Last fall, artist Jim Denomie invited Heather Rutledge, the executive director of Stillwater-based ArtReach St. Croix, over for a studio visit. Even though his work is in permanent collections at institutions such as the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Walker Art Center and Denver Art Museum, he felt excited to show his paintings and portraits at the regional art gallery.
"When Jim first came to ArtReach and he was looking around the gallery and imagining his work in the space, which is not a white box gallery at all, I got kind of all fan girl on him. I said: 'I am sorry this isn't the Denver Art Museum,'" recalled Rutledge. "And he said: 'This place has better light.' "
Rutledge felt that showed his generosity and warmth, and an ability to "lift this place up and understand that a place like ArtReach is important, too, in the art world."
When the Ojibwe artist's solo exhibition, "Sweet Dreams," opened on March 31, he wasn't present to see his contribution. Denomie died of cancer March 1 at age 66 and the news was a shock to his family, friends and the artists he mentored. His memorial service is in the works.
"This is one of the last shows that Jim had a direct hand in making, and it's fitting that as a longtime resident of the St. Croix Valley, it's in the community he loved," said his gallerist Todd Bockley, who has represented him since 2007.
Denomie, whose work confronts the country's troubled past with playful but biting wit and from a Native American perspective, was also the curator of the exhibit.
The show includes 26 two-dimensional works, ranging from 2014 to some recent, smaller works on paper dated 2021. Many of the works have a dreamy "night palette." The exhibition includes two acrylic and oil on canvas paintings, "Four Days and Four Nites, Blue Green River" and "Four Days and Four Nites, Orange River," (both 2020), pieces from the 2018 "Standing Rock" series, various expressively colored untitled 8-by-10-inch portraits with shimmery vivid figures and a mysterious small portrait of a topless Courtney Love.
His widow and writer Diane Wilson said: "He put as much interest and commitment into doing small shows as he would doing shows at a larger venue, so it was definitely a show that was significant to him and a show that he cared about."
Denomie's death has not changed what's on display in the show.
"He was interested in how viewers will see his work differently, knowing that he's no longer with us. … His vision endures, and I'm sure these works will continue to speak to us long into the future," Bockley said.
"Sweet Dreams" kicks off the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read in the St. Croix Valley. This year's selection is "An American Sunrise" by U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo, who is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Her book revisits the homeland from which her ancestors were uprooted after the government passed the 1830 Indian Removal Act.
Denomie was excited about Big Read because the whole month revolves around Harjo's book. (The acclaimed writer won't be coming to town and her events have been moved online.)
"I think hosting this exhibition will be an opportunity for a lot of people to connect to Jim and to his work," said Rutledge. "I hope that ArtReach can provide that for people."
Jim Denomie: Sweet Dreams
Where: ArtReach St. Croix, 224 N. 4th St., Stillwater.
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Fri., noon-4 p.m. Sat. & by appointment. Ends May 7.
Info: Free. 651-439-1465 or artreachstcroix.org