“Toast,” 48x48 inches, oil on canvas, 2019. Franconia-based painter Jim Denomie was named the McKnight Foundation’s 2019 Distinguished Artist in late August.


Franconia-based painter Jim Denomie has been named the McKnight Foundation’s 2019 Distinguished Artist. The annual award honors a Minnesota artist for significant contributions to the state’s cultural life. 

Denomie, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe, said he plans to use the $50,000 award to take time off from his work as a drywall finisher and spend more time in the studio.

Denomie uses colorful, high-contrast imagery and humor to depict scenes that comment on the country’s past and continuing colonial history. He also does creative portraiture and spiritually informed landscapes.

“I paint the narrative historical work because it’s important for me,” he told the Messenger. “It’s because I perceive and understand what’s happening or what has happened. A lot of the history I learned in college. It wasn’t available in a public school setting.

“Visual storytelling as an extension of the Ojibwe storytelling culture,” he continued. “I don’t create anything. It’s based on history, based on fact and truth. I just find a creative way to speak about it.”

Denomie, age 64, was told by a guidance counselor in high school that there was no future in art. He worked in construction for two decades before enrolling in a studio arts course at the University of Minnesota. Nearly 25 years after graduating, he has become the first indigenous artist to win McKnight’s Distinguished Artist Award.

“Minnesota is Jim Denomie’s home, and its history has inspired many of his most powerful paintings,” said Kate Wolford, president of the McKnight Foundation, in a statement announcing the award. “Today, his impact and artistic vision extend far beyond our region. We’re thrilled to recognize an artist who is rooted in the Anishinaabe tradition of storytelling art and so deeply engaged in documenting the present day. His story is a reminder that creativity and self-expression can change the arc of our lives.”

“Jim’s work is a contemporary form of truth telling,” said Lori Lea Pourier, president/CEO of First Peoples Fund and a member of the Distinguished Artist Award selection committee. “He looks at really hard subjects like Wounded Knee and Standing Rock, but often with a very humorous style, and colors that draw you in and relieve the tension. I see him as a modern day warrior documentarian, capturing and saving stories for the next 100 years in a contemporary voice.”

Denomie, who was raised in Hayward and later Minneapolis, now lives in Franconia with his wife, Diane Wilson, a fellow artist and author of the memoir “Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past.”

He was selected by a panel with members representing wide-ranging knowledge of art in the region: Lori Lea Pourier, president/CEO, First Peoples Fund; Sandra Agustin, choreographer and arts consultant; Eleanor Savage, program director, Jerome Foundation; Rohan Preston, performing arts critic, Star Tribune; and Brian Frink, artist and chair, Department of Art, Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Denomie’s work is included in the collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Walker Art Center, and Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis; Minnesota Museum of American Art in Saint Paul; and others across the country. In the coming year, his work will be on exhibit in New Zealand and included in the 21st Contemporary Art Biennial Sesc_Videobrasil | Imagined Communities event in São Paulo, Brazil.

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