Minnesota Indian Artists

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Patrick DesJarlait & Family: Red Lake Ojibway Tradition

Biographical Sketch by Robert DesJarlait

"My earliest memories of Red Lake have a storybook quality," wrote Ojibway artist Patrick DesJarlait. "I remember beautiful pure white snow. There were acres of forest lands on the reservation and the clear blue lakes held almost every kind of Minnesota fish. Nature provided a perfect setting for a young Indian growing up. I spent many hours of my childhood wandering through the woods, either by myself or with my friends. And in the forests that surrounded my home, I found the animals and woodland scenes that became the subjects of my first drawings."

As a little boy growing up on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, he was called Na-gwa-bo -- Boy in the Woods. He was given this name because he could always be found in the woods, always alone, and either quietly sketching or thinking. Patrick DesJarlait found beauty in his surroundings. He found beauty in the faces of his people. He found beauty in their way of life. He found beauty where he was not supposed to find it. In boarding school, where his Indian name was taken away, his teachers told him repeatedly there was no value in an Indian way of life. He did not listen. He continued to sketch the woodlands, the animal-beings and the people he came to know so well.

The DesJarlait family consisted of his parents and four brothers and two sisters. Patrick's father worked as a woodcutter for the Red Lake Lumber Mill. His mother died when he was seven. After this very sad event in his life, he spent much of his time in boarding schools at Red lake and Pipestone, Minnesota. He did not begin to think seriously of taking up a career in art until he entered higfh school. At Red Lake High School, he became a student of Miss Ross, an English teacher. She encouraged his interest in art. She even purchased special supplies for him on her trips to the cities.

After graduating from high school,, Patrick got a scholarship to study art at Arizona State College in Phoenix. A year later, during World War II,m he entered the government service. He was sent to teach an art workshop at a nearby Japanese Relocation Camp.

When the U.S. declared war on Japan in 1941, Japanese Americans were taken from their homes and moved to special prison camps. They had done nothing wrong but in the months that followed the declaration of war, Americans bnecame panicky. They demanded that Japanese Americans be carefully watched. Too, many of these families had developed fine farmland or stores, mostly in California. Their properties were seized and sold.

Patrick felt sorry for these people. Their plight reminded him of what had happened to his own people a century earlier. Months later, he joined the Navy and was assigned to a naval base in San Diego, California. Here he worked with artists from Walt Disney Studios creating films for the Navy.

When the war ended, Patrick returned home to the Red Lake Reservation. Here he completed what was to become his favorite painting. He called his watercolor "The Red Lake Fisherman". He felt this painting brought together all the artistic concepts he had been working so hard to perfect. At the same time, his painting captured an important part of the way of life of the Red Lake people. In this and subsequent paintings, the influence of the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera can be seen. He considered both men to be great artists.

Bio continued after picture insert.

I don't have a copy of DesJarlait's favorite Red lake Fishermai painting. But Patrick did two paintings around the same time in a similar style that were bought by a Tulsa museum.

"Maple Sugar Time," 1946. This painting also uses a dynamic symmetry of the 4 directions, here centered on the white-hot syrup kettle being stirred by the woman, at almost the exact center of the canvas. At the rear, a man stirs a kettle of thickened syrup which is being further reduced to sugar. Right front, one seated woman stirs and pounds cooling sugar in a wooden tray, and left front, another prepares a birchbark makuk to store sugar in. Again, the facial features are cubistic, angular, influenced by Picasso. Again, all the human elements of a traditional work process are organized in a formal, balanced structure. This tightly organized painting of action-in-balance is quite different from a realistic photo of the Martin Kegg family sugaring at Mille Lacs in 1946. In fact, the artist's eye conveys far more to us of what the actual work processes are than a series of photos would, even though in reality sugar isn't made all at once like this, with people very close together. The picture conveys the feeling of sugaring, not just its appearance.

Tapping maple trees shown in this wash drawing by Robert DesJarlait, is done with hollowed spiles. Traditionally the watery sap would have been collected in birch containers like those shown, but pails are actually used nowadays. The woman gliding through the deep snow has collected a load of downed wood. Sugaring requires huge amounts of downed wood for the long-burning fires to reduce the watery sap. It takes a dozen gallons of sap to make just one quart of syrup.

