Native Culture

Above: Charcoal drawing of my Mom titled Native Culture

Being Fearless: Inspired by Art, Nature, and Native Culture

The first time I can remember being recognized as an artist was in second grade at Baraga Elementary School. Our class was working on a performance drama based on “The Three Little Pigs”. My part was to draw the pigs and I got a lot of praise. I was a quiet, shy child but this reinforcement felt good without feeling overly embarrassed. From that point on drawing became an important part of my life and I strove to be the “class artist” in every grade thereafter. 

It was 1973 and “red power” was still strong. My mom moved us to Zeba on the L’Anse Indian reservation when I was starting high school. I suddenly was introduced to native culture: classes, powwows, ceremonies, crafts, hunting and fishing, and most importantly tribe and family connections. All of this exposure led to a new identity and as lasted all my life.

Cheyenne Charcoal

I excelled at art while at L’Anse high school (Class of 78) and always enjoyed the subtle praise of Mr. Eplett, our art teacher. He would walk around our desks while we were working and if he saw something he liked he would just say “hmm hmm” or if we weren’t working hard enough he would command “Drawww”. 

It was during one of these classes when Rev. Jim Rencontre, one of my mentors, who also worked in the schools on native culture programs, brought into class a large charcoal portrait I did based on an Edward Curtis photo-( my oldest existing piece of art thanks to my mom who still has it displayed in her home-see above image); he didn’t tell me he was going to do this; He quietly walked around and showed everyone in class. I was highly pleased and dreadfully uncomfortable at the attention

Just a Few of My Sketchbooks

With Mr. Eplett’s encouragement, I started drawing in a sketchbook, something I do to this day. As a result of I have dozens of them laying around, and they are a wonderful source of inspiration, nostalgia and connection to my past. 

I went on to college at Northern Michigan University and at first studied graphic design but soon realized my strength was drawing so I switched my major to Illustration in my Junior year.  In addition, getting involved in campus native culture and reconnecting with Marquette contacts was also very beneficial to my cultural growth and understanding of me as a person and the natural environment around me. 

After graduation I floundered for a while.  I didn’t have the skills or confidence to move to a city to become an illustrator or artist. Instead I went back to school and got a Master’s Degree in Guidance and Counseling.


 The top sketch is from the first page out of my oldest existing sketchbook, started around 1982. It is my Uncle’s beagle named Snoopy who was a fishing buddy to all of us cousins when we were younger. Uncle Al and Elsie were visiting and snoopy was very lethargic when I drew this sketch and he died soon after. However, when looking at this sketch it brings back many memories from that time in my life.  

I think that without sketching I wouldn’t remember half the stuff I do now.  People sometimes ask me “how do you know the names of so many plants and animals, especially insects?” When I draw them, I will often put notes in with the drawing and this does something that cements the name and natural history of the subject matter in my memory. 

During my human services career, art and exploring my native culture would wax and wane, especially when I was working full time and had two young children at home. 

Shortly after a car accident in the mid-1990s  I had a deeply moving spiritual experience while walking among woodland wildflowers. Also, I was reading a gorgeously illustrated book by Scottish artist-naturalist Keith Brockie.  The wildflowers and the Scottish artist brought about an epiphany of thoughts and feelings; I could draw like this here and right now!  I bought some supplies and especially enjoyed using watercolor pencils. Here are a few studies drawn at Park Cemetery in Marquette from that time; they are in the same sketchbook Snoopy is in.  

Dragonflies and Lilypads
Fungi and Spring Peeper
Muskrat and Painted Turtle

I soon filled up that sketchbook. I also bought Daniel Smith watercolor paints and studied the famous artist naturalist watercolor painters, mostly those from England. I started doing larger works and eventually began exhibiting in the local galleries, selling my work and feeling like this could be a good source of supplementary income.  

However, my career wasn’t going well, and eventually lost my job. This put the brakes on my art career; I was still drawing and painting but lost the business infrastructure I had. A few years later I discovered the photo sharing site Flickr and the reinforcement I got from others about the art I posted, as well as some online sales, gave me the confidence to start the business again. But then the 2008 recession hit, again lost my job, and I moved to Lansing for work. Online sales dried up and once again, I let the art business go.  

Now that retirement is only about five years away, I’ve been refocusing on selling my artwork, starting with attitudinal changes and developing a website myself (quite the challenge but fun). There are new barriers I haven’t had before including health issues and the uncertainty of retirement ahead. 

However, I have more resources now, an encouraging spouse, and a strengthened outlook on life. But just as I’m starting this supplemental career, a pandemic has hit, resulting in a recession. Yet the current crisis has really contributed something I have always struggled to attain; being able to live in the moment and enjoy each day without worrying about the “what ifs”-another words being fearless with my dreams and goals. 

I have highlighted some obstacles in my life that has brought my art business to a standstill. The real barrier however has always been me: low self-confidence, self-esteem, and fear of failure. Yet, I’m undeterred with my goals. I will eventually attract a large following through my website/blog, and set up an art store. I do want my work to be bought by people who get what I’m about, but for now am content with developing this blog and making many more online connections-what better timing is there! Finally, I hope to strengthen my ties to my native culture through my own creativity and establishing more and stronger connections with the online community. 

Pequaming Road Cabins

5 Responses

  1. Inspiring story. I find it so interesting how we (class of 1978) have evolved to this point in our lives-the different skills and talents, passions, lessons learned etc. 😊
    Your artwork is beautiful!
    Lorena (Brisson) Gipp

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