Ojibwe artist Robert DesJarlait reemerges as artistic force

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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.”

Misko Majigoodenh (Red Dress).

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.

Dakobijigan (Tied Rice).

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).