Robert's curved trees that make a formal pattern, the still, soft snow, the circular focus, all convey the sacred, timeless, spiritual aspect of this food. Families who traditionally prepared sugar as an important food would have a "900-tap bush" on the average, but some larger families might sugar from a bush of up to 3,000 maple taps. That's no longer possible, there aren't enough maple trees left.

Maple sugaring is still done at Mille Lacs and a few other places. In this 1946 photo (which I false-colored) the Martin Kegg family is shown sugaring at Mille Lacs. Today sugaring is done mostly by Indian youth, under the guidance of several elders, such as Walter "Porky" White. Traditional stories are told at night in the camp, and everyone has fun as well as working. This traditionally-made real maple syrup is sold in jugs to raise funds for Indian organizations, or is used at big pancake breakfasts. To anyone who has tasted the real thing, syrups sold in stores (made from corn sugar and chemicals) are pitiful, tasteless. Both DesJarlait artists, father and son, have captured for us a true "taste of the woods".

--Maple Sugar -- the Boiling Moon return to the story or read it now, then return here to see the DesJarlait Wild Rice pictures and account..

"Making Wild Rice," 1946, is a dynamic watercolor whose 4 sections show 3 people close together doing the major activities of processing wild rich traditionally. At the top, a man is parching the newly-gathered rice in a large kettle. At the bottom right, another man is "jigging" or dancing the rice which is in a special barrel sunk in the ground. He wears new soft deerskin boots, and can hang onto the handle to help with the hard work of loosening the hulls without breaking the long grains. At the bottom left, a woman prepares this rice on a birchbark tray to toss in the wind and blow away the hulls. The sharp features -- partly real, partly abstract -- of the people's faces show a cubist influence of the modern painters whose work Patrick studied carefully.

Patrick's paintings of life and activities of Red Lake people from this period tend to have an underlying structure of the 4 directions held in balance. The Harvard art historian Jay Hambidge was later to analyze this kind of artistic form as "dynamic symmetry" (Hambidge never looked at American Indian art, of course.) Robert DesJarlait's ink drawings of scenes from traditional Indian life are organized quite differently. Almost all of them are focussed within a circle. His drawings emphasize and symbolize the mystical, sacred character of traditional Indian life in its relationship to nature and the spiritual. Here a woman in the foreground contemplates the sacred mahnomen (wild rice). A timeless stillness pervades this drawing, unlike his father's activities of preparing the harvested rice. This particular drawing was used by the Ikwe (women's) marketing collective, which was formed in the late 1980's at White Earth Reservation to help Indian people realize more economic rewards from their work. Robert has helped many Indian groups with his art in this way.

READ more about wild rice

From Red Lake, the DesJarlait family moved to the Twin Cities. Patrick found employment as a commercial artist. His experience in helping to create animated films for the navy began to serve him sell. He was selected to help create an animated television commercial for Hamm's Brewery. Soon, the comical and gentle Hamm's bear he created became a familiar part in the lives of television audiences of the 1950's. He thought of his bear as "One of the most delightful accomplishments I've had in commercial art."

During his 26-year career as a commercial artist, his work was always in demand. The art and business community alike recognized him as a very versatile artist. He could do fine art, commercial art and even very technical drawings.

Patrick DesJarlait got a chance to pursue his real dream during the last few years of his life. He wanted to combine art with education. His dream was to teach non-Indian people aboujt the beauty and dignity of the Ojibway traditions. With this dream in mind, he traveled throughout Minnesota talking to students about art. His passion for art began to affect his children. Three of the five DesJarlait children are actively engaged in art careers.

His oldest son, Robert, finds comfort in the fact that his father was able to realize his dream. "Through art," Robert says, "my father found a way of giving something back to his people." .

Larry J. DesJarlait, Peace Chief 22-inch stoneware sculpture, from the Institute of American Indian Arts museum collection in Santa Fe. IAIA funding is 100% zeroed out in the upcoming Indian federal budget cuts. IAIA has helped many Indian artists get their start, and has preserved a fine collection of contemporary work by young artists.

Wanted: Color stills from Patrick DesJarlait's 1955 Hamm's beer TV commercial "FRUHhum-m-m-m the LA-A-A-nd of SKYBLUE wah-HA-ters..." showing the bear that Patrick liked so much

A book about Patrick's life -- and Indian family life on the Red Lake Ojibway Indian reservation, in the old days and through the '70's -- is available and highly recommended for Native schools and all schools with multicultural social studies or art education programs. It has been favorably reviewed by School Library Journal and Booklist of the American Library Association.

