I once read that the floral motif on makizinan (moccasins) faced the wearer and not the observer. The observer viewed the art that one wore. The positioning of the floral motif on the makizin was not happenstance. The floral apiinwe’igan (vamp) was positioned to innately connect the wearer of the Woodland environment in which s/he lived. The apiganegwaajigan (cuff) was embroidered with floral motifs that encircled the foot of the wearer and firmly rooted them to Gookomisakiinaan (Grandmother Earth).
Floral mazinigwaaso (bead embroidery) was not limited to makizinan. It flowed upward and took shape and form on leggings, aprons/breechcloths, vests, yokes, shirts, dresses, and bandolier bags. Such clothing was for gatherings and social dances. When worn, the wearer became the personification of Anishinaabe identity. Makizinan were, however, worn daily, and the floral motifs provided a consistent connection to one’s identity and environment.
To understand Anishinaabe mamazinibii’igewin (art), one needs to view Anishinaabe aesthetics from an Anishinaabe worldview. In this worldview, there is no separation between art forms; rather there is a continuity of aesthetics, although the medium differentiates the application and expression of those aesthetics.
Anishinaabe mamazinibii’igewin (art) began as pictographic images painted or etched on rock. Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor provides a more expressive definition of pictographs – pictomyth: the believable Anishinaabe pictures of myths or believable Anishinaabe myths of pictures. Such art existed long before the European invasion of North America. The rock pictomyths focused on the relationship between humans and the aadisookaanag, i.e., other than human persons: the Four Winds, Sun, Moon, Thunderbirds, “owners” or “masters” of species of plants and animals and the characters in myths – collectively spoken of as “our grandfathers” or ancestors.
Lake Superior and Canadian Shield tracings on rock pictomyths / Selwyn Dewdney
Lois Jacka writes: “As skills were passed down through the ages, new materials became available, new techniques developed, and each succeeding generation contributed its own interpretations and innovations.”
This was apparent with the advent of drawing or etching pictomyths on birch bark. Like the individual aesthetics with its focus on content rather than form on rock pictomyths, the development of birch bark pictomyths expressed a group aesthetics that was cultural in form yet emphasized content. Birch bark pictomyths were a cultural mode of communicating and recording history, migration, ceremonies, traditions, stories, and songs. Hence, Anishinaabe mamazinibii’igewin (art), in its earliest forms, was a means of communication. The form itself conveyed the message. However, the imagery of the form expressed a group aesthetic.
The importance here is the continuity of the images. Images that began on rocks, then on birch bark, began to be used as a group aesthetic. Wooden spoons, ladles, and bowls, birch bark containers and baskets, woven reed mats, and yarn bags were decorated with pictomyths.
Such imagery carried over to sashes, moccasins and clothing that were decorated with quillwork. As such, Anishinaabe images had a decorative, i.e., aesthetic, intent that provided a confluence of art and identity.
The main media for traditional art was gaag (porcupine) quills and mooz (moose) hairs. Dyes were obtained from barks, roots, leaves, flowers, and berries and used to color quills and animal hairs, including various fibers. Geometric quilled images depicted the individual’s clan affiliation and dream symbols. Abstracted motifs of animals, flowers, insects, and leaves were common in quillwork. Quillwork tended toward abstraction or geometric designs because of the rigidly of the quills.
The influx of colored seed beads in the 1860s led to significant changes in designs. Carrie Lyford notes: “The Ojibwa introduced the curvilinear pattern into the western region adopting and embellishing it to their fancy.”
From the curvilinear pattern, Anishinaabe artists developed a symmetrical double curve motif that curved out from a central point. The opposing curves were decorated with leaves, buds, and flowers that were also arranged symmetrically.
Stylistically, floral imagery developed as an art that was largely representational. Leaves tended to be realistic, but flowers could difficult to identify. Many floral patterns shared similar shapes but were differentiated by colors. But there was also much variety in the way flowers were depicted. Some flowers were in profile and offered an “x-ray” view, i.e., one could see inside the flower. Others were depicted with a ¾ overhead angle view. The color palette was rich with color and hues.
Two techniques were employed in the application of beadwork. Bead weaving was done on a loom or beads were embroidered on broadcloth or velvet. On breechcloths, the design was symmetrical. On leggings, the symmetrical pattern was split - the design on the left leg matched the design on the right leg. On vests, the front panels followed the same pattern as leggings. The pattern on the left side matched the pattern on the right. On the back of the vest, the pattern was symmetrical.
The most elaborate beadwork was gashkibidaaganag (bandolier bags) that were largely worn by men, and to a lesser extent, by women. The large beadwork front piece panel and strap panels were woven on looms or embroidered on fabric. The patterns on the front panels and straps were usually asymmetrical. Gashkibidaaganag designs were either fully geometric or floral. Some gashkibidaaganag combined geometric designs on the straps and floral motifs on the panels.
Making gashkibidaaganag was the providence of Anishinaabekweg (Anishinaabe women). Indeed, Anishinaabeg mamazinibii’igewin (art) itself was largely the providence of Anishinaabekweg and was rooted in the pre-contact period. Floral patterns and designs were passed to subsequent family generations.
The artists were innovators of style. Each had their own distinctive style of depicting flowers and leaves. There isn’t a precise number for how many artists were creating beaded floral art, but quite often their particular style was associated with where they were from. Red Lake differed from Leech Lake, Leech Lake differed from White Earth, White Earth from Mille Lacs, etc.
Marcia Anderson notes: “When the form defined as a gashkibidaagan (bandolier bag) first emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and perhaps earlier, it was, I maintain, the Ojibwe of Minnesota who gained the distinction of being the most accomplished practitioners of this art…Gashkibidaaganag have been the singular and most visually significant art and craft of the Ojibwe.”
Bandolier Bags, Men's Apron, Leggings, and Moccasins, ca 1880s-1890s
Francis Densmore noted that Anishinaabe manidoominens-omamazinibii’igeg (bead artists) had a box of patterns cut from birch bark. These patterns were combined in forming designs and mainly used in applied beadwork. The patterns could also be used for etching on birch bark and other decorative work. In the pre-contact period, “the pattern was pricked in birch bark with a sharp fishbone, the pricks being placed close together, after which the bark was cut along these lines with a knife.”
