Artist Jim Denomie linked dark spirit and social issues

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special in Indian country today

Renowned Ojibwe artist Jim Denomie – whose works of “metaphorical surrealism” examined historical and contemporary events – died on March 1 after a short battle with cancer. He was 66 years old.

An active artist to the end, he participated in Miami Art Week in December 2021 with a solo exhibition at Untitled Art Fair, and participated in a collective exhibition of indigenous artists which ended at the end of February in Los Angeles at the Various Small Fires Gallery.

“Jim was undoubtedly one of the most important painters of his generation, offering a powerful and unparalleled vision that was both deeply expressive of his Indigenous roots and compelling to viewers of art and non-art alike,” said Todd Bockley, owner of the Bockley Gallery. , which has represented Denomie since 2007.

“But it is his generosity of spirit, his tireless support of artists and his kindness to all things that I will miss most.”


The reaction to his death was swift in the world of arts and literature and on social media.

“For someone so modest and kind, Jim had a killer mind,” Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Louise ErdrichTurtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, told the Tribune of the Stars in Minneapolis after his death. “When Jim’s Tonto complains, ‘You lied to me,’ and the Lone Ranger says, ‘Get used to it,’ he sums up over 500 years of Native American-White relations.”

One fan on Twitter noted, “The Native art world loses one of its greatest as Jim Denomie begins his journey. His work has always been so inspiring – politically sharp, often funny, layered…so Ojibwe.

He died at his home in Franconia, Minnesota. He is survived by his wife, writer Diane Wilson; daughters Cheryl Lane and Sheila Umland; son Cody Cyson; daughter-in-law Jodi Bean; and his mother, Pamelia Almquist.

First fights

Born July 6, 1955, Denomie was a citizen of the Lac Courte Orielles Band of Chippewa Indians of Lake Superior.

He lived on the reservation until age four, when his family moved to Chicago as part of the government’s forced resettlement programs in the 1960s.

The stress of moving caused his parents to divorce, and he went to live with his mother in Minneapolis. He stayed in touch with his roots through the summers and winters when he visited his grandparents in tribal lands.

As a young man, Denomie struggled against the pressures of racism and stereotypes. While attending the University of Minnesota, he became involved in the Native American student organization, engaging with Native art, culture, politics, and language.

He became a teaching assistant in the Department of Native American Studies and began to form what he called his style of “metaphorical surrealism”.

Vivid paintings, sculptures

Denomie’s studio, Wabooz Studio, was named after the Ojibway word for rabbit. He served as an alter ego, allowing her to enter his works of art.

Denomie’s paintings are vivid, with bright purple and green as a recurring color palette. He also created sculptures.

His works combined cultural symbols, his personal stories and current events on topics such as Christianity, Native stereotypes, white supremacy, the mass execution of 38 Dakota warriors in 1862 and protests against the pipeline of 2016 at Standing Rock.

Animals such as frogs, rabbits, deer, horses and human-tree hybrids were superimposed on historical figures such as Jesus, Mike Tyson, Leonard Peltier, Vincent van Gogh and the Lone Ranger. His erotic dreamscapes combine sensuality and spirituality.

He has traveled and exhibited extensively in the United States and around the world, notably in Brazil and New Zealand.

Husband, father and grandfather, Denomie loved golf and also worked in photography, collage and mixed media.

Denomie’s works have been featured in over 130 exhibitions across the United States and around the world. He has won numerous prestigious grants and his work is part of the permanent collections of the Forge Project, the Walker Art Center and the Denver Art Museum.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art will exhibit a study of his work in 2023.

Friend and fellow artist Yatika Starr Fields, Osage, Cherokee and Cree from Tulsa, recently had dinner and a long chat with Denomie in Miami. He said Denomie’s legacy will last.

“He was a leader in storytelling, unafraid to convey his true thoughts on art and intimacy and being ‘Indian’ and the terms that follow,” Starr Fields said. “He was a champion in my eyes, a colorist and a realist in many ways.

“I will miss knowing that he…creates, burns the midnight oil, but I will forever carry him and his devotion in my memory and in my work.”

For more information
The works of Jim Denomie can be seen at Bockley Gallery or viewed on Instagram at @jimdenomie.

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