Historian Brenda J. Child stares at a buttery yellow sky framed by converging treelines reflected upon a lake. The scene is a painting by Duluth-based artist Jonathan Thunder and it’s called “On the Grave of the Giant.”
Below the sky’s glow is a couple harvesting wild rice from a canoe. On the lake bottom are the skeletal remains of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
The painting is on public view for the first time as part of the new exhibition “Dreaming Our Futures: Ojibwe and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Artists and Knowledge Keepers” at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota.
Child is a Northrop Professor of American Studies and former chair of the Departments of American Studies and the Department of American Indian Studies, co-curated the exhibition with gallery director Howard Oransky.
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It features paintings by 29 mid-century and contemporary Ojibwe and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (Dakota and Lakota) artists from, or connected to, the region.
It is the inaugural exhibition of the George Morrison Center for Indigenous Arts, an “interdepartmental study center to support the creation, presentation and interpretation of Indigenous art in all its forms.”
Child is the founder of the new center, which was sparked by the success of the 2016 Nash gallery exhibition that she curated, “Singing Our History: People and Places of the Red Lake Nation.”
The center is named in honor of the internationally renowned abstract expressionist, a member of the Grand Portage Ojibwe from Minnesota, who died in 2000. Morrison also taught art at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We tend to think in Minnesota, ‘Oh, George Morrison. He’s like a local guy who’s done well in the art world,’” Child says. “But he’s a very important figure in American abstract expressionism.”
Back in the gallery, Child is focused on that yellow sky. “What I really like about this work, and I wouldn’t have known this unless Jonathan had told me,” Child begins.
She pauses and walks to the opposite gallery wall, which features a string of paintings by the famous mid-century painter Patrick DesJarlait. Like Child and Thunder, DesJarlait was from the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota. DesJarlait is one of their heroes, she says.
In addition to paintings like “Red Lake Fisherman” (also on view), DesJarlait is also famous for his 1950s redesign of the Land O’Lakes maiden, adding an Ojibwe floral pattern to her attire.
“So Jonathan’s nod to Patrick is the bright butter yellow that he used in this painting,” Child says.
Over the phone from his Duluth studio, Thunder says Land O’Lakes discontinued DesJarlait’s design, and the maiden, in 2020, soon before he began working on the painting in 2021.
“With the yellow sky in that painting and the two points of land that come together, that’s obviously a nod to the Land O’Lakes butter box,” Thunder says. “From what I understand, the two points of land that come together, they can be seen in Red Lake where the upper and lower Red Lake kind of join.”
That year, Thunder had gone to see the Red Lake vista.
“It was like seeing a cartoon come to life or something,” Thunder says. “It’s very much a tribally significant image with or without the butter maiden.”
Thunder says the painting was also inspired by the time when he and his wife decided to learn how to harvest wild rice around Walker, Minn. In the painting, a pipeline takes the shape of a tentacle reaching into the canoe above the watery grave of Bunyan and Babe.
“At the time, the Line Three protests were happening across Minnesota and I was starting to see some of the division it was creating in the communities there,” Thunder explains. ”You see statues of Paul Bunyan kind of littered throughout the landscape, which is significant of a time when they were coming through clearing forests. Paul Bunyan was the noble face of that cause. In the wake of all that, it’s nice to see that people can still go out and rice and practice those traditional ways.”
Thunder says he’s excited to be placed in the gallery next to DesJarlait, an artist “I’ve seen my whole life.” He adds that, when he was growing up in the Twin Cities, he used to play basketball at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. It was there he discovered the 94-foot-long wood mural “Turning the Feather Around” that Morrison created in 1974 (and which was recently restored and reinstalled).
“That’s a huge development for the campus,” Thunder says of the new center.
“Dreaming Our Futures” is a web of these overt and covert dialogues and relationships between artworks, artists and generations.
On view, of course, are the abstracted rainbow-colored canvases of Morrison himself, as well as the paintings of other blue chip artists such as Dyani White Hawk, Frank Big Bear, Jim Denomie, Oscar Howe and Andrea Carlson.
