The Joy and Trauma of Jim Denomie’s Sketchbooks

By Andrea Carlson

I am not a psychologist, nor a statistician, and less of a philosopher; but the depth of emotion, the dreads of fear, the referees of horrors, and the concentration of self that led me to make this observation, the fear impulse, or perhaps, better said, the (impulses caused) by fear, are stronger, more demanding than either that of love or hunger ...
—Woodrow Keeble1
In a book filled with wondrous images, I couldn’t even begin to understand what brings a person to the text-filled pages. You may have your reasons for being here, but these words will offer their readers no path to reconcile the imagery of Jim Denomie’s pagescapes. Who would even attempt such a feat? I can offer only a little substance, such as descriptions of Denomie’s visual lexicon, or the retelling of personal conversations where I’ve learned about Denomie’s process, but these amount to a personal sketch of the man whom I consider the best artist in the world.

Sometime in 2008 I met up with Jim at Maria’s Cafe in Minneapolis. We were both still glowing from our combined exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts a year before. In our exhibit, entitled New Skins, Denomie had filled a gallery with hundreds of portraits of smiling faces. These beaming folk were painted in colorful impasto. It was an immense exhibition and one that was hard to recover from emotionally. In the aftermath of large exhibitions artists will often torture each other by asking what the next big project is, but I sincerely wanted to know what he was working on. His face lit up, ready to launch. He told me that he had been reading an article about a Dakota man of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation who narrowly survived several gruesome battles in both World War II and the Korean War. He went on to talk about how this man was recruited by the Chicago White Sox only to have his unit called up to serve in WW2. He had been injured five times in combat, including being shot twice in the arm and having 83 pieces of festering shrapnel lodge in his body from “so many grenades coming down on Woody, that it looked like a flock of blackbirds.”2 Despite his five injuries, he was only awarded four Purple Hearts. The statute of limitations for a posthumous Medal of Honor was rewritten in order to award him one. He had survived tuberculosis and lost a portion of his lung and couldn’t speak for the remainder of his life. Jim couldn’t wrap his head around how a man could evade death so many times. In his excitement telling me about this man he felt that he wasn’t recalling everything the man had done, so he urged me to look him up. Which I did. The man was Woodrow “Woody” Keeble. Jim’s joy in finding this man was so overwhelming, so beautiful and infectious. A peripheral reason that Jim was so drawn to Keeble’s story was that Jim hadn’t known about him before. He told me that he was going to make a piece (A Beautiful Hero, Woody Keeble) about Keeble’s life.

I tell this story here because it reveals one of the many fires within Jim Denomie, that is, making images where images are missing is urgent for the underrepresented. He knows that his work offers a platform where he can portray, memorialize, amplify, or even shame those he draws. When he is working on an idea for a painting, while in his sketchbooks, I imagine Denomie ruminating on the phrase “I’ll show ‘em!” and he does. The drawing ‘A Beautiful Hero, Woody Keeble,’ indeed, became a painting in 2009. It depicts Keeble charging into battle on a horse with a prayer stick and a gun, as though Denomie has encased Keeble within the protection of his ancestors at a time when Keeble was in danger and afraid so far from home. What Denomie chooses to depict isn’t always celebratory. When abuse is so rarely discussed, or abstracted by language and spoken of in whispers, it often isn’t believed unless it is seen. Denomie bakes the image of a boarding school, pedophile priest in the minds of his viewers. It happened, it is the truth, and Denomie renders it with the urgency of a first responder. The list of things that Denomie will not permit his viewers to forget is long, and includes: Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s anti-Indigenous views on treaty rights, the misogyny and racism of the Walleye Wars, the Minnesota state seal, the End of the Trail, Andrew Myrick, Edward Curtis, the abuses of Catholicism, the racism of the Bering Land Bridge Theory, and he won’t let you forget the brutality of the Minneapolis Police Department with their “rough rides” and locking Native men in the trunks of their squad cars. If you don’t know, now you know. Denomie’s love of Native People means he depicts the truth of Native People in the trunk of a squad car, but with the dignity of levity. Natives spring out of the trunks like a jack-in-the-box in braids, as if contently waiting there for our moment to strike. Many of Denomie’s Natives are oddly content in the chaotic scenes he has placed them in, smiling, participating, or merely existing in a violent place as common as any other place. The violent landscapes of the No Dakota Access Pipeline protests are filled with police and Water Protectors as in most art and imagery referencing the NoDAPL conflict, but Denomie paints in the often omitted animal witnesses, non-human hapless ones, animals that have cared for us and have adapted their habitats to the margins of colonial industrialization. This seems, at first, to suggest that old violence is being mixed with new violence, but there was no actual break in the violence. It is perpetual. One gets the sense that the violence of the so-called “Indian Wars” springs eternal in a colonized land.

