She's a poet, a novelist and a playwright, but you could argue that Marcie R. Rendon's journey to winning the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award began with a papier-mâché monkey.
Rendon, 68, was a third-grader, assigned a glue-and-paper project. "The teacher asked what I was doing and I said I was making a blue monkey," Rendon recalled with a gentle chuckle. "She said, 'You can't do that. Monkeys aren't blue,' and I said, 'Yeah, right,' and kept on making my blue monkey."
For the soft-spoken Rendon, an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation who lives in south Minneapolis, the story illustrates that creativity has always been her outlet. An early reader, she has written stories and poems for as long as she can remember.
Her six decades of creativity are being celebrated with the McKnight Foundation's $50,000 prize, which honors lifelong commitment to Minnesota. Previously, it has been awarded to artist Seitu Jones, photographer Wing Young Huie and, last year, painter Jim Denomie. According to facilitator/artist Sandy Agustin, one of the panelists who selected Rendon, she was a clear favorite.
"There are some incredible artists in this state, but you take a step back and say, 'What if we watered this tree, of all the trees in our ecosystem?' " said Agustin. "With Marcie, we all went, 'Yeah. Yeah.' Other trees stand on their own but this tree, Marcie, has a long herstory of artmaking and giving voice to others, particularly those in the Native American community."
Usually, awardees are surprised in-person with the McKnight announcement, but the author of "Powwow Summer" learned of it on a Zoom call.
Rendon had been told that First Peoples Fund President Lori Pourier was going to offer her a freelance assignment, according to Agustin. "She said, 'I thought this was going to be a call to ask me to write something and maybe it would be for $1,000 and I was going to have to figure out how to ask for $1,500,' " recalled Agustin. Instead, a sobbing Rendon was greeted by Zoomers holding up handmade signs that said 'I Heart Marcie' and "50K!"
A month later, Rendon is still wrapping her head around the ramifications of the award. ("Every time I hear the word 'distinguished,' I just picture a butler," she said. "My god, it is so not me. I'm the one who walks into a room and trips over something.") She's also contemplating what to do with the cash.
"So much of my time as a working artist and freelance artist is spent hustling for the next writing gig. To not have to worry about how I'm going to make a living could just really free me to write and write," said Rendon, whose goal is to make sure Native people see their lives on her pages. "The other thought in the back of my mind is: How can I use the visibility of the award to really encourage other Native artists and writers?"
An introvert and a multitasker, Rendon admits that sheltering in place suits her. She has no shortage of blue monkeys to work on. She's writing the third in her Cash Blackbear series of mysteries, featuring a White Earth Anishinabe woman who solves crimes in northern Minnesota. Her play "Sweet Revenge" is scheduled for a reading when the Oklahoma Indigenous Theatre Company figures out how to perform it safely. She has written four children's books, with work begun on another. And, in collaboration with artist Heather Friedli, she is assembling a 2021 Weisman Art Museum exhibit to draw attention to the disproportionately high rate of incarceration of Native women.
It's a subject Rendon often returns to in her work: efforts to make Native people disappear, whether it's taking their land, sending them to boarding schools or imprisoning them. Crime is another major interest of Rendon's, who has read it all — true crime, Agatha Christie, psychological thrillers — and studied criminology at what was then Moorhead State College.
"I know so many Native people who are hooked on crime novels, crime TV shows. I think there's something about working through trauma there," said Rendon. Those people who devour crime novels do not necessarily include Rendon's three daughters, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Rendon isn't sure how much of her work they've tackled, although many have read "Civil Defense," a story about a foster child who murders her entire family.
"That's the one they tend to talk about," said Rendon, allowing that the familial mayhem may have alarmed them. "They were all horrified."
In quarantine, Rendon has been thinking about the past and working for the future. Recently, she assembled a photo essay that paired an old picture of her mother, who had just returned from a tuberculosis sanitarium, with one of Rendon, clad in a look-alike bathrobe. The idea?
"This is not our first war or our first pandemic. We're resilient. We're going to thrive and a lot of how we do that is continuing to create and find humor and beauty, trying to find the words to inspire people," said Rendon, who rejects the romanticization of Native people, insisting that survival is hard work.
As an example, Rendon cites her recent poem inspired by the story of an imprisoned woman fighting to get her child back. Its title, which nods to the present moment, the ongoing struggles of Native people and Rendon herself: "Resilience."