“This exhibit shows the history of American Indian art, fine art, in the United States and where it’s been in the last half-century, especially with Howe, Morrison and DesJarlait,” Child explains.
“Dreaming Our Futures” acts as an important marker in time, too: Fifty years ago, Morrison, DesJarlait and Howe participated in an exhibition of contemporary Indian painting in Washington, D.C.
Child says that “Dreaming Our Futures” also shows how contemporary artists “have been very influenced by those foundational figures.”
These include artists like Thunder and Dakota artist Holly Young, of Bismarck, N.D. Young uses the mediums of beadwork, quillwork, and ledger art, an art form that originated in cave and hide painting that has evolved to also use parchment and actual historical “ledger” documents as a canvas.
Young also created the illustration for the cover of “The Seed Keeper,” the 2021 novel by Minnesota Native writer Diane Wilson, the wife of Denomie. Denomie died in 2022. Wilson wrote an essay, “Jim Denomie at Home,” for the exhibition catalog.
Four of Young’s ledger-style watercolor paintings are on view, featuring Native women dressed in a combination of historical regalia and contemporary attire.
“A lot of what I draw is kind of based off of real life,” Young says. “I enjoy the look of the old things, but I’m also living in today’s world as a contemporary artist.”
The ledger art of Yellow, a Minneapolis-based Lakota artist who died in August, hangs right next to Young’s.
“He was also somebody that I looked up to as a ledger artist. His work was very emotional,” Young says. “I always wanted to meet him, and I’ve been in the Minnesota area over the years, but we never crossed paths.”
Flanking the other side of her paintings is a large spray-painted canvas by TopBear. In 2022, Young and TopBear painted a mural together in Young’s hometown of Fort Yates, S.D.
“I really gravitate towards Thomasina’s work,” Young says. “She does a lot of nature-inspired work: Flowers, the prairie and the plant helpers, as I call them, like insects and bugs, things that I really enjoy myself.”
In another room, three paintings by St. Paul figurative painter and muralist Steven Premo, of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, hang facing three surrealist and spiritual paintings by fellow Ojibwe artist Joe Geshick, who died in 2009.
Premo is the husband of Child, and was a good friend of Geshick, she says. Premo inherited Geshick’s easel, which Child says will be on display with a list of artists who have died in recent years. Another Minnesota Native author, Louise Erdrich, will be speaking about Geshick’s art at the gallery on Feb. 4.
“Each of these individuals takes their place in a lineage of Indigenous painters that stretches back centuries,” Oransky, the gallery director and curator writes in his essay, “A Vast Field of Feathers,” for the exhibition catalog. He also points to the Jeffers Petroglyphs, the 7,000-year-old sacred rock carvings Native people made in southwestern Minnesota.
“This exhibition of paintings, like all the exhibitions that came before it and will come after it, beautifully and forcefully demonstrates that the need for drawn and painted images is a universal need,” Oransky writes.
At the end of a gallery tour, Child pauses again, pondering the timing of the exhibition. The pandemic set back its original opening date years.
“We need to show American Indian art every year and all the time,” Child says. ”But thinking as I do, as a historian, I’ve been thinking about the anniversary of American Indian citizenship in the United States 100 years ago.”
President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act on June 2, 1924. Morrison, Howe and DesJarlait were all born years before they were legal citizens of the U.S.
They were working in a different era, Child says. “And that’s why I particularly wanted to include these figures like Oscar Howe, Patrick Desjarlait and George Morrison in the exhibit.”
There will be “Dreaming Our Futures: Art and American Indian Citizenship, 1924 – 2024” panel discussions Feb. 2 at the Regis Center for Art.
“Dreaming Our Futures” runs through March 16. The opening reception is Feb. 3 at the Regis Center for Art. Speakers include Child, Erdrich, Wilson, Minnesota Museum of Art executive director Kate Beane and Harvard professor Christopher Pexa.
On Feb. 15, Patricia Marroquin Norby, the inaugural associate curator of Native American art at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, will read her catalog essay “Painting Medicine: George Morrison’s Big Water Magic.”
On March 14, artist Fern Cloud will present “The Spirit of My People: Traditional Dakota Hide Painting.”