Mazinibaganjigan (Birch bark biting) was another technique for an Anishinaabe omamazinibii’ige (artist) to collect and catalog their patterns. Using a thin sheet of birch bark that was folded, the artist bit their design into the bark.
Birch Bark Bitings, ca 1879 / Birch Cutouts, ca 1910
Today, the work of Anishinaabe manidoominens-omamazinibii’igeg (bead artists) whose media focuses on quillwork, beadwork, and appliqué work provide continuity to the aesthetics and floral motifs that are strongly rooted in the past. Some have gone from traditional representational floral forms to depicting more realistic floral forms.
The aesthetics of Anishinaabe mamazinibii’igewin (art) has transitioned to fine art. “Today’s painters tell stories of the past [and present] in a vast array of media, including oils, pastels, prisma, watercolors, egg tempura, and more. Spiritual figures [and pictomyth figures], traditional symbolism [and designs and motifs], and scenes from everyday life fill canvases by the score, yet each artist’s work is different.”
On canvases, artists depict symmetrical floral designs. Graphic artists use iPads and Procreate to create digital imagery depicting an array of floral patterns. In turn, such designs are used on posters and flyers for community events and powwows and logos for groups and organizations. And designs are used to embellish clothing – hoodies, t-shirts, sweaters, pants, and sneakers. Like our ancestors, we have clothing that provides us with a sense of culture and identity.
Contemporary Anishinaabe omamazinibii’igeg (artists) who create floral forms on canvas or graphic illustrations connect to a popular form of art – flowers. People love flowers. Art prints of botanical art or floral art bloom on the walls in many households. Flower art has a long history. Blossoms, blooms, bouquets have been depicted in art, worldwide, since ancient times.
Huaniaohua – bird and flower painting - began in China in 4000 BC. The subject matter also included insects and fish. It was considered as a specific genre of Chinese art. “Artists not only directly portrayed the outer beauty of flowers; they also expressed the subtle spirit and demeanor of their subject. Painters went even further to imbue blossoms with deeper meaning, transforming them into objects for lodging feelings.”
Huaniaohua was introduced to Japan during the 10th century where it developed into a genre called kacho-e – bird and flower painting. Whereas Chinese artists included insects and fish, Japanese artists focused on birds and flowers together. In the 15th century, kacho-e became a subset of ukiyo-e, woodblock painting. Japanese artists expanded their oeuvre to include insects and fish. “[T]he development of (kacho-e) paintings of plants and flowers were made for aesthetic reasons and to give pleasure to others rather than for the scientific reasons normally associated with botanical art.”
“In the Western world, botanical illustration dates to the 1st century B.C., when the Greek physician Krateus began depicting herbal plants with scientific precision. Botanical illustrators portrayed the ideal version of every plant, erasing any leaf holes or petal folds. To do so, they studied example after example of the same floral species, before combining their findings together into one archetypal drawing.”
In the 16th century, Dutch artists broke away from botanical art tradition, developed their own aesthetics, and painted monumental sized still-life work. During the 19th century, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists painted flowers in their work; still-lifes were a sub-genre subject. Ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock art) influenced the Impressionist works of Renoir, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Cassatt, and Manet; and, Post-Impressionists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat. In addition to floral forms, Japanese art influenced Impressionist/Post-Impressionist subject matter, perspective, composition, and color. Van Gogh used the term Japonaiserie to define the Japanese influence in his work.
Modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe was best known for her large, close-up flower paintings. Her oeuvre included 200 paintings of plants. “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment,” O’Keeffe once said. “I want to give that world to someone else.” Often considered the mother of Modernism, O’Keeffe transformed the still life painting into a radical event. Her close-up views of flowers bordered on abstraction, and challenged viewers to slow down and enjoy the process of careful observation.
Obviously, the genre of floral art has impacted diverse cultures and art movements. Among Native cultures, floral art was, and is, expressed through beadwork. The transition of Anishinaabe floral aesthetics to fine art is exampled by the work of my father, Patrick Robert DesJarlait (1921-1972). Bill Anthes notes: “DesJarlait’s paintings have been compared by some writers to traditional Ojibwe artworks, such as birch bark scrolls, beaded bandolier bags…which feature geometric and floral patterns. In a 1945 statement, he (DesJarlait) wrote, “I think my color and design comes from the Indian craftwork such as beadwork and porcupine quillwork which I have seen all my life.”
From the 1980s onward, waabigwan mazinibii’iganan (floral designs) have always been a part of my work when I’ve depicted images wearing beadwork. In 2014, I began exploring the idea of using waabigwan mazinibii’iganan as a part of the composition. I did a watercolor pencil illustration titled, “Niimi-Bagosenjige” (Dance of Hope), featuring a jingle dress dancer surrounded by waabigwan (floral) motifs. The designs were from a file folder on my computer. The folder contained photographs of bandolier bags, dance aprons, leggings, and moccasins, circa 1870-1900, that I had downloaded from the Internet and exhibition books.
Niimi-Bagosenjige (Dance of Hope)
In 2015, I decided to compile the photographs in the folder as line drawings. I cataloged over 150 individual old style floral designs. Old style floral designs here are defined as motifs from 1880-1900. The personal reference book I put together, “Woodland Floral Patterns,” allowed me easy access to a wide array of designs I could use in my work and to explore ideas using floral motifs.
In 2019, I did three works that integrated floral motifs into my compositions. The first was “Manidookewin” (Ceremony) which featured several floral designs in the foreground. They were part of the environment that I depicted in the painting. As foreground images, they were closest to the observer. The second piece was “Zaazegaa-ikwe miinawaa Biibiiyens” (Gentlewoman and Baby). This painting features three maple leaves changing in fall colors. Next to the mother and child is a birch bark container with several flowers rendered in Anishinaabe floral style. The third work, “Wiizhaandige Gitigan” (Unfinished Garden), is a self-portrait that conveys my experience after two battles with cancer. The image is surrounded by an array of floral motifs. One leaf is partly painted with the remaining part outlined in a light gray. It represents the unfinished part of the floral garden and provides a visual metaphor for life as an unfinished garden.
