Jim Denomie wasn’t exactly a model student when he attended South High School in Minneapolis around 1970; he recalls his activities included “goofing off, getting high, pitching coins against the wall, cruising around in cars.”
But he also liked making art. Denomie had been drawing for fun since early childhood, and at school he’d hang out in the art room, where students were allowed free use of the art supplies. Denomie went to a guidance counselor and requested a transfer to an art school.
His counselor did not approve the transfer. Denomie came from a poor family, one of five children of a low-income divorced mother. Trying to make a living painting, the counselor told Denomie, would be “a terrible career choice.”
So Denomie dropped out of school — also not a great career choice. He got a minimum wage factory job, fell into “a lifestyle of partying and addiction” and didn’t paint another picture for another 20 years.
Eventually, he found better-paying work in construction, got sober and, in 1990, enrolled at the University of Minnesota with the intention of studying health science. He also took some art courses, initially to fulfill requirements.
“They woke my artistic spirit,” said Denomie. In 1995, at age 40, he received a bachelor of fine arts degree, with a minor in American Indian studies.
If only that guidance counselor, wherever he is now, could take a tour of the cluttered, color-filled studio next to Denomie’s Shafer, Minn., home, where Denomie, now 60, paints and sculpts.
The artist’s work been exhibited in major museums all over the state and elsewhere in the country — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle — and in Europe. It is part of 14 collections, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, as well as museums elsewhere in the country and one in Germany. He shows at the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis and has won numerous awards, including fellowships from the McKnight and Bush foundations.
“It’s getting out there,” Denomie said. “I don’t know if snowballing is the right word, but it’s been growing. One opportunity leads to two more.”
Not all artists care about that sort of recognition, Denomie said, but it’s important to him. “To be in a museum collection means you’re part of art history.”
A member of the Lac Courte Oreille Band of Objibwe, Denomie creates paintings that comment on Native American history as well as current events, politics, pop culture and other references, often stirred together to create images that range from playful, even darkly comic, to somber and disturbing.
His paintings usually feature rough vivid strokes of unexpected colors. They include lots of simple, small- or medium-sized expressionistic portraits, especially of Indians and rabbits. But he also does larger, complex narrative pieces (ranging up to 7 feet by 12 feet) that juxtapose images of tragic historical events: the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, violence and genocide, sexual abuse of Indian children by Catholic clergymen, police abuse of Native Americans, the killing of Trayvon Martin. In Denomie’s visual language, the distinctive White Castle franchise architecture stands in for Fort Snelling. Banana peels represent condoms.
Denomie’s career started slowly. But in 2005, he committed himself to making at least one painting every day for a year. He kept the vow, even on days when he was busy with his construction job and other distractions. He painted quickly and loosely and at the end of the year, he had made 430 small works. Within a couple of years after that, his career started to take off.
Denomie still works in construction, partly because a steady paycheck allows him to let artistic ideas rather than financial need shape his work.
“It’s allowed me to paint what I wanted to paint and less what I wanted to sell,” he said. Indeed, his art is challenging — politically, socially and personally — in ways that aren’t necessarily highly commercial but have led to his growing recognition in shows and collections. “If I wanted to make a lot of money I’d paint Elvises on black velvet. I wanted to make work that was honest, to be true to myself; not prostitute myself and be true to the art market.”
Still, the sales have accumulated. One year, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis bought a number of his paintings and his income topped $100,000. Take that, guidance counselor.
Denomie makes an effort to exercise, eat right and stay healthy, hoping to continue painting for another 20 years. Lately, he’s been experimenting with other forms, including a series of masks sculpted from found objects.
“I continue to evolve as a painter, as an artist,” he said. “I try to take one painting and learn from that and then take the next frontier. Sometimes the breakthrough is slow and hard to notice, but all of a sudden there’s this point where, this is great.”