Interview by Saamantha Lee
The reason I chose Jim Denomie as the artist for this blog was my emotional response to his paintings; I had a certain “de-ja-vu” feeling and remembered images from a dream I had several years ago, in which I saw painted horses and people moving about, so I wanted to pursue my dream, in a sense. Originally he focused on black and white photography and also did some black and white prints and oil pastel drawings. His most recent work is what really caught my eye; it struck me as being completely original, and the messages it sent out are very powerful statements, daring as they are original; forcing the viewer to reflect on injustices and events that are still going on today that disrespect the humanity of Native Americans of all tribes, but specifically the tribes and reservations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The following images illustrate some of the changes in Jim’s work over the last few years. I wanted to understand his process and technique of applying the paint to canvas, and he revealed that as well as providing an overview of the way he has achieved balance between painting and the everyday world. His use of brilliant colors, often used in what might be called a “psychedelic” style, where, for example faces are portrayed without any relation to the colors of skin as we see it, “as if it were just for fun like being back in middle school.” The brightly colored portraits painted one a day for a whole year, were shown in the “New Skins” exhibit at Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2007, hung grouped together as if they were one piece.
Shooting Stars, 2001
The Journey #2, 2001
Seeking Mercy, Still, 1997
A great change occurred in his work around 1996 – 1997 when he began painting surreal and brightly colored images where trees and rivers took on the forms of tall slim women with arms becoming branches reaching into the sky.
Erotic Landscape IV, 1998
The Confluence, 1998
Dream Rabbit II, 2001
After this it seems there was another transformation and an entirely different direction when his creativity blossomed into a whole new focus; he began to paint in a style which seemed to fall somewhere in between political cartooning and surreal painting in the sense of several scenes merging into one, only connecting by their common conceptual theme. At first these seem amusing and comical, but then I realized the hidden meaning is quite serious; as one writer described Jim’s art as both “singing and stinging”.
E. Curtis, Paparazzi-Skinny Dip, 2008
In God We Trust, 1994
The Posse, 1995
Smoke Signals, 1997-2000
The Renegade, 1995
Hole in the Day, 2009
Casino Sunrise, 2009
Attack on Fort Snelling Bar&Grill, 2007
Saamantha Lee: In your painting Casino Sunrise I am puzzled by the three-headed person with a small brown dog. Is there a personal story connected with this figure? You mentioned in our conversation they indicate gangs, violence etc. is there anything further you would like to say about the figure or the dog?
Jim Denomie: The three-headed figure in Casino Sunrise represents Indian gangs both in Minneapolis and on the reservations in Minnesota. The gang figure has a t-shirt that says Native Mob on it (the name of a local gang in Mpls.) and has guns in both hands and is accompanied by a pit bull. I don’t have a personal connection to the gang issue. I more see it as another form of assimilation.
SL: In the same painting, did you mix your colors on the canvas, especially the purple to aqua hues?
JD: Sometimes I will mix colors right on the canvas when working fast. On most large paintings, I will lay down the base or ground layer of paint forming areas and figures, establishing the general composition. I then edit the painting, adding, reducing or changing a variety of elements, until everything rhymes. This chess game can take a lot of time to figure out and so there is often a lot of layering of paints.
SL: In your process, do the various scenes and figures just pop into awareness while you paint?
JD: I usually start my significant paintings with minimal, linear sketches to determine scale, perspective and composition leaving room for inspiration to participate. I find that the initial sketch, even a complex one, is like a rough draft and the painting is a much more refined version of the same story. Sometimes I refine the same story further with another painting which is the case with Casino Sunrise, which is actually the third version after the initial sketch. First was,Show Me the Money, and then, Hole-In-The-Day, and the Casino Sunrise, each growing in scale and complexity.
SL: Do you start with a theme and a few images, then add the smaller figures and scenes during the process?
JD: Yes, I do start with a theme or story and add smaller figures and scenes during the process. When I paint a story, memories or understandings will come to me, or some really cool way of representing something will appear.
SL: Do you create directly on canvas or use sketches and notes prior to beginning to paint?
JD: As I mentioned in my prior answer, I usually start my narrative, complex paintings with studies or sketches. But when I do portraits or other small paintings, I start painting on a blank canvas, working intuitively, letting impulse and the unexpected happen right in front of me.
SL: How do you decide when a painting is completed? Do you wait a period of time and add a few touches?
JD: I have had this discussion with my painting professor at the U on MN, David Feinberg. We concluded that a painting is done when the artist dies. Previously, I felt that a painting was done when I have taken it as far as I could, at that point in time, and signed it. Now, if the painting is still in my possession and I am not impressed with it, I may rework it. A painting is like a motion picture, always evolving. We hit pause when it looks good to us and then we sign it. But we may come back to it sometime later and look at it again with a perspective enhanced by experience and development and say, “this painting needs more work.”
SL: Do you still paint one small painting of a face each day? I now know by research that you did this for one year. Have you done other repetitive paintings?
JD: I did the painting a day for one year project back in 2005. I did so because of commitments to family, job, house maintenance, social events and other distractions were making it difficult to get to the studio and then when I was able to spend time there, sometimes my mind was still too cluttered with these things to engage in art making. I do not do a painting everyday now but I still do small and large portraits while working on larger significant paintings.
