The Enigmatic Paintings Jim Denomie

In the painting Vision Quest-Spiritual Sex there are several metaphors relating to antlers. Are there more details you can provide us to inform our understanding?

In one of my earliest painting classes we were instructed to create a composition, painting with a live male model, using some of the still life objects on the stage with him, and, our imagination. One of the objects was an antlered deer skull and in my painting, it replaced the model’s head. This was not an unfamiliar concept in Native American imagery but it was the first time for me to play with this concept. It definitely placed me into a spiritual realm I was not intending to explore. But I am a spiritual person so it felt okay to me to proceed. For me, antlered people represent spiritual people. But this antlered man was nude (as the male model was) and displayed a penis. Now this was certainly not a familiar concept in Native American imagery. It has been a concept that has developed and evolved over the years in my art recently culminating with these new paintings, “The Storyteller-Spiritual Sex” (I and II) and “Vision Quest-Spiritual Sex.”

Spiritual Nite (Beautiful Witch)

The painting Spiritual Nite expresses a nude female figure and an enigmatic figure emerging out of the woods. What hint could you give viewers to add their interpretation or apprehension?

The painting “Spiritual Nite (Beautiful Witch)” has evolved from a series of paintings of female nudes over the last twenty years that have evoked a spiritual content. I have met several witches in my life (one a former lover) and made a decision to name this evolving series Beautiful Witches. In this particular painting (and others in this series) I am working intuitively with no planned outcome. I usually start with a sketch of the figure and then develop content and background imagery right at the easel, often letting color and brushstroke inform the direction and meaning of the painting.

Mother or Beautiful Witch

Mother or Beautiful Witch transmits a sense of being fed but who are the mysterious figures behind her?

The painting “Mother (Beautiful Witch)” is an example of an idea evolving right in front of me. Originally, this painting started out a year earlier as a portrait of a tattooed woman with semi formal abstractions in the background. It had an interesting beginning but after awhile it felt lost and I changed direction in midstream. I painted over the background and the entire body of the figure while at the same time changing the position of her arms and the direction of her gaze (impulsive decision making). She was now squeezing her breast and I then painted a stream coming from it. At this point I made a sketch of it to explore options and possibilities. In the sketch, the stream coming from her breast turned into a stream of small fish each getting larger as it moved away from her body and then sketched images in the background that I was recognizing from the brushstrokes and color forms. Getting back to the painting, I added the stream of fluid coming from her breast and then had the inspiration to add a young rabbit catching that stream in its mouth, being fed, leading me to the title “Mother (Beautiful Witch).”

The owl and wolf figures emerged form the brushstrokes creating a drama in the painting. I have felt a connection to rabbits since I was a young boy and have developed several understandings of that connection. One is this: It’s the rabbits that watch over our houses at nite, protecting us from predators, intruders and disease. And also, it’s the rabbits that lead the lost out of the woods but sometimes the owl and wolf beings find them first. Both the painting and the little essay were developed independent of each other but form a natural union.

The Storyteller-Spiritual Sex II

The Storyteller-Spiritual Sex II language appears birthed from the mouth, words become things, places and people. Can you tutor the viewer a little bit about the pantheon or activity in this painting?

Storytelling is a tradition of many of the tribes in North America (and many indigenous cultures) including my own, the Ojibwa or Anishinaabe, as we call ourselves. It has been portrayed visually, most popular as sculpture of the Southwest Pueblo and Hopi tribes as a woman with many children attached to her. My rendition of this concept was inspired by my experience and knowledge of the stories told by my people and was developed through sketching. In addition to my painting, I sketch prolifically, often capturing the tip of an idea or concept that may lead to or inform a future painting. Everything I paint or sketch comes from my memories, dreams or imagination, or directly from real life, never from photographs or screens. The imagery or episodes coming from the mouth of the woman in “The Storyteller-Spiritual Sex II” all come from my visual language developed over years of exploration and in this particular painting, from my dreams and imagination.

Jim Denomie

What role does the moon play in your paintings?

Often the moon merely emphasizes the nite time portrayal of my spiritual paintings. For me it is the nite time when the magic and the mystical happen. And it is my preferred time to paint or sketch as I am almost always out in my studio until 2 or 3am, or later.

I love to sketch. I love seeing other artists’ sketches. Children’s drawings are the absolute best, because their abstractions, inventions and raw honesty just blow me away.

I always carry a sketchbook with me wherever I go, especially when I travel. To me, drawing or sketching is a form of note taking. It is a method of recording the lucid or fragmented thoughts passing through my mind, conscious or dreaming. Sometimes I see a story, sometimes a phrase, or sometimes just a title. It’s also a camera photographing the weird landscape (my imagination) that I dare to allow myself to journey through. It is a process where I try to do some fearless exploration. But almost always, the scenes in my mind are only temporary, fleeting, unexpected images of dreams, imagination and memories. Frequent sketching allows me to capture some of those images and to discover the ones that are unseen.

When I was an art student at the University of Minnesota, I met a musician playing his guitar and singing songs for tips on the sidewalks in Dinkytown. His name was Jerry Rau. Jerry was a Vietnam vet and a gentle soul, and he and I became friends. One day I mentioned to him about sketching an idea before I forgot it. He told me that he always carries a notebook with him explaining, “You never know when a song will come to you. You think you will remember it, but sometimes when you turn your attention for even a second, they float away, like a dream. If you don’t write it down, it will go to the next songwriter. And if he doesn’t catch it, it goes to the next. And if he doesn’t catch it, they all end up with Bob Dylan.”

Sketching is also a method of exploring. Sometimes being able to see only the beginning of a story, a song, a poem, the artist begins illustrating an idea, not knowing what or where it will lead to. Like a clown who pulls what he thinks is just one handkerchief from his shirt pocket, he pulls out cloth after cloth, one idea leading to another until you have a more complete vision of the story or song.

For some time now, I have thought of my sketches as lyrics to a song and coloring and painting my sketches as putting those words to music. Adding color and the abstraction of loose brushstrokes brings a new dimension of the sketch to life. The drawing becomes a leaping-off point and is eventually abandoned as the artist responds to what is evolving right in front of him/her. While translating a sketch to a painting, the artist starts painting but sometimes begins to experience new inspirations right there at the easel (pulling new or different handkerchiefs from his shirt pocket). These realizations make the process original (again) and the sketch and the painting become two different works of art, each significant. Sometimes I find it necessary to make quick little sketches or studies to assist a painting in progress as new ideas emerge or because I feel the need to alter the composition.

For me, sketching is instrumental for evolving ideas and for understanding the incomplete.

Jim Denomie Sketch Work Rez Rabbit Press

Interview by Mitchell Pluto

Leave a Reply