BRATTLEBORO — Mixed medium artist Jonas Fricke’s death has rocked the communities, near and far, he held dear.
“Jonas had an intention that was very central to how he was in the world, which was to always keep a positive intention or outlook about everyone that he met, and he just had a capacity to accept people on their own terms and love them,” said Sylvia Blanchet, his mother. “So pretty much everyone felt unconditional love from Jonas.”
Fricke, 42, of the Brattleboro area, died March 5 in Tallahassee, Fla. The family is waiting for toxicology reports and said it appears Fricke had a seizure while performing on stage. His heart stopped before an ambulance arrived.
“If there is a silver lining to any of this, it is that Jonas literally died doing what he loved, which was just the most Jonas thing for him to do!” his sister Lucia Blanchet-Fricke wrote on Facebook.
Fricke inspired fellow artists and friends to pursue their art or creativity and be their authentic selves.
“I would say that for as long as I’ve known, collaborated and shared stages with him, he’s been a truly disarming, steadfast, wild, unapologetic, passionate, loving artist and musician that’s likely done more to bridge divides across the local creative generations than anybody else I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” said Aaron Chesley, local musician. “Jonas was a major piece of glue for us and I’ll miss him dearly.”
Fricke was “always doing art, always arting,” said Daryl McElveen, a friend of Fricke’s and local musician. “There was always something that he was working on. Every time I saw him, he was in the middle of going to a gig or playing. He was always arting. That was something he couldn’t help. That’s what he was, he was an artist.”
Fricke would reaffirm McElveen’s purpose in life: to create music. They met when McElveen moved to Brattleboro in 2014.
McElveen enlisted Fricke, a percussionist, to perform at the Root Social Justice Center and a battle of the bands event he organized.
“Jonas was the first artist I could relate to,” McElveen said. “He gave me confidence in what I wanted to do in this community, where I was new.”
McElveen said Fricke was “a really nice guy” whose approach to art inspired him to have some confidence in his own.
“It was good and it was super important to me staying here and finding the support I got,” said McElveen.
They would perform together on the street, creating drum circles. They played “lots of blues-based folk music,” McElveen said.
“We loved playing,” he said. “We wanted every opportunity to play.”
Doran Hamm, local actor, described Fricke as “a very special human being” who was “so important to so many people.” Hamm knew Fricke from taking community clown classes together.
Hamm said Fricke loved bringing community members together to create art, music, clown performances and play.
“They were just this beautiful, elemental enigma of comedy and joy,” Hamm said of Fricke. “They radiated well beyond their physical person, and you can’t say that for everyone. They were the head of the parade and the marching band and the banners and the clowns. They were the parade but you were invited.”
Hamm described Fricke’s artwork being “radical cardboard art meets performance clown meets music beatbox joy.”
Fricke created an art display on a wall in Yalla Vermont and a cardboard installation at Bread & Puppet Theater. Cardboard was one of Fricke’s favorite mediums but “found objects were precious to them in reuse,” Hamm said.
“They did all that then were also generous, kind and gave the deepest hugs,” Hamm said.
Fricke’s death “rattled the heart of the community,” Hamm said. “I know that they would want everybody to feel all their feelings honestly, to grieve and celebrate and dance all together. They were never one to deny anyone feeling their feels. And I think they’ll continue to radiate out their magic well beyond their physical passing.”
Fricke had a lot of compassion for people in challenging situations. Blanchet recounted how Fricke and his partner welcomed an older homeless woman into their small apartment for a winter so she wouldn’t freeze.
Andrew Courtney, director of Foodworks, where Fricke volunteered, recalled that Fricke “made beautiful signage to help broadcast the availability of delivery service from Foodworks. Over the summer of 2022, Jonas often stopped by Foodworks to pick up food supplies for his fellow volunteers before heading to northern Vermont to work on the construction of two cabins as a part of the Radical Imagination collective.
“Jonas always brought joy, curiosity and positivity to Foodworks. He will be greatly missed. Our hearts sit with his loved ones during this time of loss.”
Fricke didn’t participate in the traditional monetary system, Blanchet said. Instead, he preferred to give gifts and build community.
“One of his great joys was mentoring people in their creativity,” Blanchet said, “so he did it with children all the time but he did it with adults as well.”
Fricke created the Buoyant Heart Art Collective, which had about 12 studios and a performing space. Blanchet said people would come from all over the U.S. to perform or make music there.
Kay Curtis of Brattleboro said Fricke was a member of the original group of artists that formed Harmony Collective Artist Gallery in 2019.
“He provided kindness and wisdom whenever we arrived at an impasse, on any issue,” Curtis said. “We learned to follow his recommendations. Customers were amazed and inspired by his ability to make his work while behind the counter. He would be painting a banner or sewing a costume for his next event.”
