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LAYERS OF MEANING: Anishinaabe artist adds personal stories, modern touch to traditional look

Anishinaabe artist Leah Yellowbird talks about her art recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 5
Anishinaabe artist Leah Yellowbird’s “Wolf” is one of the pieces that will be in her exhibit at the American Indian Community Housing galleries beginning June 17. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 5
Leah Yellowbird’s piece “For The Love of Florence.” (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)3 / 5
Leah Yellowbird’s “For The Love of Marilyn” sits ready for hanging for the artist’s upcoming show. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)4 / 5
Leah Yellowbird stands beside one of her artworks, a decorated mannequin that holds her business cards. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)5 / 5

Leah Yellowbird wants you to touch her paintings. In fact, she isn’t sure how you could look at them and not.

“I want you to touch the squirrel,” she said during a recent visit to American Indian Community Housing, where much of her work hangs, dangles, pokes and, oddly enough, stands humanlike.

The squirrel was made from a series of brush-point dots. Its eyeballs are layers upon layers of acrylic paint, three-dimensional, like glassy beads. It took Yellowbird four or five days to create the aesthetic, she said, just a small part of a painting created in her signature style. Rows of dots that create patterns of nature imagery, the night sky and portraits. And they all look like scenes sewn in beadwork, an urban approach to a traditional craft.

“I’m laying each one of these dots down as if I’m doing it on leather,” Yellowbird said.

Yellowbird will show about 20 new touchable paintings — she’s keeping the animals close to the ground, accessible to kid fingers — during an exhibition of her work, which opens at 5:30 p.m. June 17 at AICHO. Her art will be in Trepanier Hall and, at Gimaajii Gallery, there will be multimedia pieces by Laura Youngbird, a North Dakota-based artist and teacher whose work considers Native American assimilation and the influences of Christianity on spirituality, according to her website.

Taking cues from beadwork

Five years ago, Yellowbird was the assistant to the executive director at a food shelf in International Falls. After a rough period in her personal life that included a death and the end of a relationship, Yellowbird moved to Grand Rapids and took a break from everything.

“That first year, I laid around and got a tan,” she said. “I mellowed out.”

Yellowbird was already an artist, but her partner Jeff Schroeder suggested she start painting. So she did, taking her cues from the beadwork she was already creating.

The process shook something loose, and then the ideas were endless. Now she paints for 12 hours a day, moving between a few different pieces, in a loft studio space at Old Central School in Grand Rapids.

“As soon as I started feeling, it came in loads and waves,” she said. “I have two years of sh— in my head.”

The ideas come to her in dreams, Yellowbird said.

“I know this sounds like craziness,” she said. “I think these things have been given to me. I get it, I wake up, I have it, it’s completed. If I quit producing them, I’d quit receiving them. I’m not going to call them visions. I just don’t think it’s really coming from me. … It’s definitely ancestors.”

Her darkest secrets

Yellowbird got immediate attention for her work. Her first bead-painting “For the Love of Florence,” a piece created in memory of a late favorite aunt, was awarded first prize at Art on the Plains XII, a regional juried art exhibition she entered before she knew what “juried” meant.

At first, Yellowbird was reluctant to show her paintings. She likened the process to walking into a room full of strangers who are privy to her darkest secrets.

So she mingled with art aficionados at shows, eavesdropped, and found that their interpretations did not match her intent. It was liberating, she said.

No one instinctively knows that the chokecherries in one of her fox paintings represent the amount of documented deaths on the Trail of Tears. And those little black fish mingling in the back of “Dance of the Turtles” are a metaphor for the unnoticed people who connect us all.

The monochromatic birds layered in the background of another painting: “That’s kind of how I feel most of the time,” she said. “I’m there, but I’m not there, you know? When you go somewhere and you feel real shadowy.”

There is a wolf with a thick gray fog coming from its mouth, a dialogue balloon or a burst of air. It took 20 coats to create the puffiness.

“The first time you’re outside and you can see your breath,” she said. “But you can’t really touch it. That’s what this is.”

The gray paint swirls between colorful flowers linked by stems. He’s howling in Anishinaabe, Yellowbird said.

The card holder

Yellowbird’s beady dots run from the paintings to other available surfaces. She has created designs on shoes, a project she plans to share with local teens. Her leather purse is decorated with patterns, and bead earrings hang to her shoulders. Her straw hat has a beaded flower above the brim.

Schroeder said Yellowbird has, at home, made her bead designs on spearing decoys named Rhoda and Marla.

A piece that reveals her humor — and her attention to detail: An almost 6-foot-tall mannequin covered with tattoo-like bead patterns. A butterfly spans her chest like lungs. Diamond shapes round her waist like a ceremonial dance belt. Wolves frame her mouth and “Love is for the poor” is written across her side. Her nails are painted, both toes and fingers, and even the places you can’t see are covered. Yellowbird’s signature is beneath her right foot.

“I made this to hold my business cards,” she said.

The leather rectangles stamped with her contact information sit in the mannequin’s open, outstretched hand. You can take one.

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