Zaazegaa-ikwe miinawaa Biibiiyens (Gentlewoman and Baby)
Wiizhandige Gitigan (Unfinished Garden)
In 2023, I wanted to explore the idea of floral motifs becoming the art itself. Of course, this wasn’t an original idea. As mentioned beforehand, it has been done by others. I was looking for something different, something to set it apart from others.
The first work in the Mitigwaki Waabigwaniin Okogiwag (Woodland Floral Bouquet) series features a center vine with several floral motifs attached to the vine. I added an oboodashkwaanishiinh (dragonfly) to reflect the floral environment. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the composition. The floral design was too much like floral designs depicted by other artists.
I then came up with the idea of creating an asymmetrical floral bouquet with an aniibish (leaf) as the anchor image and floral motifs attached to a strong biimaakwaad (vine of life). I added manidooshag (insects) to the composition; in one work, I put in a nenookaasi (hummingbird) since they are part of the floral environment. Each work was rendered with Caran d'Ache watercolor pencils on 11 x 14 archival paper. Each was titled after the insect (or bird) featured in the composition.
The Mitigwaki Waabigwaniin Okogiwag series began with the notion that floral art is a popular art form. And, that was proven to be true. At the 2023 Anishinaabe Art Festival, my floral prints were my top seller.
I plan to continue the series but with a change in medium and media. For the next step, I’ll be using opaque watercolor (gouache) on 16 x 20 watercolor board and produce a series of six paintings. They will be part of my solo exhibition that is planned for late 2024 or early 2025.
The importance of contemporary waabigwaniin mamazinibii’igewin (floral art) is it conveys an evolving individual aesthetic that is rooted in the art of the traditional past. Like the pictomyths that were created when the Earth was new, modern pictomyths communicate traditions, stories, and teachings. Indeed, waabigwaniin mamazinibii’igewin incorporates the teachings of the Four Orders of Life – Aki (Earth), Mitigoog/Gitigaanan (Trees/Plants), Awesiinyag/ Manidooshag (Animals/Insects), and Anishinaabe (Human Beings). Human Beings, who are the last in the Four Orders, have the responsibility to ensure survival and harmony of the other Three Orders. Waabigwaniin mamazinibii’igewin is a visual metaphor that embraces our relationship to the Three Orders of our environment that provides bimaadiziwin (life).
Note: The Anishinaabemowin terms – Mamazinibii’igewin (Art) and Omamazinibii’ige(g) (Artist/Artists) - are from Ningewance, Patricia M., “Pocket Ojibwe: A Phrasebook for Nearly All Occasions,” Mazinaate Inc, 2009.
©Robert DesJarlait, 2023
Northstar Watermedia Society Newsletter / February 2023 Issue.
Interview by Kris Hargreaves
ARTREACH FOR JUSTICE
This column highlights artists, places, and events in keeping with our commitment to work toward a more inclusive, just, and equitable art community. This month we will introduce a well-known Minnesota artist.
Robert DesJarlait is a painter, muralist, writer, historian, and educator from the Red Lake Ojibwa Nation, living in Onamia, MN. He has authored and illustrated curriculum units for American Indian Education Programs. The following includes excerpts from an email interview with Robert.
How and why did you become an artist?
I grew up in an environment of art. My father was Patrick Robert DesJarlait, a wellknown fine artist and commercial artist. As a young boy, I loved drawing and spent a lot of time in his studio. He was my art teacher and taught me the basics of drawing and illustration. I didn’t actively pursue art as a career until I was 38 years old. I was an alcohol and drug abuser throughout my 20s. I gave up that life in my early 30s. My wife was in a women’s group which needed an artist to illustrate their calendar and, it took some coaxing on her part, I finally agreed to do it. The calendar was distributed at several locations in the Twin Cities including two Native American art galleries. My art caught their attention, and I was offered a solo exhibition at Avanyu Gallery at Butler Square in 1986. Thereafter, I entered various Native juried and invitational exhibitions.
What are your most profound influences?
The main influence was my father. He was always teaching and showing me things. For example, I loved doing coloring books when I was a young child. He would always tell me to stay inside the lines and to mix some of the crayons together to create different colors. My father created the Hamm’s Bear in his studio at home. Two Canadian Woodland artists who influenced my work are Norval Morrisseau and Carl Ray. Another is Japanese art, especially the Ukiyo-e painters and printmakers from the 1600s to the 1800s. One artist in particular is Katsushika Hokusai. Japanese art has played a compositional role in many of my paintings and illustrations.
How important is art in our world today?
There are considerable changes in art today. AI and digital art are changing the way we view imagery. Digital art allows an artist to expand their graphic art abilities. I think an iPad and the Procreate program are tools for artists today. I recently purchased both but, while I have yet to learn how to use them, I can see possibilities. For example, doing 10-20 illustrations by hand for a children’s book can be a long, laborious process. Procreate changes that. You can still maintain your particular style, but you can add color schemes that have richness and impact.
AI art, on the other hand, is problematic. Generating images through a computer program doesn’t require artistic ability. Something is lost in the creative process. Despite the changes we see in art today, traditional art will always maintain its place in art expression. The cognitive process of creating the image in the mind and, by hand, expressing the image on media is an essential part of how we communicate as human beings. Our ancestors expressed their dreams, visions, and history on rocks. That expression continues today with different mediums and media.
Your paintings are rich with symbols related to Ojibwa culture. Where did you learn these?
I learned stories from my father, grandparents, and elders in Ojibwe communities, origin stories about how things came into existence. My paintings cover three broad categories – Origin/Myth, traditional Ojibwe life in the pre-Reservation period, and contemporary subjects that incorporate Ojibwe symbolism. More importantly, my work educates non-Ojibwe people about Ojibwe traditions, history, and culture.
I love watercolor – translucent and opaque. In the 1980s, I painted in watercolor but then switched to acrylics. In the 1990s, I put my painting on hold because I was busy doing presentations in schools and teaching art in tribal colleges and later I contracted colon cancer which required surgery and 16 rounds of chemotherapy. Given a second chance, I decided to revive my career as a painter and return to watercolor. Most importantly, art was an integral part of my healing process. In 2019, I opened with a solo exhibition titled “Reemergence” at Two Rivers Gallery in Minneapolis. It was followed by two more solo exhibitions in Duluth and Hinckley.
