In Memoriam: Jim Denomie

A remembrance of a powerful painter, an inspiring colleague, and a wonderful friend gone too soon
Portrait: Jim Denomie sits in front of some of his colorful paintings
Jim Denomie (Photo by Paul Duncan)

With profound sadness, we mourn the sudden passing of the remarkable artist, alumnus, and our friend, Jim Denomie. Jim’s untimely death to cancer on March 1, 2022, has caused heartbreak amongst his friends and admirers in the Department of Art, as well as in the arts community at large. Jim Denomie, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles band of Ojibwe, is an artist known for his vibrant, colorful palette, dark humor, and unflinching truth-telling narratives of historical and contemporary trauma and injustice, perpetrated on Indigenous peoples by American settler colonialism. His prolific body of work also includes mysterious dreamlike paintings that spoke to his deep spiritual connection to the Earth and otherworldly dimensions. His practice also included inventive sculptures as well as works on paper.

Jim Denomie started his art career in his 30s and studied art at the University of Minnesota, receiving his BFA in art and his BA in American Indian studies in 1995. During his time in the Department of Art, Jim took Associate Professor Emeritus David Feinberg’s color course, a class that Jim often publicly credited as being influential to his artistic development. David shared his reflections on Jim’s career from a recent grant recommendation letter to the Forge Project Foundation Fellowship. “Jim’s powerful unique color in all of his paintings, especially the ones from recent years, mesmerizes the viewer into leaving the present world and becoming a live witness into his painting’s narrative and its environment.”

David also reflects that “as a student, Jim always surprised me with new risky themes for paintings, such as of public bathrooms that had rabbits using the facilities instead of humans and introducing sexual interpretations from nature forms… Through his artwork and further discussions, I knew that I had met a very special artist who was upfront with his personal imagery and not afraid to let the world know about it.”

Tonto and the Lone Ranger, painted in bright purples, blues, and oranges on horseback. Tonto says "You lied to me!" The Lone Ranger replies "Get used to it."

Jim was a frequent and inspirational guest lecturer in art classes in the Department of Art and a staunch supporter of emerging Indigenous artists. David comments that “when Jim gives presentations to organizations or in classrooms of all levels, his natural charisma makes listening and learning a pleasure. He speaks truth directly, not holding anything back and he captures the admiration of audiences with his sense of humor while delivering serious subject matter with knock-out punches… Jim Denomie has become a role model for young Native American students because his artwork presents white and other diverse communities with a profound awareness and empathy towards historical Indian concerns, activism, and the history of abuse in America.”

He received recognition from numerous grants and awards including the Bush Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, and a Native Arts and Culture Foundation National Artist Fellowship. His work has been exhibited locally, nationally, and internationally at venues including the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, Bockley Gallery, the Denver Art Museum, the Heard Museum, and the Walker Art Center, and his work has been featured in international shows in Mexico City, Vienna, and Sao Paulo. The Minneapolis Institute of Art will have a survey exhibition of his work in 2023, and his work will also be included in the upcoming Indigenous Painters exhibition at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in 2024.

Jim Denomie has been represented by the highly respected Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis since 2007. In recent communication from the gallery, Todd Bockley aptly expresses what many of us feel. “Jim was undoubtedly one of the most important painters of his generation, offering a powerful and unmatched vision, one both deeply expressive of his Indigenous roots and compelling for art and non-art viewers alike. But it’s his generosity of spirit, his tireless support for artists, and his kindness to all that I’ll miss most.”

Jim Denomie was truly a beloved member of our community, and we honor his legacy as both an extraordinary artist and human being. Jim’s work and its messages will continue to inspire artists and audiences long into the future. Our hearts go out to Jim’s wife—the accomplished writer Diane Wilson—and to his family and friends.

To learn more about Jim Denomie’s work, please see the recent article in the Star Tribune, A master of color with ‘a killer wit’ by Alicia Eler, and read this 2020 profile piece for MPLSART by Russ White.

To see more of Jim's work, visit the Bockley Gallery or scroll through Jim's Instagram.

Detail from "Attack on Fort Snelling Bar and Grill" by Jim Denomie
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