Published on December 29, 2012 by Amy
Jim Denomie (born 1955) is an Ojibwe painter. He is known for his colorful, at times comical, looks at United States history and Native Americans.
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A member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Denomie lived on reservation until the age of four when his family moved to Chicago, Illinois due to forced government relocation programs taking place within Native communities in the 1960s. This program, started by Dillon S. Myer, head of Bureau of Indian Affairs, hoped to assimilate American Indians into mainstream America by providing job and housing opportunities in major cities for selected families and individuals.
The stress of the relocation is credited as a contributing factor to the divorce of Denomie’s parents, and he went to live with his mother, at the age of five, in Minneapolis. In the summers and winters he visited his grandparents on the reservation.
A young adult
As a youth Denomie struggled in school with the pressures to conform and fit in. Seeking support from family members on how to deal with racism, stereotypes and peer-pressure rarely helped, as many of his relatives and friends dealt with their own conflicts in regards to assimilation into American culture. As a teenager he started to abuse alcohol, which he stopped drinking in 1990.
That year he began to attend the University of Minnesota, pursuing a degree in health science. Eventually he became involved with the American Indian student organization on campus, meeting other Indian students and engaging in Native art, culture, politics, language and other subjects he was not exposed to in his public school education. Denomie also became a teaching assistant in the American Indian studies department. Switching majors, in 1995 he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Minnesota. In his art classes he was exposed to Western art history and movements, and he began to form his own style and techniques.
A husband, father, and grandfather, Denomie lives and works in Shafer, Minnesota. Aside from painting, he also works in photography, collage and other mixed media explorations. He’s also an avid golfer. He is represented by Bockley Gallery.
He holds his mirror up to Indigenous people as surely as he does to Americans and American culture. Denomie’s art addresses everyone with equal rigor and has important lessons for all viewers. – Gail Tremblay
Starting with a theme, he then starts an initial sketch which serves as a rough draft, refining it until it is ready to be executed into a painting. With paintings ripe with color and heavy texture, he at times mixes his paints directly on the canvas when working quickly. His large scale works always receive a ground layer of paint which assists in forming a general composition. He describes his process as a “chess game”, derived from the many decisions he must make when placing, layering and constructing his detailed works.
When asked when he decided a painting was completed, Denomie stated:
…a painting is done when the artist dies. Previously, I felt that a painting was done when I have taken it as far as I could, at that point in time, and signed it. Now, if the painting is still in my possession and I am not impressed with it, I may rework it. A painting is like a motion picture, always evolving. We hit pause when it looks good to us and then we sign it. But we may come back to it sometime later and look at it again with a perspective enhanced by experience and development and say, “this painting needs more work.”
His preferred creation time is in the evening, listening to music by the likes of Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dire Straits, among others. Denomie credits his primary instructors at the University of Minnesota as major influences on his painting, as well as his family, dreams, memories, and his own life experiences.
Denomie describes his narrative painting style as “metaphorical surrealism”. His paintings frequently examine historical and contemporary events in American and Native American history, as well as aspects of pop-culture, art history and Anglo-Indian relations.
Works such as Attack on Fort Snelling Bar and Grill (2007) are a comical examination of 19th century American events and contemporary culture. Inspired by his wife’s participation in the 1862 Commemorative March, which took place in March 2006 to honor Dakota women and children forced to walk 150 miles from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling due to the refusal by Indian agent Thomas J. Galbraith to release foodstuffs to the community. Andrew Myrick, a storekeeper from the agency, stated that if the Indians were hungry “let them eat grass or their own dung.” Myrick was killed on the second day at the Battle of Lower Sioux Agency and when his body was found he had a mouth stuffed full of grass. Many of these events are shown in the painting: Myrick running away from an Indian on a lawnmower with grass in his mouth, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks inspires the Bar & Grill, a World Wrestling Entertainment flag flies high as a tribute to Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, Edward S. Curtis photographs an Indian couple in their own version of American Gothic, a nude Indian woman riding an appaloosa, and other numerous events and individuals representing Indian Country yesterday and today.
Edward S. Curtis makes a number of appearances as a voyeur in Denomie’s artworks. In Edward Curtis, Paparazzi: Skinny Dip Denomie mocks Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. A group of four Indians, one in a lake, while the others reclining in a grassy area, relax after a day of skinny dipping and Edward Curtis is shown in the corner, with his camera, prepared to take pictures.
Peking Duck (2008) parodies the Bering Strait theory by showing an Indian riding in a rickshaw carrying Chinese takeout in his hand. Above the taxi is a Denomie’s own version of The Creation of Adam, depicting White Buffalo Calf Woman giving a drum to the Lakota people.
In 2005 Denomie decided to create a portrait a day for one year as a way to make painting more of a priority in his life. His busy life wasn’t allowing him to work in the studio as often as he liked, and upon returning to the studio after a week of not working he felt like a foreigner. This has led to a collection of hundreds of portraits, primarily small scale works (5×7 inches, 6×8 inches) of American Indians that Denomie describes as “Rugged Indians”. The portraits are generally head and shoulder portraits, with the individual faced forward, taking between 15–30 minutes to complete. The concept, similar to Chris Ofili’s Afro Muses series, allowed for Denomie to get his “head into the oven” of art creation. Succeeding at this project, Denomie is currently not painting a portrait a day.
The Afflicted Warriors is a series of portraits depicting male Indian warriors with long hair, a headband a single feather from their head, while some are not adorned. The Wounded Knee series is reminiscent of Picasso’s Blue Period, a series of male and female portraits painted in blues, greens and blacks with a touch of white. The portraits are skeletal, representative of the horrors that took place at Wounded Knee. Occasionally they are just general “Rugged Indians” and Denomie will sign, date and perhaps name the portrait after someone it reminds him of.
Denomie’s studio, Wabooz Studio, is named for the Ojibwe word for rabbit. Wabooz is a common image in Denomie’s paintings, as an animal that he identifies with, the rabbit is also representative of the Ojibwe trickster figure Nanaboujou. As an alter ego for Denomie, he allows himself to enter the works of art he creates. Wabooz has even made an appearance in Denomie’s portraits as Magic Rabbit, a series of three paintings depicting an alert rabbit wearing a vest with intense almost google-eyes.
Minnesotan politics, news and Indian Country are often found in Denomie’s contemporary history paintings. The intense recount between Al Franken and Norm Coleman is shown in Split Decision, where Paul Wellstone is the referee standing between the two politicians, dressed like boxers. Denomie’s signature cast of characters sit in the audience: Wabooz, an Indian riding a horse, a coyote, a moose, and plenty of unenthusiastic people.
The landscape Casino Sunrise is Denomie’s own remake of the Seal of Minnesota. Governor Tim Pawlenty is represented by “Pawl Bunyan” (a play on Paul Bunyan) and is shown with his pants around his ankles standing directly behind Babe the Blue Ox. Former governor Jessie Ventura is shown only wearing a thong and a feather boa; he has a cigar in his mouth, a fishing rod set with a grenade in one hand, and a fist of money in the other. No politician of recent Minnesota history escapes the wrath of Denomie’s paintbrush; Norm Coleman sits on a toilet and Al Franken counts ballots behind him. Indian Country is represented as well through images of lynched Indians from Fort Snelling, an Indian funeral pyre, a Christian church, a member of the American Indian Movement riding a horse and more. A Minneapolis police car relating to arrests made of three Indian men and without enough room for them all in the car one was placed in the trunk, is also depicted. Of this painting Denomie said, “The Minnesota State seal needed to be updated. It’s been a while…This is all history, all of it is history of Minnesota.”