I’m now 76 years old. But age hasn’t diminished my work. Indeed, my work has matured, and I’m often surprised at some of the things I paint. The ability to create never leaves you. It’s a part of who you are. When my father died, I put a paint brush in his pocket because he died as an artist. I like to think my wife or children will do the same thing when it’s my time to pass on.
Learn more: https://www.robertdesjarlaitfinearts.com
Note; The interview was edited for space. One sentence needs to be clarified. In the interview I'm quoted as saying - "My father created the Hamm’s Bear in his studio at home." In the original interview, I said: "My father created the Hamm’s Bear and often worked on creating the animation in his studio at home." Actually, he created the Hamm's Bear on a napkin at Big Al's Bar on Excelsior Blvd in 1953.
The theme of Mother and Child has appeared in several of my works going back to the mid-1980s to present day. One of the main influences has been my wife, Nan. At one time she was a lay midwife and brought many babies into the world. From her, I gained a knowledge of mothers and babies. Additionally, our four children were born at home and provided me with a deeper level of understanding about motherhood and birth.
Originally, the tentative title for this work was Madonna miinawaa Oshkabinoozjinh (Madonna and Child). Religious iconography was obviously an influence. The hood worn by the mother contrasts with the shrouds and veils worn by women in religious iconography. Hoods were a basic part of clothing among the Ojibwe. Before the advent of beads, hoods were often embellished with designs made with dyed porcupine quills or moose hair. When beads became available in the early to mid-1800s, the quantity was limited. Their use was limited to outlining design patterns. By the 1860s-1870s, beads became more widely available and fully beaded floral motifs appeared on clothing including hoods.
Once I began the painting, it began to go through changes in its meaning. It went from a Native Madonna and Child to an Ojibwe origin theme.
In Ojibwe culture, there are several origin stories focusing on relationships with Anang-Aki (the Star World). According to the story of Aashkikwe, Aki (Earth) took the shape of women, beginning first with Aashkikwe. Aashkikwe means first or new woman. Aashkikwe falls in love with the beauty of Waabanoong, the morning star. Waabanoong changes into Aashki’inini, first or new man. They marry and Aashkikwe consents to live at his home in the Sky World. There is one condition. Aashkikwe must never look to gaze upon her home, Aki (Earth).
One day, Aashkikwe, pregnant with child, is out gathering plants. She dug so many plants that she made a hole in the sky. She gazed through the hole and saw her home. As a result, she was sent back to Aki. As she fell from the sky, waabiziig (swans) and nikaag (geese) caught her and lowered her to Aki.
This, of course, is not the full story. The story can only be told on certain occasions. But the portions that I’ve recounted here provide context to the painting.
The night skies in the painting feature the constellation Bagone’giizhig, Hole in the Sky. In the Greek constellation system, the star cluster is called the Pleiades. In Ojibwe star knowledge, Bagone’giizhig is consider to be a spiritual doorway. The Ojibwe believe that human beings came from the stars. Bagone’giizhig is the point of entry and return. The Ojibwe constellation system existed before the coming of White people. Ojibwe constellations recounted origin stories and connections to the star world. Their positions provided information to seasonal changes. When Bagone’giizhig appeared overhead in Dagwaagin (Fall), Ojibwe knew it was time to prepare their winter camps.
Note: Article was originally published in The Circle Newspaper July 3, 2019
Gaagoonyiwinini (Fisher Woman) by Robert DesJarlait. (Images courtesy Robert DesJarlait.)
By Art Coulson
Life has taken many turns for Red Lake artist Robert DesJarlait, including a pair of recent bouts with cancer. But no matter where his life has taken him, from the front lines of environmental activism to the powwow dance arena, DesJarlait has maintained a strong – you might say, genetic – connection to art.
A chance encounter with a box of sketches and old memories last summer prompted DesJarlait to set aside the novel he was working on – for now – and to begin work on an ambitious series of watercolors he calls “Reemergence.”
He will exhibit the 17 mixed-media paintings that make up “Reemergence” at Two Rivers Gallery, located in the Minneapolis American Indian Center. The exhibit opens with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. July 19.
This is DesJarlait’s first solo exhibition since 1990. In subsequent years, he established a career as an illustrator for Native American organizations and school programs and as a muralist. “Reemergence” marks his return to fine art.
Artist Robert DesJarlait working on a painting. (Photo by Meeg-wun DesJarlait.)
Equally versed in writing, illustration and fine art, DesJarlait uses each of these media to share his vision of Ojibwe life from the distant past to the present. He also hopes to inspire other cancer survivors with his art.
“What reemergence really means is coming back from two cancer surgeries and chemotherapy, being classified as a Stage IV survivor, and overcoming those obstacles to achieve a personal goal,” Desjarlait said. “I hope my efforts encourage and inspire other survivors to pursue and fulfill their dreams and visions and to not let this disease overshadow personal attainment.”
DesJarlait, currently living in Onamia, has been many things in his storied life: writer, journalist, artist, a co-founder of the group “Protect our Manoomin,” and member of the University of Minnesota Council of Elders. He is a well-known dancer on the powwow trail and a respected elder in the community. DesJarlait has illustrated several books, including Sparrow Hawk by Meridel Le Sueur and The Creator’s Game by me (Art Coulson).
In 2013, DesJarlait contracted colon cancer followed by surgery. In 2016, he went through surgery again for a recurrence of cancer.
“As a Stage IV cancer survivor, reengaging in my art provides a path for healing and has allowed me to return to my roots as a fine artist. The themes and stories of traditional lifestyles and activities that dominated my art in the 1980s are retold from a fresh perspective or a renewal of life. My Reemergence Series is a testament of resiliency in facing the Asabikeshiinh (Spider) within.”
Dakobijigan (Tied Rice).
I interviewed DesJarlait about his life as an artist and a respected elder in the community.
The following is an edited transcript of that interview:
AC: At what age did you know you were an artist?
