Some call him a late bloomer. Others might say he’s mid-career. Whatever label you put on Jim Denomie, one thing is certain. The prolific, soft-spoken artist, whose paintings provocatively and humorously comment on U.S. history from a Native American perspective, just landed the 2019 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award.
Denomie, 63, is the first Native American artist to win the honor, given annually to someone who has contributed significantly to the state’s cultural life. Minnesota’s most prestigious artistic honor, it includes a $50,000 prize.
Born on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation near Hayward, Wis., Denomie grew up in south Minneapolis and has said that Minnesota shaped who he is as an artist.
Bob Cozzolino, a painting curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, believes Denomie’s work speaks to both a regional story and a national narrative.
“He is committed to making his art and to telling the stories of Native Americans — the deep, complex, traumatic history in this region — in a way that doesn’t gloss over any of the trauma, but does it with humor, wit and irony.”
It’s been a busy year for the Ojibwe artist, who lives in Franconia, Minn., with his wife, Diane, and a menagerie of pets, and works a day job doing drywall. In February, he opened “Standing Rock Paintings,” his sixth solo exhibition at Bockley Gallery. The show was a response to the 2016 oil pipeline protests near Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and the racism and violence he witnessed through social media accounts of the clash.
The exhibit sparked a backlash from a state legislator who objected to a massive painting of a confrontation at Standing Rock that depicted President Donald Trump groping a blindfolded Lady Justice.
“I went through a lot of tension with the negative backlash, but the positive backlash was 10 times as strong,” said Denomie, adding that he was “terribly surprised” by the McKnight award.
Both the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Weisman Art Museum are interested in the painting, but they’ll have to wait because it’s traveling to “Imagined Communities” at SESC Videobrasil, a biennial exhibition in Sao Paulo, Brazil, opening Oct. 9. Denomie’s work is already in museum collections at Mia, Walker Art Center and the Denver Art Museum.
Arleta Little, arts program officer for the McKnight Foundation, sees a link between Denomie’s art and the tradition of Anishinaabe storytelling.
“There is so much in his work that we need now — the humor, beauty, inspiration, the provocative dialogue, critical analysis of history,” said Little. “So much of his work is spiritually evocative, and all those things lend to healing and communities that have lived with so much trauma.”
Thanks to the McKnight money, Denomie is thinking of taking some time off and traveling. The trip to Brazil has already got his clever brain going.
“The Amazon is burning,” he said. “I feel some sort of painting or comment coming on.”