Photos and Story by Michael Meuers
A new “Welcome to Red Lake Nation” sign was erected on Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at the south border on Highway 89 near Seven Clans Casino, Hotel, and Event Center. The “color pencil and ink” artwork was created by Red Lake High School art teacher and artist in his own right, Patrick Desjarlait. The colorful sign measures 10' x 28'.
According to Desjarlait, the tribe wanted to have a new sign that was more inviting, carried a message, and would serve as a symbol of pride for the tribe.
In the artwork entitled “The Council of Clans,” it appears that Migizi has a message - that he has called all of the major clans together. To bring them some news perhaps? Each individual may ask himself or herself, “what is the message of Migizi?” “What message is Migizi bringing to the Anishinaabeg”?
The steel frame sign took some three hours to construct. Seven aluminum panels are attached to a steel frame to form the complete sign. The lettering and artwork are vinyl covered with a coated sealer. Electrified, one light floods the entire 28 foot sign. Red Lake Builders has agreed to pitch in and pick up the expenses of lighting the sign.
Four signs with the same artwork were erected, one each at four border points. In addition to the sign on #89, there are signs at the east near Busy Corners, at the west near Fourtown, and on County Road #6 on the way to Clearbrook.Ray Brenny, Red Lake Gaming Chief Operating Officer, said that Red Lake Gaming jumped at the chance to be involved and foot the bill for the new border signs. “We liked the look of it and thought that a nice colorful welcoming sign would enhance the casino and would be more inviting. But it’s more than that,” said Brenny, “gaming has been successful and we feel it’s important then that gaming gives back to the community, and this is just one way to do that.”
The sign concept was born out of the annual Youth Leadership Conference held this past April at Red Lake High School. At that event, there was discussion on Ojibwe clans and tribal history. High school teacher and artist Desjarlait, and Red Lake Chairman Floyd Jourdain, Jr. were part of that discussion.
“I was interested right away,” said Desjarlait. “Chairman Jourdain and I agreed to hook-up. He liked the first concept I presented, so I gave him the original artwork, signed it, and encouraged him to put it in a glass frame, and to take care of it. You never know, it’s value could increase, especially at that price,” said Desjarlait with a smile. The work was done in color pencil and ink.
Desjarlait then called on the Tim Meyers sign company. In order to make the artwork into a sign, further design was called for. “First Tim blew up the sign, then we sat down and worked on the computer graphics,” remembered Desjarlait. “We decided what words should be included with the sign including font, size, and layout. We worked next on graphics like the floral chain.”
The new welcome sign is more than a sign, it is a work of art. A close inspection of the sign reveals much symbolism which may be why folks are attracted to the sign immediately. “That is the purpose of art, to evoke a feeling, emotion if you will,” explained Desjarlait. “It was really fun doing it.”
Obvious to the observer are Red Lake’s Seven Clans in the same order as they appear on the Red Lake Nation logo. Makwa (Bear) starts on the left, then comes Mikinaak (Turtle), followed by Awazisii (Bullhead), Waabizheshi (Marten), Migizi (Eagle), Ojiig (Fisher), and Ogiishkimanisii (Kingfisher). Migizi speaks, all others turn to listen. The clans are together as one, but each is depicted in their own respective backgrounds or environment.Less obvious at the four corners of the artwork, Animikii (Thunderbird) is depicted four times in colors symbolic of the Medicine Wheel. Left top Animikii is makade (black), lower left he is misko (red), upper right is waabishki (white), and lower right is ozaawi (yellow).
Patrick Desjarlait is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Patrick’s dad was an artist too, Patrick Robert, died in 1972, any artwork signed after 1972 is Patrick Randy.
“I learned a lot from my Dad of course,” said Desjarlait, “our technique is similar. He taught me how he used a base color at first and then put other colors on top. I see myself as carrying on my Dads work. Things have advanced but the principles are still there, but I do have my own style.”
Desjarlait sees his work as a progression from his Dad’s, a continuation. “When I started out I felt I had some big shoes to fill and I worked at that - to be as good a painter. On the other hand, my Dad always wanted to teach at Red Lake school, and I’ve done that, so in some senses I’ve come full circle.”
Regarding similarities between Desjarlait the elder and the younger. “Some people don’t recognize the difference in our artwork,” said Desjarlait. “I’ve found it amusing at times to be told by art owner that they have one of Dad’s pieces and upon inspection, I find that it’s one of mine.”
“Both Dad and I have a shared pride in being Red Lakers,” Desjarlait went on. “I feel I am depicting the people of Red Lake, their customs etc., but again the art - as has the culture - have progressed or changed since my dad was on the scene. My Dad portrayed fishermen fishing for subsistence, I portray fishers as a job, a way of making money. So I move forward as the people do, as culture does. The symbolism has changed too, it grows with the culture but it stays with tradition. This is what the border sign is all about...a progression of culture expressed in art.”
“I’ve had exhibitions across the country but I have participated in no competition. More and more people are asking for “commissioned” pieces. People give me a general idea of who they are, their clan, etc. and I go with it. It pleases me that people do not seem to be disappointed. I’m confident in my work. I’m very happy with what I’m doing and the people seem to be happy with my work.”
“I’d like to do it full time,” poses Desjarlait. “I’m trying to get a surplus of drawings so I can do more exhibitions, but the art seems to fly out the door as I finish. I’m hoping to go full time sometime soon. My wife Teri will be a big part, she’s a great sales woman with a pleasing personality, and she’s good on the computer too. She kinda does all this stuff and lets me draw.”
“I’ll have mixed emotions about giving up teaching, it’s been an important part of my life,” Desjarlait reflected. “Currently, I’m working on some murals at the high school because I want to leave something behind.”