RD: I began my career as an artist in my mid-thirties. But my development as an artist goes back to when I was 4 to 5 years old. Having a father who was an artist had its advantages. He was basically my teacher and mentor. When I first started doing coloring books, he told me to stay inside the lines and to blend the colors of my crayons together to get different colors. As I got older, he encouraged me to draw and he bought me pencils and drawing paper. Whenever I finished a drawing, I took it to him to get his opinion. He would critique it and point out how to improve it. So, although I didn’t pursue art as a career until much later in life, art has always been an active part of my life.
AC: Can you talk a little about your artistic influences?
RD: In art, my father is obviously a main influence. But it’s always been a process to break away from his style and develop my own style. In my early art, I incorporated his sharp, angular lines in my faces. So, I really had to work to get past that. I think the Reemergence series shows a level of maturity in expressing my own style and aesthetics. Other influences include Van Gogh, in particular his cultural themes that depicted everyday Dutch life. Matisse and Gauguin are influences in terms of color palette, in particular Matisse and Fauvism and Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. Japanese artists Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige were influences in terms of influencing compositional themes.
I think one of the main influences in my writing is Ernest Hemingway, both his fiction and non-fiction writing. For me, it isn’t about emulating his style but rather writing in a more economical manner that eliminates needless wordage and is more simple and direct.
AC: How does your Red Lake / American Indian heritage inform your art?
RD: When I was a young boy, my father would take me to various camps – fishing camps and maple sugar camps. So, I was able to observe some of the cultural activities that Red Lakers were engaged in – traditional activities that had transcended into modern times and that formed the themes of my father’s work. And, that was the key for me when I began doing art. However, rather than depicting scenes in contemporary settings, I decided to go further back to the traditional period of time that covered Pre-Contact Period and early Contact Period of Ojibwe life.
AC: What inspired you to begin work on Reemergence?
RD: Last summer my daughter brought over a box that had been in storage at my mother-in-law’s house. The box contained several original drawings and photocopies of articles from several solo exhibitions in the mid-1980s. I posted everything on Facebook and someone had commented that it was good that I was reclaiming my art. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but the person was correct. I began thinking about what that really meant. At the time, I was working on a novel. I decided to set the book aside and work on a new body of art through which I could reclaim my art, ormore specifically, reemerge as a painter.
But reemergence also has a deeper meaning. It’s also important to factor in cancer. Being a cancer survivor has provided the motivation to do this body of work. If I hadn’t contracted cancer in 2013, I doubt that I would be doing art. If anything, I would have worked on developing a book, most likely a non-fiction book. However, once I began my cancer journey, I began to develop a young teen novel (ages 12-15) about two Ojibwe children dealing with childhood cancer. As I mentioned, I put the book temporaril on the shelf, and turned to my art. But art is the means to achieve an end. Doing the Reemergence series wasn’t easy. Many cancer survivors have to deal with the long-lingering after-effects of chemo. Fatigue is at the top of the list. Sitting at my art table and painting for 3 months was grueling at times. But I was determined to see it through. I wanted to maintain a high level of workmanship and I think the final results can be seen in the exhibition.
I also want to point out that contributors made the exhibition possible. When I began Reemergence, I didn’t have paints, brushes or quality paper. I live on a fixed income, so I was limited to what I could buy. People donated money so I could get the supplies that I needed. As I neared the end of painting the series, the larger problem became the means to frame and mat the art. I established a support fund and, again, people donated money to buy the frames and mats that I needed. I am forever grateful to the kindness and support that my art patrons have given me.
AC: You have given your Reemergence works titles in the Ojibwe language. How important is language to you and your work?
RD: The majority of my work has always been titled in Ojibwe. Back in the 1980s, I was probably one of the first artists to use Ojibwe titles. N. Scott Momaday wrote: “A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things.” To name something is to know its inner essence. A name provides a connection to medicine and spirit. Although I’m not a fluent speaker of the Ojibwe language, I know enough Ojibwe to name certain things like titles for my work. For me, naming something in Ojibwe is an expression of my mindset, and my mindset is a worldview from the perspective of an Ojibwe person. So, it’s natural to use the language to give origin to my work.
Misko Majigoodenh (Red Dress).
AC: You’ve been open about your early struggles with alcohol and your many years of sobriety since. How has that influenced your art?
RD: I’m a recovered alcoholic and drug abuser. My life of addiction prevented me from using my creative gifts. I was expected to go to art school after high school but alcohol and drugs became my main pursuit and that continued until 1982. Oddly, during that time, I began to study writing and began rudimentary work on three novels. But none of it went anywhere because of my alcoholism and drug use. In late 1983, after a year and a half of sobriety, my wife asked me to illustrate a calendar for Woman’s Dance Health Project. Avanyu Gallery in Minneapolis offered to exhibit the illustrations and offered me a solo exhibit. I was at a crossroads – did I want to pursue art or write a book? I decided to put writing on the back burner and began developing my art. I had several solo exhibits as a gallery artist. In the late 80s and early 90s, I began doing illustrations for Indian Education programs and community organizations. In the late 90s, I became a muralist and worked on a number of community mural projects. After a nearly 35-year absence and 37 years of sobriety, Reemergence marks my return to painting.
AC: As an active powwow dancer, how has your participation in cultural events across Indian Country influenced your writing and visual artwork?
RD: Dancing is tied into my sobriety. I began dancing about three years after I quit drinking. Dancing and learning about traditional practices provided a base for my sobriety. Although I went to powwows when I was a young boy, becoming a dancer and dancing in the arena brought an entirely different perspective of dance. As an artist and writer, I am an observer. Dance allowed me to observe art in motion.
AC: Your father, Patrick, was a renowned visual artist and illustrator. Your siblings, your wife and children also are artists working in various media, from fashion design to beadwork and painting. Can you talk a little about the impact that art has had on your family?
RD: Art in our family has taken many shapes and forms. Both my brother and I are fine artists. We inherited some very creative genes from our father. He’s been a strong influence in our work. However, we’ve developed our own styles and aesthetics. We continue his tradition in art but in our own ways. Our sister is a great photographer whose works have been in exhibitions. My sons are engaged in artistic endeavors – one in music as a powwow singer and the other as a fashion designer who has his own line of clothing. My wife is an excellent seamstress who, over the years, has made our dance clothing. Art has undoubtedly given us a facet of identity and connection as a family.
