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.