The late artist Jim Denomie at Mia and beyond

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The late Ojibwe artist Jim Denomie in his studio in Shafer, Minn., in 2020

By Alex V Cipolle/MPR News

In early 2022, Jim Denomie, the internationally acclaimed painter, was in the thick of planning a mid-career exhibition with the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Then, cancer struck. Denomie died two weeks after his diagnosis. He was 66.

That exhibition, “The Lyrical Artwork of Jim Denomie,” opened this summer, transformed into a posthumous survey of the latter half of the famous colorist’s career – a career that skewered mainstream histories and purveyors of injustice, from Fort Snelling to Standing Rock, while championing the joy and resilience of Native communities.

“It’s a very bittersweet exhibition,” says Nicole Soukup, an assistant curator of contemporary art at Mia. Soukup had been planning the show closely with Denomie since 2019, up until the Ojibwe artist’s death in 2022.

“He was so beloved, not only in Minneapolis and St. Paul and Minnesota, but across the country and across the world. Words fail when you talk about somebody with such kindness and generosity and such a clear vision as an artist, and my words have failed me quite a bit in creating this exhibition,” she adds.

Truth-teller
Soukup and Denomie’s community say that the exhibition is just the beginning of building a legacy. As is the Jim Denomie Memorial Scholarship, created to help rising Native artists who embody what Denomie valued: truth and community.

“I hope that he continues to inspire artists to do work that also speaks to what’s going on in the world – artists as truth-tellers,” says author Diane Wilson, Denomie’s wife of several decades. “That’s a lot of what Jim was doing – speaking truth, both historically and in the present, about what has happened to and within Native communities, and that I hope will continue. I hope that’s his legacy”

At the entry of the exhibition, a 2016 video interview with Denomie loops.
“My art reflects my identity and experience as a contemporary Native American male in the 21st century,” he says.

Soukup says it was important to include Denomie’s voice first. To allow Denomie to define himself, his art, in his own terms.

“And also it reflects some of the government campaigns that affected Native culture in Minnesota and around the country to how it ultimately affected me through the assimilation campaign and the Relocation Act,” Denomie continues in the video. “And all of these issues defined or shaped my identity, and it’s my identity that shapes my art.”

Todd Bockley, of the Minneapolis gallery that represents Denomie, says the artist brought to light difficult histories that many would prefer to keep hidden.

“He was both humble and courageous to create and make public his interpretations of significant historical events of the past and present while also depicting his innermost thoughts and fantasies,” Bockley said.

Denomie’s art
Soukup walks the galleries, surrounded by Denomie’s paintings and totem-like sculptures. There are dreamy paintings of him and Wilson relaxing on a couch; of sensual landscapes with anthropomorphized animals on horseback; of spirituality and sexuality; as well as sculptures made from found objects — shells and plastic thingamabobs, feathers, buttons and bones.

In his most iconoclastic paintings, Denomie, like the 15th-century artist Hieronymus Bosch, packs characters into every inch, collapsing time by pulling them from history, pop culture and current events. Several make repeat appearances: blue bunnies, a recurring motif that Denomie called “protectors,” the Dakota 38+2, American Indian Movement activists, “Wizard of Oz” characters, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, the Mona Lisa and figures representing Minneapolis police officers infamous for abusing two Native men with “rough rides” in the 90s.

All of his paintings swirl with his signature palette: violet, indigo, fuschia, turquoise, lime green, mustard yellow. The vibrant colors disarm, inviting in tough stories like a rainbow Trojan horse. These are Denomie’s correctives to the historical record. Soukup and others have said Denomie paints the “ancestral present.”

“These are paintings that you laugh at, and you also want to cry, you don’t know which way you should react to it, but you’re probably going to react both ways,” Soukup said.

Take “Eminent Domain,” a 10-foot-wide canvas with a sort of pictographic map of the U.S.
“Flying high above the scene in the sky, we have an eagle carrying away a dachshund and right next to them, you see Evel Knievel jumping his bike across the church,” Soukup says. “But directly below that you see depictions of sexual abuse by boarding schools and the Catholic Church; you see a depiction of the Ghost Dance from Wounded Knee and the reality of Wounded Knee, both in the 19th century and in the 1970s.”

Across from it hangs “A Beautiful Hero, Woody Keeble.” Denomie has depicted, on horseback in a mountain range, the World War II and Korean War veteran Woodrow Wilson Keeble of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. Taking fire at him are anthropomorphized birds and dogs with machine guns, while blue rabbits dot the snow-covered slopes.

“The works in this room are centered around the theme of a beautiful hero and who determines a hero?” Soukup explains. “The question is who gets to write about history, who gets to learn about history, and what can we learn from questioning our sources about history? That is something that Jim did from the moment he started painting.”

A righteous anger
Denomie was an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band. Born in Hayward, Wis., he grew up in south Minneapolis. In many interviews and talks, he recalls how he knew he wanted to be an artist since he was a little kid, but he dropped out of high school when a counselor discouraged him from pursuing art.

For decades, he did drywall and fell into a life of what he called “partying and addiction.” He returned to art in the 1990s, as well as American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota.

“I went back to drywall, but it became a vehicle that allowed me to paint what I wanted to paint and not necessarily what I needed to sell,” Denomie says in the video. “And so I was able to develop more challenging, more witty, political, social commentary, which is probably what I’m most known for today.”