AC: Where do you go from here?
RD: I don’t see myself as engaging in art full time. I’m 72 years old and will turn 73 in November. And, as a cancer survivor, I live a cautiously optimistic life. My next goal is to write my book. I’ll work on that in the fall and winter. Depending on the interest, I may put together a book on my cancer experiences. I have a cancer blog and have given thought to compiling my blog entries into a book format. But art is still very much on my mind. So, I’m planning another series but not until late next year. As a cancer survivor, I can’t set goals that extend too far into the future. Writing a book and doing art is attainable. Of course, I realize that I may not reach those goals. And, that’s fine. If I get no further than Reemergence, then I’ll have accomplished the goal of sharing my visions. Life doesn’t get any better than that.
Art Coulson, Cherokee, is a Twin Cities writer. He is the author of The Creator’s Game (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013), illustrated by Robert DesJarlait; Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army (Capstone, 2018); and The Reluctant Storyteller (Benchmark Education, 2019).
Giizhig Ikwe miinawaa Gichi-Mikinaak (Sky Woman and the Great Turtle),
Watercolor (Opaque), 24 x 33, 2022
In April 2022, the University of Minnesota / Morris Campus purchased two of my paintings and commissioned me for a third painting. The choice of the subject of the painting was left for me to decide. Oddly, this was my first commission for a painting in my 40+ years as a fine artist. During that period, I received commissions for illustrations and graphic art for American Indian education programs and various Native organizations and agencies in Minnesota. My most recent commissions for illustrations (2021-2022) include colorings books for Dakota County Library and Osseo School District. The request for a commission for a painting was something different.
My question was what the subject matter should be. The main clue I had was that the painting would be for a new teacher education space at the Morris campus. As per email, U of M Morris is a Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution. So, there would be no problem with a strong theme that focused on Ojibwe-Anishinaabe culture.
It was really a process of deciding what I should paint. The theme of education was foremost in my mind. In traditional life, we had no books or classrooms. However, teaching and learning were a part of daily life. Children were taught by example. Boys learned about hunting, trapping, and fishing by going out with the men. The women taught girls about gathering, cooking, and preparing hides.
Values and principals were taught through stories. Stories were largely told in the winter, especially Nenabozho stories. But some stories were also told outside of winter as well. Circumstances and situations dictated when certain stories were told. Additionally, stories weren’t always intended for children. Adults were often part of the intended audience for the storyteller.
There were/are two types of stories. Dibaajimowin were stories that largely focused on history, experiences, and personal narratives. Those who told these types of stories were called Dadibaajimoowinini. Aadizookaan were sacred/traditional stories about legends and myths. Sacred/traditional stories were told by Aadizookewinini.
In the 1980s and early 90s, I depicted storytellers in several graphite and ink illustrations. In 2020, I returned to the theme of storytelling in my painting “Aadizookewinini” (Storyteller). The storyteller is telling a story about Nenabozho transforming into a waabooz (rabbit). A group of children huddle together to listen to the story. One of the things I wanted to do was to show the inside of a wiigiwaam (lodge). I felt some people had the notion that wiigiwaaman (lodges) were small and cramped. However, wiigiwaaman were quite roomy with woven mats to cover the ground, with walls to hang items, containers to store items, and raised platforms used for beds.
Aadizookewinini, Watercolor, 2020
I decided that revisiting the theme of storytelling was a natural fit for the U of M Morris painting. I didn’t want to do a reimaging of “Aadizookewinini.” I wanted this one to be in a different environment – a summer scene on a lakeshore with a sky full of clouds. I decided that I would reimage a graphite illustration that I did in 1986. However, the drawing would be a point of reference for the painting.
The drawing was titled “Aadizookewinin” and featured a mindimooyenh (elder woman) and group of children on a lakeshore. The mindimooyenh is telling the story of Giizhig Ikwe (Sky Woman). Giizhig Ikwe, is pregnant with twins, and is seated on the back of the Gichi-Mikinaak (Great Turtle). The small paw of a wazhahk (muskrat) is depicted holding particles of sand.
The story about Giizhig Ikwe is of Seneca origin. According to Basil Johnston, Giizhig Ikwe is also part of the Ojibwe belief system. We know that the Ojibwe and Iroquois Confederacy were fierce enemies. But, at an earlier time, there was a period of peace and an exchange of goods and knowledge between the two. There would have been a cross-cultural transmission of stories and beliefs that impacted each other. At some point, the story of Giizhig Ikwe was exchanged and incorporated into the Ojibwe belief system. The Ojibwe had a creation story. But, the Seneca version added clarity to the Ojibwe concept of creation.
In “Ojibway Heritage,” Johnston writes:
High in the heavens there lived alone a woman, a spirit. Without a companion she grew despondent. In her solitude she asked Kitche Manitou for some means to dispel her loneliness. Taking compassion on the sky-woman, Kitche Manitou sent a spirit to become her consort.
Sky-woman and her companion were happy together. In time the spirit woman conceived. Before she gave birth her consort left. Alone she bore two children, one pure spirit, and the other pure physical being.
The new beings of opposite natures hated one another. In a fiery sky battle they fought and destroyed one another.
After the destruction of her children, the spirit woman again ,lived in solitude. Kitche Manitou knowing her desolation once more sent her a companion. Again sky-woman conceived. As before her consort left but sky-woman remained content.
The water creatures observed what was happening in the heavens, sensed the weariness of the spirit woman, and pitied her…Eventually they persuaded a giant turtle to rise to the surface of the waters and offer his back as a haven. When the turtle agreed, the water creatures invited the sky-woman to come down.
The sky-woman accepted the invitation, left her abode in the skies, and came down to rest on the back of the great turtle. When sky-woman had settled on the turtle, she asked the water animals to get some soil from the bottom of the sea.
Gladly all the animals tried to serve the spirit woman…All tried to fulfill the spirit woman’s request. All failed. All were ashamed.
Finally, the least of the water creatures, the muskrat, volunteered to dive…When the waiting creatures had given up, the muskrat floated to the surface more dead than alive, but he clutched in his paws a small morsel of soil.