Curtis said Fricke “gave us a model for a life lived fully. He never compromised but committed to life and art 100 percent. Brattleboro will continue to love him even if he is playing music elsewhere.”
Lindsay Richard of Dummerston, an acquaintance and fan of Fricke’s art, said Fricke’s “creative energy, embrace of life and output of joy was a real gift to this community and will be missed.”
Fricke “loved to do pretty unconventional things,” Blanchet said, such as creating mystery bands. Names of musicians would be pulled randomly from a hat then groups would rehearse a few times before a somewhat spontaneous performance.
For many years, Fricke has been visiting Bali in Indonesia with his parents. They run a foundation in Bali.
“He’s gone there many years and collaborated with artists there,” Blanchet said. “It’s a culture, which the center of it is expression of art to honor the divine, and so that has very much influenced him as well as Bread & Puppet, where he was an intern and he would go for their theater productions every summer of his life since he was little.”
As a child, Fricke also participated in the gifted arts program at Marlboro Elementary School.
He spent one year at Brattleboro Union High School before joining his sister at a Quaker boarding school, then attending Warren Wilson College and Vermont College. He completed three-and-a-half years, doing “well in both places but saw no need to continue to graduation, despite his family’s encouragement,” according to a biography provided by the family.
“He did not see a need for a college degree for the unconventional lifestyle that he envisioned for himself,” the biography states. “He began touring the country doing his one-man shows of ‘If Not I than Who Then?’ probably about 15 years ago.”
Sarah Bowen, who met Fricke more than 15 years ago at Vermont College where she taught visual art, recalled how he “explored the lives and work of countercultural, ‘fringe,’ and ‘outsider’ artists, with a particular focus on the Dada movement, artists who expressed irrationality and nonsense in their work as a protest against the militarist and capitalist values of post–World War I Europe.”
“A special pleasure in working with Jonas during this time was that his academic inquiries related so authentically to his own personal questions: by exploring countercultural, transgressive artists of the past, he was at the same time clarifying and affirming his own identity as a creative and ethical person in his own place and time,” Bowen said. “For years after these studies, we would meet from time to time in Brattleboro to discuss where his path was leading him. Jonas was a wonderful person to spend time with: gentle, sweet, kind, sincere, passionate, receptive and touchingly courageous in the art of being himself.”
Through his performances and many artistic explorations, Fricke developed what Bowen called “a role as a sort of ‘wise fool’ in a society and planet gone amok.”
“Thus, while his own artwork did not appear at all ‘responsible,’ I believe that responsibility — social, political, and artistic — was very much at the core of his being,” she said.
Fricke worked at the Putney Day Care for several years and later the Wildflower Play school in Putney. He was “a beloved nanny for numerous children in Brattleboro and Putney,” states the biography. He worked at Green Mountain Botanicals helping them make their supplements. He also was involved with community supported agriculture work on Circle Mountain Farm and SUSU commUNITY Farm.
His sister and mother described how Fricke overcame anxiety through creative acts. As a child, Fricke came up with a “awesomology,” a philosophy about why it’s so awesome to be alive.
Influenced by the ethos of Bread & Puppet Theater, Fricke believed art should be available to everyone and didn’t view it as a commercial enterprise.
“He actually chose not to exhibit in traditional galleries so much and to sell his art on the street or for very little,” Blanchet said. “He knew very well that one creates one’s reality from one’s thoughts and dreams so he would always choose joy. He would choose joy and he would choose community.”
Blanchet said her son was likely happier than he had ever been before in his life when he died — he had found his “soulmate” in Jocelyn McElroy and they were planning to start a family.
“They were very, very happy,” Blanchet said. “He just adored all his friends so much. He knew how to choose what made him happy so I don’t think he had a lot of regrets.”
Thomas Fricke, Fricke’s father, said the family is experiencing “grief and tremendous love emanating through his really incredibly diverse community, both in the Brattleboro area but extending around the world.”
Fricke would tour around and perform, as he was doing in Florida the day of his death.
“He could be performing to a handful or hundreds of people,” Thomas said. “It was often unclear who would show.”
Fricke “loved to manifest innovation and experimentation,” Thomas said, and “embraced the spirit and substance of Artivism, which is the fusion of artistic creativity, community and activism. He and the broader local and global community he is a part of embrace the power of art to mobilize, inspire, amplify, protect and activate people and movements.”
A year and 11 months older than her brother, Blanchet-Fricke said her first memory is the day of his birth.
“Jonas had the greatest, most expansive capacity to love of anybody I have ever met,” she said. “He lived his life as if love was not a finite resource.”
Blanchet-Fricke said many people see her brother as “this pure ray of light, which he was, but it took work and intention. He had demons and things that he struggled with, and I think that it’s a lot of why he was able to be compassionate to other people.”
The family is planning a large community gathering and celebration for Fricke in July.