THE OJIBWAY DREAM, Arthur Schilling, Tundra Books, Montreal, Canada and Plattsburgh, NY, 1986; 48 pages, 21 full-page paintings, oversize hardbound, $29.95. Available from Oyate, 0-88776-173-9
It's hard to imagine a U.S. President being approached by any artist to write a forward to a book of his paintings, being produced as a children's book. Though I can imagine some staffer being assigned the task for a really pop artist, of so plastic a turn his images would offend no important voter bloc. Painter of one of the government duck stamps, perhaps. I can't imagine any U.S. politician writing "I had no idea that we would have lost him within a period of weeks. What a great loss!" Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien wrote that in his foreward to this book. "Canada and the native peoples will be better off because Arthur Schilling was with us even for such a brief period of time."
I don't think much of politicians as art critics, but provide this to illustrate to U.S. citizens that the proudly profound ignorance enacted by nearly all stations of American society does not prevail everywhere in the world. In other countries, even Top Politicians occasionally read a book they don't have to or look at an artwork even when they aren't putting on an act for voters.
Schilling was born on the Rama Reserve, near Orilla, Ontario. All of Schilling's paintings are of people, in this book, mostly head and shoulders or part-body individual portraits. Even calm ones, expressing pride in Indian existence, usually convey pain, subconscious or overridden, occasionally agonized. Though he went to art school, Schilling rejected what was taught, developing his own style that uses broad areas of color, slightly reminiscent of abstract expressionism, though the only abstractions here are occasionally found in emotive backgrounds. The focus is always the person, usually the eyes and what's behind the eyes.
"Most people I paint don't like themselves. I try to reveal the spiritual soul, the quietness that makes us different, that no other nation or people have." Because it was bought with centuries of suffering. But "Our souls and hearts can heal, and a new togetherness make our people proud, and in harmony again with the land."
Most of Schilling's meditations -- poetic and philosophic -- are about his art, its absolute necessity to him: "When I was born, mother earth was bleeding. That's when I started to see color....At one point, everything was color. There was no line, no division, between colors. For a time I was frightened that there was no form. But then I saw form was coming from within." Although "there is not enough color to subdue the shadows within me." And: "I can't forgive my colors for their harsh treatment of my tender thoughts, my dreams."
His inner shadows were dark. Born in 1941, Schilling was never physically strong. He first underwent open heart surgery in 1975. He felt that all his time was borrowed time. His meditations are elegies, as if looking back from the other side of death, though "death will not put this fire out." The meditations are brief, a few short sentences to each page that faces a full-page portrait. Children may understand some of them, but adults will not be able readily to disengage, to forget.
Don't lose the dust jacket when you get this powerful book for yourself and school library. It has a self-portrait of Schilling that is not included in the book. I am angry at the publishers for defacing it with their product barcode. The designer is an idiot, there was plenty of room for that gross triviality on the jacket's plain frame, leaving the portrait unmarred.
Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996
Last Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 1996 - 12:53:47 AM