Patrick DesJarlait: Conversations with a Native American Artist, 56 pages, $21.50; Runestone Press, Lerner Learning Group Publishers, Minneapolis, 800/328-4929. Lerner discounts 25% to school purchasers on its hardcovers. There is a Canadian distributor, too. Grade/reading level: 5+. Call for their free, extensive catalog. They carry many authentic and attractive Native American books for elementary and high school, as well as attractive school supplementary books on all subjects, for all grade levels. Many parents who want their children to learn about other cultures will find many beautiful books here pertinent to African-Americans, and immigrant groups, as well as Lerner's Native series: "We're Still Here: Native Americans Today."

In this first-person narrative, recorded before his death in 1972, Patrick tells of his boyhood as a reservation Indian on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation of northern Minnesota. He describes his experiences in art school, his artistic work for the Navy, and his start and progess as a highly successful commercial artist, as well as his inspirations and goals in fine art. This book is thus well suited both for social studies -- Native life and work -- and for art students.

This is a new edition of a book Lerner published shortly after his death, from tapes made by Neva Williams. The new edition is 8 x 10". It now contains many more full-color reproductions of his paintings. (The cover, shown here, is a cutout from one of his watercolors, "mounted" on birch bark.) The manuscript has also been supplemented with many large, clear black and white historical photos depicting traditional Ojibwe reservation life in the pre-World War II period (and earlier). Patrick's own paintings show many aspects of the daily round of traditional life -- as his maple sugaring and wild rice processing paintings do here. These convey what's really happening in those activities, but they are also works of art, in his clear, bold style. The new edition also treats DesJarlait as a worthy member of the tradition of world-wide artists generally -- as well as Native artists, who usually are put in a kind of ghetto or "museum" away from the broader world of art, of which their creative works are really a part.

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CREDITS: : The logo of these art pages is "Two Fish" by Manitoulin Island Ojibwe-Odawa Martin Panamick, as explained in the Art Contents Menu page credits. Small and large maps of Minnesota Indian reservations by Paula Giese.

Biographical sketch of Patrick DesJarlait reprinted from Ojibway Family Life in Minnesota: 20th Century Sketches,, by Pauline Brunette, Naomi Whipple, Robert DesJarlait and Priscilla Buffalohead, for the Indian Education Program of Anoka-Hennepin School District No. 11, 1990. No longer available. Photo of Patrick DesJarlait was scanned from there. See also Patrick DesJarlait: The Story of an American Indian Artist, Lerner Publications, 1975 (out of print). A new illustrated edition was recently released by Lerner Publications, containing the originally taped recordings with his family, compiled by Neva Williams. $22.95 (schools/libraries $17.21, hardcover), Lerner Publiucations, 241 1st Avenue North, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 800/328-4929. School PO's accepted.

PIX Credits: "Making Wild Rice", and "Maple Sugar Time", both by Patrick DesJarlait, 1946, are in the collection of the Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, OK, and were used in The Native Americans: An Illustrated History, Turner Publishing Inc., Atlanta, 1993, a book prepared in connection with Turner's TV series.

"Wild Ricing" ink drawing by Robert DesJarlait, 1990, for Ikwe Ojibway Women's Marketing Collective (wild rice and arts and crafts), White Earth Reservation. "Tapping Maple Trees" ink wash drawing by Robert DesJarlait, 1990, part of a series on traditional Ojibway life for the "Ojibway Family Life" school booklet.

"Peace Chief," 22-inch stoneware sculpture, date unrecorded, by Larry J. DesJarlait, from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, used by them (with artist's name spelled wrong) on an unfinished web art appreciation demo project running off of a big Los Alamos science server.

Photos: "Martin Kegg family sugaring at Mille Lacs, 1946" and "Winnowing Wild Rice," (Nett Lake, 1937) from Minnesota Historical Society. The sugaring photo was dark and illegible, so I false-colored it to look like firelight which improves it a bit. Ordinary color film didn't exist in 1946.

Explanatory text and graphics copyright 1995.

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 1996 - 1:03:30 PM