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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

Acclaimed Ojibwe artist Jim Denomie – whose "metaphorical surrealism" works examined historical and contemporary events – died March 1 after a short battle with cancer. He was 66.

An active artist until the end, he participated in Miami Art Week in December 2021 with a solo exhibit at Untitled Art Fair, and was in a group show of Indigenous artists that closed in late February in Los Angeles at Various Small Fires Gallery.

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

"But it’s his generosity of spirit, his tireless support for artists, and his kindness to all that I’ll miss most.”

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The reaction to his death was swift among the arts and literary world and on social media.

“For someone so modest and kind, Jim had a killer wit," Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Louise Erdrich, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, told the Star Tribune in Minneapolis after his death. "When Jim's Tonto complains, 'You lied to me,' and the Lone Ranger says, 'Get used to it,' he encapsulates over 500 years of Native-White relations."

Noted one fan on Twitter, “The Native art world is losing one of it’s greats as Jim Denomie starts his journey. His work has always been such an inspiration—politically pointed, often funny, layered…so Ojibwe.”

Ojibwe artist Jim Denomie's works often merged animals with contemporary Indigenous issues in vivid paintings such as this 2018 work, "Medicine Bear." Denomie died March 1, 2022, after a brief battle with cancer at age 66. (Photo courtesy of Todd Bockley/Bockley Gallery)

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; step-daughter Jodi Bean; and his mother, Pamelia Almquist.

Early struggles

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

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

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

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

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

Vivid paintings, sculptures

Denomie's studio, Wabooz Studio, was named for the Ojibwe word for rabbit. It served as an alter ego, allowing him to enter his works of art.

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

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

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

He traveled and exhibited widely across the United States and around the world, most notably Brazil and New Zealand.

A husband, father, and grandfather, Denomie loved to golf, and also worked in photography, collage and mixed media.

Denomie’s works had been shown in more than 130 exhibitions throughout the U.S. and internationally. He garnered numerous prestigious fellowships and his work is in the permanent collections of the Forge Project, Walker Art Center, and the Denver Art Museum.

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

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

“He was a leader in telling stories, not afraid to relay his true thoughts towards art and intimacy and being “Indian” and the terms that follow,” Starr Fields said. “He was a champion in my eyes, a colorist and realist in many ways.

“I’ll miss knowing he’s ... creating, burning the midnight oil, but will forever carry him and his devotion with me, in memory and in my work.”

For more info
Jim Denomie’s works can be seen at the Bockley Gallery or viewed on Instagram at @jimdenomie.

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