and restaurants. He was an excellent MC/sales encourager at my shows, really making them fun for everyone.

    -Going around sketching; with Amanda at the Tulip Festival sketching old barns; figure drawing classes; and the now infamous Volunteer Park episode from Art School when we were supposed to drawing people, and we found out the hard way the reputation of the park. Do not go into the bushes to have a few frosty beverages before drawing people!

    -Oddly enough, his cars. His (Che)’Vette and the Jeep (he once the most illegal car in all Seattle!).

    – Our sports fanaticism, Seahawks, Sonics, Mariners, and boxing (Roberto Duran and Ali were two of his fav’s). We used to quote Ali/Cosell lines back and forth, “I’m pretty! I’m sooo pretty!,” “You’re not that pretty Ali,” “I’m a baaaaaad man!” Nancy reminded me of when we were first dating (15-16 years ago) when Joel, Dave and I went to game, we probably over imbibed, and when the Mariners made a comeback, Joel and I ripped off our shirts and he started yelling at me, “GET IN MY BELLY!” Yeah, it was around when Austin Powers came out. Nancy was stunned, and second guessing what she was getting into  At a Seahawks game when they played at Husky stadium, when 3 guys in front of us were leaving. We were down two touchdowns in the 4th quarter and one of them talked the other in leaving early. Joel and I berated them (in a brotherly fan way), and the two friends agreed. They sat down, and “we” made a comeback and won the game.

    -Playing sports. A dozen or so of us played tackle football into our 30’s every Saturday during football season (Doug, Dave, Billy, George, Big Tony, the Hotchkiss brothers, the Dodes brothers, etc.). Joel got his nose busted in 7 places one time, but that was one of only two serious injuries in nearly a decade of playing (it was a stranger who showed up who did it, and I remember they had to hold George back). Going to Wendy’s for his beloved fries and large diet coke afterwards. We would shower and change, and one time while I was putting a shirt on he said I looked like DeNiro in Raging Bull, not the young one, but when he gets old with a belly. He was a great exaggerator. He would tell that story, and then say I didn’t eat for 3 days. Playing basketball in at the Ocampo house and ‘Vegas with Dave and Billy. Joel and I played dozens of one-on-one games, where him holding and grabbing me was part of the game. Wrestling in the basement of the Ballard house (not roughhousing, but collegiate style wrestling). He always manhandled me until I took Hapkido, and after one wrist lock he vowed never to wrestle me again. I’m crying as I remember this, but I’m smiling.

    -Joel stopping at my apartment when he was at AmeriCorps, and taking napes on my couch. Then breaking that couch by merely stretching one day. Watching Sonic games in Dave/Joel/Angela’s basement apartment, but of course I only remember game 5 of the Nuggets game . Living with him at the Ballard house with Angela. He was convinced there was a ghost in his room (seriously), so we coined it the “friendly ghost,” so it might be influenced that way. Joel naming our place, “The House of Love,” and not that way, so get your mind out of the gutter 

    -Working at Skyline with Greg P. and Steve. That’s when he realized with finality that he didn’t want to be a graphic designer, and he went back to school to pursue fine art and animation. We both had AA’s, but he went back to school and got his BA. He inspired (verbally pushing me) me to do the same, which I did at the same college (Evergreen). Then he went and got his MFA, and told me I should too, which I did (MAT though). He wanted mentor kids and adults, and he followed his dream. Joel and Nancy’s example helped me leave an unfulfilling career, and to become a teacher. Something I’m sure wouldn’t have happened without the two of them.

    -Last but not least, his family. I told him when he first met Amanda, “If something happens and this doesn’t work out, it’s your fault!” Years later I retold that story at their wedding in the worst Best Man speech ever given by Dave and myself. Camping with everyone, especially when Amanda introduced us to Butt Charades by the campfire! The joy that Joel radiated when he became a father, and his love for all of them.

    Thank you for letting me ramble.

    I miss him.


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