While the muskrat was tended and restored to health, the spirit woman painted the rim of the turtle’s back with the small amount of soil that had been brought to her. She breathed upon it and into it the breath of life. Immediately the soil grew, covered the turtle’s back, and formed an island. The island formed in this way was called Mishee Mackinakong, the place of the Great Turtle’s back, now known as Michilimackinac.
The island home grew in size. As the waters subsided, the animal beings brought grasses, flowers, trees, and food-bearing plants to the sky-woman. Into each she infused her life-giving breath and they lived once more. In the same way were the animals who had drowned revived. Everything was restored on that island home.
The story of Giizhig Ikwe and, in particular, Gichi-Mikinaak, has become a homogenous, Pan-Indian narrative. Giizhig Ikwe’s role has been largely erased and, instead, Gichi-Mikinaak, the Great Turtle, has become a misplaced Pan-Indian concept of North America as “Turtle Island.” Also erased is origin of the Sky-Woman and Great Turtle concept among the Seneca and Ojibwe.
When I did my drawing, Aadizookewinini, in 1986, the Pan-Indian concept of Turtle Island had yet to be widely established. My drawing was specifically related to Ojibwe culture. It was part of the repertory of origin myths that formed the basis of the Ojibwe belief system. In addition to the drawing, I did a smaller illustration for a curriculum unit. I also did a color study that featured Sky-Woman and the Great Turtle for a 4’ x 8’ mural, but the commission fell through.
Obviously, I was familiar with Giizhig Ikwe through my art. Indeed, the story of Giizhig Ikwe and Gichi-Mikinaak is part of my mindset and belief system. For me, it explains how things came to be and how the world was created. However, it was a subject that required a fresh look. More importantly, I wanted the new rendition to project an authenticity that the previous works lacked.
One area I concentrated on was the grassy area on the lakeshore. It would have been simple enough to just paint blades of grass. I went to Sandy Beach at Red Lake to get a better idea of the flora and fauna of the lake shore.
The flora was dominated by the white flowering tops of bagizowin (swamp milkweed) and small yellow flowers with five petals. There were other types of flora, but I was interested in what struck the eye. Fauna included Memengwaag (butterflies), oboodashkwanishiinyag (dragonflies) and blue damselflies.
The time period of the painting is about the 1850s-1860s. Hide or nettle-woven strap dresses were traditionally worn by women. Strap dresses featured detachable arms that could be removed when the women were working. When broadcloth and stroud cloth became available through trade, women made cloth strap dresses that were usually worn for community gatherings. Because beads were limited in the mid-1800s, beads were used for outlining motifs and designs. The influx of beads in the 1870s-1880s led to fully beaded designs as epitomized by the beautiful art of bandolier bags.
The aanakwadoon (clouds) tell stories. How often do we, as children, lay in the grass and watch the aanakwadoon unfold the imagery of people and animals? As we’re taught in Ojibwe culture, aanakwadoon are manidoog (spirits) who unveil themselves in the skies above us. They may tell us a story or remind us of our connection to the Creation.
It was this in mind that I let the aanakwadoon shape and form the imagesof Giizhig Ikwe and Gichi-Mikinaak. Standing on top of the Mikinaak aanakwad (cloud), Giizhig stretches her hand out holding the particles of soil that the wazhashk (muskrat) brought to her. The outstretched hand of the mindimooyenh mirrors the hand of Giizhig Ikwe. At that point of the story, the young girl turns her head. The shapes and forms of Sky-Woman and the Great Turtle are emphasized by the words of the storyteller. For the young girl, the clouds tell the story.
A Ozaawaabineshii (Goldfinch) perches on a branch above the storyteller. The Ozaawaabineshii is the keeper and messenger of our language. Its presence emphasizes that Ojibwemowin (Ojibwe language) is being spoken and understood by the children who are present. It further emphasizes that the song of language gives shape and meaning to our identities as Ojibwe people.
Giizhig miinawaa Gichi-Mikinaak is essentially a reaffirmation of storytelling and the role it played in traditional Ojibwe culture. Although our sacred stories are told today, their power of explaining our existence is deluded by colonialization and its science to explain existence in a linear and “logical” mindset. But our stories remain and provide balance and harmony with our connection to the natural world.
Whether through storytellers, art, or the clouds, our stories affirm our existence as human beings.
Ojibway Heritage, Basil Johnston, Columbia University Press: New York, 1976.
© Robert DesJarlait, 2022
By A.R.V. van Rheenen
Robert DesJarlait is a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation and a fine artist
Photo by Tj Turner
Local artist recognized by ECRAC for excellence
Endaso-Giizhik, Robert DesJarlait, is part of the bear clan.
DesJarlait describes the bear clan within his Ojibwe culture as the “warrior clan.” “We help guard and protect the community,” he shared in a recent phone interview. And while clans ebbed after colonization and reservations were implemented by outside forces, DesJarlait said many people still relate to their clan and identify with their characteristics. He is one of those people.
As an artist, DesJarlait, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation, sees his heritage of the bear clan reflected in his work. “I’m protecting my community through my art, because I’m educating through my art,” he said.
He grew up immersed in art. His father, Patrick DesJarlait, was a successful artist in his own right, and one of the first Native American modernist artists, DesJarlait said. He was born on the Red Lake Reservation, but early in life, his family moved to the Twin Cities area so his father could pursue more opportunities. Patrick went on to create the famous Hamm’s beer bear, as well as the Land O’Lakes maiden.
“My dad was basically my art teacher,” DesJarlait shared. While DesJarlait didn’t paint early on, he said he loved to draw and had access to his father’s art studio. It was a “good experience” to have his dad as his art teacher, he added. But DesJarlait decided not to go to art school after high school graduation, like people expected him to. During the 70s, he shared, he got caught up in drinking and drugs. In 1982, he gave it up. And then two years later, at age 36, he got back into art. He knew he could be a writer or an artist, and he chose the brush over the pen to become a gallery artist. His first show was at Avanyu Gallery in Minneapolis.
While his father painted scenes of Ojibwe life in the 20s, 30s and 40s, life as he knew and saw it, DesJarlait decided to “go back further,” to the pre-Reservation period and early Res period, working primarily in watercolor and then in acrylic.
