Patrick DesJarlait (1921-72) was a successful Ojibwe artist devoted to painting scenes of his traditional culture. He grew up on the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, and later made his home in the Twin Cities. Throughout his career he painted iconic scenes of Ojibwe life, such as wild rice harvesting, walleye fishing, and dancers in traditional costumes. DesJarlait explained: “I felt compelled to tell the story of my people through my paintings.”
DesJarlait grew up in a cozy log cabin in the woods near Red Lake, with his parents and 6 brothers and sisters. Like other Ojibwe families of the 1920’s, they didn’t have a lot of money, and lived off the land as much as they could. The climate could be harsh up in northern Minnesota, but each season brought new opportunities. In the spring, many families made a temporary camp and harvested maple syrup. Desjarlait liked to sketch everyone at work, giving him the nickname “little boy with the pencil”. In the fall they harvested wild rice, and throughout the year they fished and hunted. Every summer the Red Lake Ojibwe celebrated with their annual pow-wow, and DesJarlait always looked forward to watching the elders dance in their traditional beaded costumes.
In his early years, DesJarlait developed a strong connection to his land and his people, and expressed this through his many drawings. During elementary and middle school, he was sent to various boarding schools for Native American children, as part of the government’s program to indoctrinate them into mainstream culture. Ojibwe language, games and crafts were prohibited to the children. Desjarlait continued to create drawings during his study time when allowed, although his subject matter was somewhat restricted.
In High School DesJarlait returned home to Red Lake and attended public school. There were no art classes available, but the drama teacher encouraged him to create elaborate set designs for each of their productions. She also helped him obtain a scholarship to study art at Arizona State College in Phoenix. He never imagined a life beyond the reservation, and this opportunity changed his life. At Arizona State he took Art Appreciation classes, along with drawing, painting, and ceramics. He was impressed with the styles of Native American painters of the Southwest, along with other modern artists like Picasso and Rivera.
While he was in Arizona, the U.S. entered World War II. DesJarlait was recruited by the Army to work in a nearby Japanese Relocation Camp. At the camp he organized art classes for the detainees, some of whom were accomplished artists themselves. Next he moved to San Diego, where he worked for the Navy making instructional videos on topics like assembling torpedos. Some of these films were animated, so he began to learn more commercial artistic practices as well. While in San Diego, an art gallery held the first solo exhibition of his paintings.
After the war, Patrick DesJarlait moved back to the Red Lake reservation and married Ramona Needham. Encouraged by his experiences in the SW, he spent the next year trying to create his own unique artistic style. He preferred working with watercolor, but added minimal water to his pigments to achieve a bright color palette. Painting was a slow and painstaking process for him, each brushstroke was small and intentional. The brushstrokes were not blended together, but each remained clearly visible in the final piece. “These individual little strokes were to me like the tiny particles that make up our world and everything in it.” His subject matter focused on the traditional way of life of his people. Red Lake Fishermen and Maple Sugar Time, both dated to 1946, were the first paintings in his new signature style.
After his year at home on the reservation, DesJarlait and his wife moved to the Twin Cities, where they would raise their 5 children. He found a job in advertising, making print ads and commercials. Several well-known logos were his creations, such as the Land O’Lakes logo with the Native American woman and the rendering of the Hamm’s Beer bear, although this was first created by Cleo Hovel. He continued to work on his own paintings in the evenings, and eventually was successful enough to make a living with his art. When he passed away in 1972, he was buried with one of his favorite paint brushes to take with him to the spirit world. Today his work is popular with corporate and private collectors around the country and held in many prestigious museums. His paintings are treasured both for their visual beauty and their cultural record of the Ojibwe people.
(Source: Patrick DesJarlait: Conversations with a Native American Artist. Runestone Press, 1995.)