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Ojibwe artist provides world with ecological visions

WIKWEMIKONG, Ontario - James Simon Mishibinijima sees the world differently. Since childhood he has shared his particular vision with others who could not glimpse the dancing web of life as clearly as he does.

In oils, acrylics, pencils and watercolors on canvas, paper and birchbark, Mishibinijima's work is displayed in museums across Canada and is eagerly sought in Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Australia and Japan.

Considered the next Salvador Dali by European art critics and known as "the hidden secret" by American collectors, his works grace the walls of private and corporate collectors worldwide. His exquisite views of earth, her rocks and rills, her energies, her messengers and her guardians, spread the ecological message so important to the artist: Take heed, be aware of environmental problems, love the earth, protect her.

In need of healing, it seems the earth has granted Mishibinijima vision so that others might see.

An Ojibwe from the Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Mishibinijima started painting when he was 14. Although he had no art training, he decided to start an art club at Manitoulin Secondary High School. With several friends he scrounged oil paints, acrylics, brushes and canvases and set to work. By Christmas he had a fair number of paintings to place in a reservation art show.

As "luck" would have it, a museum collector from Toronto came to the reservation looking for artwork to carry for Christmas. He bought everything Mishibinijima created. The experience was the youth's first and last hint that he might not grow up to be a police officer after all. He never again put the paintbrush down.

By the time he was 17, Mishibinijima had gained a certain fame within Native art circles in Canada. Invited to go to Rome and sell his work at an Indian art show, he traveled around Europe for a month. Coming home, he experienced the only "dry spell" of his career. For six months no visions, no work would come. It was a terrifying experience for the young artist - one that affects his life and travels 29 years later.

"I go over to Germany and then spend two or three weeks, end it and get out of there as quickly as possible," Mishibinijima says. "The turmoil, the quickness there is just too much. More energy goes into you from what you're normally used to. Here it's very peaceful. The land, the water, the sky, everything here is very clean on Manitou Island ... home of the Great Spirit.

"Every time I come home, I appreciate all the more what we have, the little bit that we have now. We just need to have a stronghold to keep perspective."

It is Mishibinijima's perspective that sells his paintings. With 16 different styles and using as many as 18,000 different colors in one painting, his transcriptions of the natural world remind an urban population, long absent from a sense of oneness with nature, about who they really are and what their responsibilities to the world around them should be.

Deeply inspired by the stories of elders on his reservation, Mishibinijima's visions come unexpectedly and from unexpected places.

"I had an invitation to show at the Simon Frazier University in Vancouver," he says. "Looking out of the portholes in the plane, I seen the Rockies, snow capped and everything. People say, 'Oh boy, they're beautiful.' But what I seen was elderly people sitting around, with icecaps of great gray hair. People everywhere, just guardians and things like that, stone people.

"Then I came home and here in the Great Lakes we have the islands and rock crevices ... it's the bay of 10,000 islands. What I seen, that's what you're seeing in the paintings."

Whether it's his famous rock paintings or his paintings on silver birch bark, the images give people the sense of connection and expansiveness so needed in today's world.

Each of his paintings, which he refers to as his children, takes an average of three months to complete. Commissioned pieces range in price from $6,000 to $40,000. Signed, limited edition art prints of his work average $350 to $500. Signed art cards run $40.

The paintings, no matter how big or small, spring from a series of visions as alive and real to Mishibinijima as the physical world is to everybody else. Symbols and legends he gathers from elders pour through the paintings, weaving multiple stories within the images on canvas. When the vision stops, the painting is complete.

After smudging each new work, he sends it out into the world.

But Mishibinijima does not cast his children forth unprepared. For his commissioned pieces, he meets with executives from corporations such as General Electric and Bayer Pharmaceuticals, telling them about the painting, what it means and why it has entered the world and been placed in their care.

Equally serious are his managers and fans around the world who hold informal art shows of Mishibinijima's work in their homes. The artist also invites people to his studios on Manitoulin Island to view his work and hold discussions on the meanings behind the pieces.

"That is where the friendships begin," he says. "Once you know me you want to know more about me. You want to study what the painting is really saying and so forth. And once you make that connection, once you seen that painting ... it's going to haunt you.

"There's a feeling, 'I've got to do my part too,' that drives them. It's very hard to talk about earth issues towards non-Natives. They consider you a trouble maker and all that kind of stuff. But somebody has to do these little things. Bit by bit people have to listen to you."

With Canada and much of Europe listening, Mishibinijima says he is turning his attention to the United States. He plans to have a gallery showing in Grand Rapids, Mich., and then will be attending private showings sponsored by collectors in Arizona this fall.