SL: Are they a kind of meditation, and what time of day did you spend doing this?
JD: I would not say they are like meditation but often when I paint, I reach a mild trance like state where everything in my immediate consciousness get pushed aside and I forget about time. I usually paint at night, or at least it is my preferred time, but I do paint during the day too when my schedule allows.
SL: Do you paint only when alone in your studio?
SL: Do you use music to inspire your creativity?
JD: I do listen to music often when I am painting. I never thought of it as inspiration for creativity though. I usually listen to older and some newer rock musicians like Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater, Dire Straits and a lot of others. They mostly keep me company while I work.
SL: Do you attend POW WOWs or other group gatherings of any kind and do these events have an immediate effect on what you paint?
JD: I do not go to as many pow wows as I used to, but I still get to a few each year. If there is an effect on my work, it is probably on a more sub-conscious level.
SL: Do you include your immediate surroundings in the scene you are painting?
JD: When I am working on paintings, I often include major events that are happening around me in my world, like natural disasters, births, deaths, and other important events. I acknowledge some of these events by painting in some small icon or number or altering the image somehow.
SL: Do you ever share canvas space or paint with other artists such as family members or young children just for fun or as a volunteer?
JD: When my son and grandsons come for weekend visits, I set up easels in my studio and allow them to paint on paper and canvas with water-based paints. We also sit at the dining room table and draw with all kinds of mark making materials.
SL: Have you ever painted a mural or participated as one of the artists in a mural?
JD: I have not participated in painting a mural. I have not sought out opportunities and I am not sure if that work appeals to me. I am about to start a canvas that is 7 feet tall by 12 feet long though, by far, my largest canvas to date.
SL: What direction do you see your art going next; how are you changing as an artist?
JD: I am not sure what direction my art is heading. Like a painting, I don’t plan out what it is going to look like in the end, it evolves. It has been important to me that I continuously try to evolve as painter. I am still learning. I try to take each painting to someplace new. The painting a day project was a great shift for me. It opened up a new painting style and new subject matter and allowed me to paint old ideas (storytelling) in new ways. With the 7x12’ canvas, I hope to start working on more large thematic paintings in the future.
SL: In your painting Attack on Fort Snelling Bar and Grill, what is the meaning of the cloud shapes that mimic a cartoon airplane among other things, and why are they placed in the sky of that painting along with E. Curtis, Paparazzi - Skinny Dip and Hole in the Day?
JD:The clouds do not have a specific meaning to me. They are just stylized clouds that have developed in my sketches and paintings. As modern artists, we try to develop individual style and introduce things that have never been seen before or to show things in new ways. I have not seen clouds portrayed in this way before.
SL: My grandmother was my true spiritual mother, and very talented as a self taught seamstress, it is only in my later years that I appreciate her influence on my work as an artist, and all my creativity. Do you have a similar connection with your grandparents who you say you always visited every summer and during winter school holidays? Or any other person you would like to talk about that had an influence on your paintings?
JD: The major influences on my painting have been two primary instructors at the University of MN, both mainstream and native artists (past and present) and my life experiences which include education, where I was raised, and other pertinent events that have formed my identity. My imagery comes from my imagination, my dreams and my memories. My grandparent’s influence fits into one or more of those categories.
SL: I noticed in one of several articles about you online that you got involved in a student organization in the community when you were in college. How did that go for you, and do you still volunteer in some capacity?
JD: I was involved with the American Indian Student Association while I was a student at the University of Minnesota and I was a TA for American Indian classes. It was a great experience learning administration duties and networking with other Indian students and other organizations. I am involved with and have been involved with several arts organizations both native and mainstream over the years as juror and board member.
SL: Ideally, how do you see the artist’s role in the community?
JD: Personally, I see the artist’s role as an individual one. My role as an artist reflects on the community I am a member of (native artist, mainstream artist). I do not make art for the community, I make art for myself. I do not believe an artist should have a defined role in the community, it is up to each individual to decide what their involvement with the community will be. Fortunately, I have enjoyed great support from both communities over the years and I am happy to be involved in certain community events. But there is a danger to involving one’s self to too many events or causes as the obligations and responsibilities can intrude on an artist’s studio time or ability to focus.
SL: Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
JD: I do consider myself a contemporary native american artist mainly because I am a native person working in current times, with concepts of modern art. Also, I am an artist who happens to be native american and creates art that participates and contributes to both arenas of art, mainstream and native american. I do think the term contemporary native american artist is useful because I am not a traditional native artist and just saying native artist is too vague.
SL: Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
JD: Julie Buffalohead
Jim Denomie: Biography
Lac Courte Oreilles Band of OjibweEducation
BFA University of Minnesota
Jim was born on the reservation in Hayward Wisconsin in 1955 and was raise in Minneapolis Minnesota near his mothers relatives and extended family, and spent his summers and winter holidays on the reservation where his grandparents lived. He received his BFA at the University of Minnesota and first focused on black and white photography, ink, oil pastel drawings, linos and printmaking, before turning to painting as his main media. He has shown extensively in the U.S. and also in Germany. His work is in the permanent collections of the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. He received a Bush Artist Fellowship in 2009 as well as an Eiteljorg Fine Art Fellowship in 2009.