He went on to paint with what Wilson calls a righteous anger, rooted in the government’s treatment of Native people. This included his own family – his grandparents were taken and placed in Native boarding schools.

When Jim was sick with cancer the first time, Wilson, their son, and some friends went to the pipeline protests at Standing Rock in South Dakota. Their son, she says, stayed for months, sending home stories to Denomie about the violent treatment of nonviolent activists. Denomie turned these stories into a series of paintings on Standing Rock, depicting ferocious dogs and fire hoses used on protesters in the dead of winter.

In his paintings, that righteous anger mixed with wit and whimsy to create what Denomie called a “metaphorical realism.”  Put another way, his friend, the poet Heid E. Erdrich, wrote in the exhibition catalog that Denomie employed a “postmodern Anishinaabe mapping of events.”

But Denomie’s legacy isn’t only in his art, says Soukup.

“His legacy is going to be a lot of things, and things that we won’t even know about, because we’re only 16 months after his passing,” Soukup says. “But hand in hand with all of it is mentorship and care for community, friends, family. The amount of people who have stories, the amount of people who Jim gave undivided attention to, is profound.”
Another longtime friend, mentee and fellow Ojibwe artist Andrea Carlson, agrees. She calls him her “art dad.” They first met when Carlson was an MFA student in the early 2000s and he visited her studio.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, but he was like, ‘Keep doing it,’” says Carlson, who is now based in Grand Marais, Minn. “I feel like I need to do that for other artists now, kind of take the Jim Denomie mandate, and apply it to other artists that are just starting out, because I needed that.”

The two would go on to exhibit together at Mia in the 2007 “New Skins” show. And a few of Carlson’s paintings are currently on display at Mia, just around the corner from Denomie’s show.

Leaving a void
Denomie’s work held a particular place for Indigenous viewers.

“Jim was always saving the last laugh for Native people,” Carlson says. “We have these very hard histories, but he wasn’t going to just replay the hard histories, he was going to reserve healing and joy for Native people in his work.”

Like Carlson, textile artist Maggie Thompson recalls always seeing Denomie show up at exhibition openings, whether the artist was just starting out or established. “I think because of his position in the art world, it was just like really cool to see him show up regardless of who or where,” Thompson says.

Thompson is Ojibwe from the Fond du Lac Band and is based in Minneapolis. She was recently awarded the 2023 Jim Denomie Memorial Scholarship, an award that was created soon after his passing by the Denomie and Wilson Family, and the Minneapolis-based All My Relations Arts, the Native American Community Development Institute, and Bockley Gallery.

Thompson is the second to receive the $10,000 award, after the 2022 inaugural recipient, Duluth artist Jonathan Thunder. She says the award has given her a boost at a moment when she was struggling, both emotionally and financially.

“I was feeling a little lost and a little defeated,” Thompson said. “So I felt like receiving the award kind of gave me the motivation and gave me a reminder of why I do what I do.”
Like Denomie, Thompson has demonstrated great commitment to the community. She mentors and employs young artists, both Native and non-Native, and even toured the Denomie exhibition with them. Thompson also often offers her northeast Minneapolis studio for community events.

“I think art can be an important vehicle to keep that momentum and that engagement and give people another place to feel at home and welcome,” she says.

What’s left behind
Diane Wilson says his community was shocked at Denomie’s quick passing, which sparked the scholarship.

“There was just this outpouring of ‘What can we do? How can we help?’” Wilson says. “That’s why we set up that scholarship, because people needed to do something, so they poured their grief into donations.”

In the wooded hills of Shafer, Minn., Wilson walks the grounds of the home and studios she long shared with Denomie.

She points to a line of old carousel horses lying in tall grass.

“He had this idea that eventually he was going to do an installation because he had flying horses in a lot of his paintings,” Wilson says.

Behind them is a cut tree stump on a sawhorse.

“That was going to be a next sculpture,” Wilson says. “He got sick so suddenly, that it’s like he just left in the middle of a lot of projects.”

Denomie’s studio above their garage has remained much the same since his death, save for some paintings and drawings that were removed for the exhibition and archiving.
Every surface is covered with materials and inspirations, from photos of friends and globs of paint to figurines of the California Raisins and the masks he collected from around the world.

Wilson recalls coming up here from her writing studio next door. Music would be blasting – he always had his 60-CD player going while he worked, she says – and they would dance and joke around.

“I wish he was here, but now that some time has passed I’m thinking about, well, how can we continue his legacy?” Wilson says. “I’ve been thinking about his space. It’d be nice to have creative energy in here again.”

Wilson sits in their living room, beneath one of his paintings hanging over the fireplace. She says there will also be more exhibitions to follow – a group show at the University of Minnesota Nash Gallery in early 2024, and Wilson and others are planning another for his recent painting series of the Dakota 38+2 – some of his “best work,” she says.

In the meantime, Wilson wants to return to the Mia exhibition, which she finds “poignant” because “he got to choose what people would see.”

“What lingers really of his spirit in this plane is in his artwork. So when you see Jim’s paintings, that’s still where he resides,” Wilson says.

“The Lyrical Art of Jim Denomie” is on view through March 2024 at Mia.