The overt struggles upon the land in Denomie’s NoDAPL sketches are reminiscent of Denomie’s earlier Renegade Series of paintings that depict “Indian Country” as plateaus or buttes because the land stolen by settlers’ are scooped out leaving reservations as platforms. The drawings in this collection re-ingest some of the themes from the paintings and vise versa. They are black and white, skeletal and raw, emotional in their gesture and content, but the colors of the paintings add an atmosphere or skin that is perhaps missing from these pages. One of my favorite descriptions of Denomie’s Renegade paintings, titled Migrations, is in Susan Power’s novel Sacred Wilderness. Power’s fictional characters are discussing the very real exhibitions and paintings of Jim Denomie. Power writes,

    Gladys wandered to a painting she’d seen before. “Wasn’t this one at the Weisman a few years back?” she asked.

 “Yes. We loaned it to them for a show. It did quite a bit of traveling for a few years, even out of the country, which is only fitting since it’s titled Migrations.”

 “Is that right?” Gladys thought the painting was indeed a wonder of movement, even the sky swirled with color--white, green purple, yellow, layered into an unquiet blue. Deep purple hills stood massively in the background, solid, yes, but alert and watchful, capable of lifting their heavy shoulders in a shrug. Buttes rose like trunks of severed trees in the foreground. One of them no butte at all, but Minneapolis’s IDS Tower, the highrise nested among them like a spy from the city. Indian rode flying horses between these worlds, from city to reservations, from tipis to satellite dishes.

 “Did you see his show at Ancient Traders?” Gladys asked.³

Although within a fictional conversation, Power’s inset description of Denomie’s painting is apt. It is also fitting that his work exists in a fictional universe of Power’s book, as many of his visions themselves are pulled through the smoke stack of an oven to another realm. Denomie refers to this place between places as the “creative oven.” His idea is that artists live their lives with our distractions and preoccupations, but we can access this other place, look around and see other artists’ heads in this place too. Drawings of joyous Native People flying or “thirsty” trees and animals weave themselves between these worlds in Denomie’s work. Perhaps Dorthy from Denomie’s Wizard of Oz sketches accessed this place not through an oven, but through a tornado.  These images start to bridge the more fantastic drawings of creativity and sexuality to a place where anything is possible. Fleeting dreams and visions can also become lost in the world filled with golf, lawn mowing, house work, and jobs. Denomie may sketch to hold those people and things that he wishes not to lose. The loss of his sister and her funeral, which is too gutting to discuss here, are among his most powerful works. He carries these images in his sketchbooks the way people carry the names of loved ones tattooed on their skin. Within the pages that log conflict, abuse, humor and resistance, Denomie savors the joyful moments of peace. In the drawing Remote, we see an image of pure resistance, a scene where the most radical thing any of us can think of is Native People enjoying their lives together.

1 Helm, Mary. “Master Sergeant Keeble, Hero,” (Dakota Datebook : May 16, 2005); archived at Wayback Machine ( ; citing a capture dated March 4, 2016.
2 McLeroy, Carrie. “First Sioux to Receive Medal of Honor” posted October 23, 2012. (retrieved July 30, 2020)
3 Power, Susan. Sacred Wilderness, Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 2014:17.