As his work became known, DesJarlait said, “I began lecturing about my culture through my art.” He developed illustrations for various Native American curricula, began doing murals and community art projects – all those things “took away” from his painting, he said.
In 2013, he received a colon cancer diagnosis. Thankfully, it was caught in stage one, and he was able to get the cancerous part removed. But in 2016, a tumor on his liver was found, which required surgery and several rounds of chemo, in addition to surveillance with more regular scans. It was after that struggle with his health that DesJarlait focused in on painting once more.
He staged a gallery show in Minneapolis and called it “Reemergence.” It was a reemergence in life, in art, a step into all that the future held for him after twice-surviving cancer. After Reemergence, he set up a gallery show in Duluth, right as the pandemic set in.
About 10 years ago, DesJarlait moved with his family to the Mille Lacs area; he now resides in Onamia. While living in the cities, he said, he wasn’t eligible for various grants. But living in this region afforded him the opportunity to apply for a mid-career grant through the East Central Regional Arts Council. The last two years, he’s won an award in their annual IMAGE Art Show; in 2021, he won the merit award. This year, he won an excellence award. “I really appreciate the recognition.” Out of 129 participating artists, “I didn’t know how I would do.”
ECRAC, which is based out of Hinckley, will host an art show put on by DesJarlait in their gallery in February 2023. The piece he submitted this year, Ojibwe Mitigwaki Niimid (Ojibwe Woodland Dancers), was displayed in the gallery during November with the other award-winners.
Ojibwe Mitigwaki Niimid / Photo by Robert DesJarlait
The judges for this year’s IMAGE show were artist Jonathan Thunder of Duluth and art administrator Bethany Whitehead of St. Paul. Mary Minnick-Daniels, executive director of ECRAC, said in an email that the judges “give their awards on the artistic merit of the artwork based on the medium used.” In DesJarlait’s watercolor piece, they saw the “techniques used and the expertise exhibited.” She added, “The judges noted how his artwork showed great movement and that it also conveys a true emotional impact.”
DesJarlait is a dancer himself. “We’ve been a powwow family,” he shared. His wife makes outfits for the family, and “we’re on the powwow trail all summer long.” He has long participated in the men’s traditional dance; a few years ago, a new dance was introduced. The dance has actually been around a long time, and an outfit he and his wife had worked on together was the right fit for the war dance, one that has been big in the Great Lakes area. DesJarlait called it “unique” and “energetic, … the young guys are phenomenal,” and it’s one women play a role in as well.
Influenced by his father’s work, who did a number of paintings about dancers, DesJarlait started to conceptualize his piece about the woodland dancers. After studying one of his father’s paintings depicting Chippewa dancers, he came up with a composition he liked. DesJarlait’s painting displays colorful eagle feathers and bandolier bags. Like his father before him, DesJarlait decided to depict the feathers with blue, pink and cream colors; that was something they didn’t have in the 70s at the dances, DesJarlait said, “but that’s how he portrayed it.” Now, it’s “not uncommon to find dyed feathers.” The bandolier bags DesJarlait painted depicted “geometric images,” rather than floral work.
In details like that, DesJarlait “tried to capture what that dance is about.”
DesJarlait always names his artwork in the Ojibwe language, of which he is a learner. “It’s important to me as an individual,” he said. “Language shapes your mindset,” and the Ojibwe language goes back hundreds of years. It’s a language that’s descriptive and full of movement – he said he believes about 80-85% of it is made up of verbs.
The Ojibwe people, historically, “were basically an oral people,” DesJarlait said. “Our people learn through storytelling.” He depicts this in his art, one being in Giizhig Ikwe miinawaa Gichi-Mikinaak (Sky Woman and the Great Turtle); that piece was commissioned by the University of Minnesota Morris, but DesJarlait had “artist’s choice” for what to paint. Stories such as the one shown in this painting provide education for young people and adults, too, DesJarlait said.
Giizhig Ikwe miinawaa Gichi-Mikinaak / Photo by Tj Turner
For the works of art themselves, DesJarlait said the length of time it takes to complete them “depends on how much time I want to put into it.” Generally he sticks to a schedule. While a younger artist, he could paint all night if he wanted. Now, he has a day schedule, starting out with his coffee and breakfast and then painting all day until about 6 p.m. His Sky Woman piece took about two months, although an injury that kept him from being on his feet and working actually stretched it to about three-and-a-half months.
He’s back to using watercolor, specifically what is called gouache. Gouache is more opaque, DesJarlait said, and with it, an artist has “more freedom to go over mistakes you might make.” He continues to explore Ojibwe origin stories, but he also includes more contemporary renderings as well.
DesJarlait’s Ojibwe name, Endaso-Giizhik, means “everyday,” he said. It was a name he received “late in life,” by a spiritual man of Mille Lacs, Herb Sam. At first, DesJarlait admitted, he didn’t understand how the simple name captured what it means to be part of the bear clan. But he grew to understand how the warriors secured their villages, an act that occurred everyday. Sam told DesJarlait about another Ojibwe man who had that name, an “old man who was always taking his kids to the powwow”; Sam said he saw that in DesJarlait. That, too, flows into being part of the bear clan.
“I feel my art educates people,” DesJarlait said. And this education is protection of his people.
To see more of DesJarlait’s art and learn more about his extensive work, you can visit his website at www.robertdesjarlaitfinearts.com/
Article reprinted from the Mille Lacs Messenger 11/30/2022 online issue.
© Mille Lacs Messenger, 2022
Ojibwe Mitigwaki Niimid, 24 x 33, Watercolor (Opaque)
"Ojibwe Mitigwaki Niimid" (Ojibwe Woodland Dancers) was awarded an Artistic Excellence Award at the East Central Regional Arts Council 2022 IMAGE Art Show. It was one of ten Excellence Awards given out of a field of 130 visual artists.
The judges for this year's IMAGE art were artist Jonathan Thunder of Duluth and art administrator Bethany Whitehead of St. Paul. Mary Minnick-Daniels, ECRAC, said...that the judges "give their awards on the artistic merit of the artwork based on the medium used." In DesJarlait's watercolor piece, they saw the "techniques used and the expertise exhibited." She added, "The judges noted how his artwork showed great movement and that it also conveys a true emotional impact." (Mille Lacs Messenger)