Photo by Jim Denomie - Detail of
Photo by Jim Denomie - Detail of "Beautiful Witches" - 2020 - 24x30 oil on canvas

By Molly Butler

There are many ways to describe 2020, a year that would have previously been unimaginable. Unprecedented. Historic. Surreal. It’s an era in our nation’s history that requires intelligence, humor, symbolism, and honesty. A year like no other necessitates the work of a one-of-a-kind artist.

Jim Denomie was born in 1955, in Hayward, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Lac Court Oreilles Band of Ojibwe and lived on a reservation until he and his family moved to Chicago. At the age of five, he and his two brothers moved to Minneapolis with his mother after his parents separated, where he struggled to conform. He dropped out of school at 16 after a counselor advised against pursuing art and then spiraled into addiction. In 1989 he quit drinking and in 1990 returned to school.

At the University of Minnesota Denomie was exposed to the American Indian community on campus. In 1995 he graduated with a greater appreciation for his heritage, and a desire to define himself and his art outside stereotypes of “Indian art.”

“I work honestly,” said Denomie.

I tried to make everything new and not repeat myself. Each one is like snowflakes. Jim Denomie

He is primarily a painter, and his colorful palette is instantly recognizable. His surreal, narrative paintings are unique and memorable, with spiritual, erotic landscapes and totem images. Humor is often in play. But within each painting is the same repeating beat: honesty. The surreal addresses the real. Denomie copies no one, not even himself.

“I tried to make everything new and not repeat myself. Each one is like snowflakes,” said Denomie. “Most of my influences are very small. I can’t relate to a lot.”

Photo by Rhett Arens - Jim Denomie in the studio
Photo by Rhett Arens – Jim Denomie in the studio

Courage and career

Denomie has enjoyed a myriad of successes. He received the Bush Artist Fellowship in 2008 and the Eiteljorg Fellowship Native American Arts the following year. He received two McKnight Fellowships, a McKnight Distinguished Artist award. Denomie’s work has been exhibited across the country, internationally, and remains in permanent museum collections including the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Walker Art Center, the Denver Art museum, and the list goes on. Brian Szott, a curator at the Minnesota Historical Society, called him “one of Minnesota’s greatest treasures.”

“I’ve been very fortunate in my career,” said Denomie.

But it’s not a matter of luck. Denomie has navigated the art world with the same courage he brings to the canvas. He would often visit gallery openings and introduce himself.

I’d go to a gallery, track down the curator, open my trench coat and say, ‘Do you want to buy a painting?’ Jim Denomie

“A lot of it is self-promotion. I’d go to a gallery, track down the curator, open my trench coat and say, ‘Do you want to buy a painting?’ They weren’t going to come to me. I had to go to them,” said Denomie. “I’ve found one opportunity leads to two more.”

There is a moment when the artist is faced with the unknown blank space and must trust they will be able to fill them. Denomie often starts a painting not knowing how it will end.

 “With narrative works I usually sketch for scale and composition, but I’ve found inspiration happens at the canvas, so I have to allow that,” said Denomie. “I had a breakthrough twenty years ago. When a painting was done, I would sign it. I had one that was close to done. I lost it. I had nearly finished it, but it wasn’t quite ready to sign. I set it aside and walked away for a few weeks. One day I was leaving the studio, on my way out, when I had the impulse to make a mess of it and add new colors. It ended up being a much stronger piece.”

While many artists struggle with renewal and change, Denomie seems to run on it. He paints as if inspiration will never run dry. For him, everything feeds his art, and he has come to trust the process.

“It takes confidence to wrestle with a piece. There’s no telling how long a painting will take,” said Denomie. “It’s like a game of chess. You try different moves. Sometimes it’s fast, over and won in 10 moves. Sometimes the game goes on and on and still ends in a draw.”

Photo by Jim Denomie - "Tree People" - 2020 - 30x40 oil on canvas
Photo by Jim Denomie – “Tree People” – 2020 – 30×40 oil on canvas

The Artist and 2020

Other than the 5 years he took to finish school, Denomie has worked construction trades as a carpenter and drywall finisher for the last 45 years. That work came to a halt last March when lockdowns shut down his day job and his exhibits for the year began to cancel. Between lockdowns and the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, Denomie, like many Americans, was feeling the stress. For a while, painting was impossible.

“I was working on new things, but it was too much going on. I did yard work and administrative work. Shows were canceled and I put it on a shelf. I was too stressed to work,” said Denomie. “It took me right out of painting.”

But it wasn’t all bad. Like many people who ended up with unexpected time to fill, Denomie dove into his hobbies. He is an avid golfer, and says the sport kept him occupied.

I was able to get back into myself. I was more comfortable and capable. It’s been an extraordinary year. Everything feeds my work. Jim Denomie

“Like everyone, I’ve felt the stress this year, but golf released that. It was a COVID-safe recreation,” said Denomie. “It’s kind of amazing how much outdoor activity has spiked.

After a break from painting, Denomie picked up the brush again and began to untangle the events he was seeing.

His work culminated in “Jim Denomie 2020” the collection of 18 pieces, all painted in 2020, which will be exhibited at the 410 Project in Mankato from January 8th through the 24th. His colorful, intelligent, and witty works converse with social, political, historical and cultural issues while never straying from the uniquely personal perspective that has been Denomie’s trademark.

“This work I was able to get back into myself. I was more comfortable and capable,” said Denomie. “It’s been an extraordinary year. Everything feeds my work.”

Photo by Jim Denomie - Detail of "Beautiful Witches" - 2020 - 24x30 oil on canvas
Photo by Jim Denomie – Detail of “Beautiful Witches” – 2020 – 24×30 oil on canvas

Retirement and beyond

Denomie, who now lives in Franconia, Minnesota, officially retires this month. He’s excited to get to work.

“Retirement does not mean idle time. It means more time for art,” said Denomie.

Already he is enjoying having more time in the studio. Art is selling, galleries and exhibitions are getting scheduled once again, and Denomie is in a good place. Currently he’s working on a new medium: wood carving. He’s constructing two totems, with a combination of wood carving, painting, and application of found objects, like jewelry and horsehair. It’s his first time trying something like this.

“The creative juices are flowing,” said Denomie.