by Sheila Regan   January 26, 2011

Sheila Regan profiles Frank Big Bear upon his recent return to painting, the fruits of which are now on view in All My Relations' new gallery space on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.
Frank Big Bear, "Autumn's Wind," acrylic, 2010
Frank Big Bear, "Autumn's Wind," acrylic, 2010
Courtesy of All My Relations Gallery and the artist

LAST WEEKEND, ALL MY RELATIONS ART GALLERY CELEBRATED their grand opening on Franklin Avenue with Frank Big Bear: From the Rez, to the Hood, to the Lake. This exhibition marks the Anishinaabe artist's first painting show since the 1970s when the artist was 23 years old.

"I stopped painting, because I was working," Big Bear says simply; he drove a cab for 31 years, and when he retired in 2006, he started painting again. "In 2006, I gave myself three years to learn how to paint," he explains. "You can't really teach this stuff... you have to practice. You do it until you get good, or you think you're good."

"Painting, for me, is completely different from drawing," he says, because when he paints, there's a larger area of color. "My drawings are real intricate -- people get up real close to look at them. My paintings are different... you can see them better if you stand back."

He says the main reason for the long hiatus from painting had to do with a simple lack of time. "I had to drive a cab," he says. "I was getting up at two or three in the morning, and I had to squeeze in my art work in between." But during the years he wasn't painting, he did work with colored pencils. And every once in a while, he'd get a grant and quit for a while, to concentrate on his artwork.

"It was torture," Big Bear says of those years, and not just because it meant time away from his art, but because of the the job itself. Still, he says, he'd rather have that job than a desk job. "Even though [driving a cab] was dangerous, and people were hostile, and the hours were terrible -- you have to get up. Most people can't even get up at nine o'clock. It teaches you discipline." And Big Bear says he always set goals for himself during his years as a driver. Not big objectives, but little ones, because "when I made those goals, it wasn't so bad." He goes on: "My 30s and 40s were a rough time for me. I wish I could go back, but I'm glad I finished some important work back then -- probably, they're not important to anyone else but me, but I'm glad I found the time do them."

Back in the 60s, he spent part of his childhood on the White Earth reservation and part of his growing-up years on a farm in the Fargo Moorhead area. "We lived good when my dad was sober," Big Bear remembers, "but living on that reservation was tough." And he says some of the memories he has had as a child, the traumatic experiences, in particular, show up in his work.

When he was 14, Big Bear came to visit the Twin Cities, and while he was there, he went to see artwork in Saint Paul. It was the first time he had seen contemporary art; he recalls that it was an exhibition of abstract expressionist paintings. "I thought it was the greatest work in the world," he recalls. When he was 16, he moved to Minneapolis and attended North High School, where he started painting for the first time. He remembers one teacher in particular, Mrs. Mack, who taught him about art and art history.

In the 1970s, Big Bear raised his kids in the Phillips neighborhood, just a block away from the current site of the All My Relations gallery. But after his children grew up, and he retired, he decided to move away; after so many years driving around the Twin Cities -- 100-200 miles a day -- he wanted to escape to someplace quieter. Now that he's retired and living up in Duluth, with a view of the lake and painting full-time, he says he has survivor's guilt. "It's like I'm having the best time in my life."

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Now that he's retired and living up in Duluth, with a view of the lake and painting full-time, he says he has survivor's guilt. "It's like I'm having the best time in my life."

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The fruit of his current labors, Big Bear's paintings are vibrantly colored, made up of geometric shapes which come together to create a narrative. The subjects in his paintings are based on people he knows, often family members or people he spends a great deal of time with. Sometimes, he says he begins working on a painting and it just turns into the person that he is thinking about. There's a story behind each of Big Bear's pieces -- "all my paintings mean something personal to me," he says  -- and often the narrative exists on more than one level.

For example, in Trapped in Paradox (Emancipation of Superman), a self-portrait of Big Bear's face hovers at the bottom of the canvas, overlaid by another abstract figure whose head may or may not be floating outside a window. Skulls, a teddy bear, animals, and other ominous symbols surround the two figures, and a light bulb hangs overhead. The work is personal, but it also speaks to a greater Native American experience. The same is true for Dark Horse (Drifting through Space and Time), where a Native American figure sits on an apparently wild horse; the warrior has blood on his weapon. "A lot of people say my work is spooky," Big Bear remarks, but "I don't intentionally make it spooky."

Even though his subjects are real people and places, Big Bear rarely works from photographs. "Everybody can learn how to copy stuff," he says. "You gotta have the passion for it. You have to be a starving artist for a while, sometimes all your life. You gotta tell yourself nothing will ever happen. Your passion for your art is what keeps you going."

*****

In addition to Frank Big Bear's return to painting, this exhibition marks another return -- that of All My Relations gallery to Franklin Avenue. Last year, All My Relations had to move from Ancient Traders' space when it closed. In just a short time, finding a new home for the gallery space became an initiative of the Native American Community Development Institute, part of NACDI's efforts to revitalize Franklin Avenue as "The American Indian Cultural Corridor". In just one year, NACDI and All My Relations were able to raise the funds needed to complete move, using many volunteers from the community and a team of Native contractors and workers, as well as pro-bono design work by Anishinaabe architect Sam Olbekson, from Meyer Scherer and Rockcastle Architecture and Interior Design.

"It's been extraordinary," Heid Erdrich, the gallery's curator says. "There's been so much support from the community." Erdrich seemed relaxed just days before the grand opening: "This is one of the easiest openings we've ever had." Erdrich, an acclaimed writer in her own right, was so excited by Big Bear's new work that she composed a poem for him, which will appear next to one of his paintings in the exhibition.  

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Exhibition details:

Frank Big Bear Paintings: From the Rez, to the Hood, to the Lake will be on view in the new All My Relations gallery in Minneapolis through February 28.

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About the author: Sheila Regan is a freelance writer and theater artist living in Minneapolis.  She frequently writes for TC Daily Planet, Patch.com, and contributes to City Pages' "Dressing Room" blog, among other publications.