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Artist Rabbett Before Horses Strickland Reignites Ojibwe Narratives

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At the age of 15, in his first oil painting, Rabbett Before Horses Strickland depicted the Greek father of gods, Zeus, sending down a thunderbolt from the clouds. It was done on a four-by-five-foot piece of Masonite.

Since then, the legendary figures bursting from Strickland’s tableaux have grown larger and ever more powerful—and so have his canvases.

Strickland, of the Red Cliff and Bad River bands of Lake Superior Ojibwe, has spent seven months on his latest painting, a nine-by-18-foot epic titled The Right to Consciousness. He expects to finish it this month in a secluded (and borrowed) cabin surrounded by woods in Bayfield, Wisconsin, a small town not far from the Red Cliff reservation.

Like many of his works, this one combines brilliant colors, robust figures and Ojibwe narrative into impressive visual storytelling that evokes his dreams of spirits and humans while invoking past and present injustices. And it contains Nanabozho, the frequent protagonist in Ojibwe stories, who is the offspring of the West Wind and a human woman. In Strickland’s art Nanabozho, a shape-shifter, appears as part rabbit. “He’s in every painting,” Strickland says of Nanabozho. “He’s never not in it.”

Often Nanabozho takes center stage as Strickland retraces stories of his birth, or Nanabozho’s creation of butterflies or his luring of cranes and ducks into a “shut-eye dance” so that he can kill them for food. Other times, the legendary figure is one among many in Strickland’s well-populated landscapes.

The artist became fascinated with Nanabozho in his early 20s, not long after he joined Richard Oakes and other American Indians in the occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay starting in 1969. “That’s when I got into the mythology,” says Strickland. “I think my Indian-ness came out in 1963 and 1964, and it became cool to be called ‘Rabbett,’?” a nickname that he has since legally adopted as his name.

There is much for a young man to admire in Nanabozho and even plenty for an older, wiser man of vision. “The supreme entity or being for Nanabozho is the Earth, Kitchi Manitou. He is an emissary who did not come into the world but rather came out of it,” according to Strickland.

Nanabozho, both spirit (manitou) and human, embodies what Strickland once said everyone must decide about their place in the world. “Are you a part of the earth, or did you come from someplace else? Did your God put you here, or did you come in a UFO?” he told Ken Bloom, director of the Tweed Museum of Art in Duluth for From Dreams May We Learn, the 2007-2008 exhibit and catalog of his paintings and drawings.

Strickland was born in San Francisco, and grew up far, one might assume, from the influences of his mother’s Ojibwe heritage along the Wisconsin shores of Lake Superior. He says that where he grew up, American Indian was not even on the list of ethnic options; Strickland recalls that anyone not white or black was considered Mexican.

His mother, however, grounded him in his Ojibwe culture. “My mother introduced me to Nanabozho.” She also introduced him to art. “My mother, her sisters and brothers were artists; I grew up immersed in art.”

As a teen, he experimented. “All I did from 15 through 18 was explore through color. I started out doing figurative art and morphed right into a Picasso style.” It took another 10 years for him to develop his distinctive style.

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Strickland has never had formal art training, but he is as fascinated by theoretical mathematics and jazz as he is by visual art and has a fertile mind. He found his mentors among the masters of art, studying the techniques of Renaissance painters Botticelli and Michelangelo, the realism of 17th century artist Peter Paul Rubens and the surrealism of Salvador Dali. “I also like Picasso. I like the idea that he changed his style all the time.”

The styles and perspectives of these masters resonate in Strickland’s work, yet his painting style is distinctly his own. It recently has drawn much local attention, a major exhibit and some interested patrons. “I was blown out of the water,” Mary Rice, a passionate patron of the arts and a watercolor artist, said of seeing one of his paintings for the first time. Rice, who lives in Bayfield, so liked the nearly seven-by-10 foot painting, Ag Ki Gisiss (Out of the Sun), that she bought it and donated it to nearby Northland College. She was also instrumental in getting a showing of Strickland’s works at the Tweed Museum of Art and has loaned him her family’s cabin in the woods, which has a room large enough to tackle his current tableau.

Part of what attracted Rice to his work is the blending of traditional ideas and stories with unexpected imagery. “The shapes of the bodies are somewhat voluptuous, not typical of the legendary long, tall Native American figure of the North. Their faces often represent Native people, but the body is pure Botticelli.”

Categorizing Rabbett’s work is not easy, says Bloom. “It’s intended to be timeless, intended to be mystical, intended to be lessons. I think the lessons part of it is important, too. It’s not just that it is narrative; there’s a pretty intentional didactic component to these things. Power and oppression. This is a unique mind. It’s not just that he has drawing skills. It’s the way he assimilates historic information and classical, pictorial styles. Rabbett does his homework.”

Even a short conversation with Strickland reveals the complexity of that unique mind. He comfortably shifts from discussion of his latest work to his passion for mathematics. His current obsession is the Riemann Hypothesis about the distribution of prime numbers, an unresolved problem considered a Holy Grail among some mathematicians.

When he isn’t working five hours a day painting or isn’t contemplating a complex math problem, he composes music. He plays guitar and piano, and back in 1965 he was part of a group called Universal Joint. “I wrote, over eight years, about 60 smooth jazz songs and picked about 13 of those and sent them to a friend of mine in the Bay Area. He mastered them and I put them on”

The resulting CD Smooj features his jazz piano compositions. “It is in my nature to be busy,” he says, “but I also enjoy doing nothing.”

After living mainly in California and the Southwest, he moved five years ago to Wisconsin to concentrate on his art, a promise he made to his mother before she died.

Now 62, Strickland is gaining more attention for his art. Since 1998, his paintings have been shown in London, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, several galleries in California and in a traveling exhibit by Honor the Earth, an organization that raises awareness and money for environmental issues. Several of his paintings are sold as prints and note cards to support Native Harvest, which promotes healthier diets and a return to the old ways of eating and harvesting food.

But he faces challenges in gaining a broader audience. The size of most of his works—generally six-by-nine-foot or eight-by-12-foot canvases—makes it daunting for most private collectors, though he has sold pieces to collectors in Japan, Hawaii, most of Europe and Canada. And he says that selling yourself can become full-time work for an artist—a job that only partially interests him. “Little paintings do nothing for me but sell,” he says. “Money isn’t everything, but it is the medium of exchange and when opinions pay the bills, I’ll listen.”

Still, don’t expect too much concentration from him on the small and intimate—or on self-promotion. “It takes a lot of work to promote yourself,” says Rice, “and I think he’d rather paint pictures.”