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Tweed curator remembered for her strong advocacy

Karissa White Isaacs, a curator at the Tweed Museum of Art, left a legacy of strong advocacy for Native artists.

Karissa IsaacsWings.jpeg
Dr. Karissa Isaacs Contributed / family of Karissa Isaacs
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Karissa White Isaacs had a passion for representation in art. The late Tweed Museum curator worked to curate and acquire contemporary and historic works of art from Native American artists during her time at the University of Minnesota Duluth museum. White Isaacs, 47, died Dec. 13 after a brief illness. She is remembered by her colleagues and friends as a strong, but kind, advocate.

"There are very, very few Native American curators working in the U.S.," said Wendy Savage, a colleague of White Isaacs from UMD. "To see her succeed in this field at get a prestigious position at the Tweed at a young age was inspiring. She was really concerned that Native artists had a presence at Tweed."

Savage knew White Isaacs as a child, when her parents were attending UMD. White Isaacs was born Aug. 25, 1974, and was the daughter of Lewis and Mary (Grandlouis) White in Duluth. She was a tribal member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation in Wisconsin.

After earning a bachelor's degree from Hamline University, White Isaacs worked as a paralegal with the Indian Child Welfare Law Center in Minneapolis and as a legal assistant in the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. She then pursued a master's in museology from University of Washington-Seattle. After her masters was completed, White Isaacs worked as curator for the new Squaxin Island Tribe's Museum, Library and Research Center where she developed museum policies and exhibits and worked with tribal artists in the Pacific Northwest. White Isaacs then returned to Lac Courte Oreilles to serve at the tribal Cultural Center prior to entering into the University of Minnesota American Studies program, where she earned a Ph.D. in 2013.

"Karissa was a very successful graduate student during her time at the university," wrote her graduate Supervisor Brenda Child in an obituary notice for White Isaacs. "She was adored by her fellow graduate students in American Studies for her professionalism, generosity, and sense of humor. Karissa was a supportive friend and a warm colleague."

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Prior to taking the associate curator position at the Tweed in 2016, she worked as an assistant professor of Native American Studies and the Indigenous Cultures Center Museum coordinator at Northland College in Ashland. Jill Doerfler, professor and department head of American Indian studies at UMD, served on the search committee for the curator position. She knew White Isaacs since graduate school and said she was "excited to see her application."

"She was growing the Tweed's collection of contemporary American Indian art in important and significant ways," Doerfler said. "I currently serve on the Tweed acquisitions committee and really enjoyed learning which pieces she had selected to add to the collection and why at our meetings earlier in the fall. She was committed to supporting and raising the profile of American Indian and other underrepresented artists."

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At the Tweed, White Isaacs curated several significant exhibitions including "Intersections: Contemporary Art From Minnesota-Based Native Artists" in 2018 which featured work from 19 artists and "A Selection of Gashkibidaaganag" about the Ojibwe bandolier bag. Running concurrently with the Intersections exhibition was "Manifest’o" a multimedia installation by artist Jonathan Thunder.
"Working on that project was great," Thunder said. "I still hear great feedback about how that exhibit turned out. I’d like to say that project is how Karissa and I became friends. She had my trust when it came to discussions about art, about life, and we shared a similar humor about things. I miss her. I wish I could chat with her one more time."

Savage and art education professor Alison Aune worked with White Isaacs to develop curriculum based around these exhibitions at the Tweed. The three would also work with area teachers through the "Art with Heart" in-service teacher program to educate and connect area art teachers.

"She had a wonderfully kind way of giving information," Aune said. "She'd help my students, who were art education majors, to get past this fear they sometimes had when teaching about Native art. She taught them how to approach it respectfully."

Recently White Isaacs curated "A Life Well-Painted: The Art of Carl Gawboy," a retrospective showcasing 38 artworks from Bois Forte Anishinaabe/Ojibwe and Finnish artist Carl Gawboy.

"Unfortunately, due to COVID, we weren't able to open to the public during this time," said Tweed director Anja Chavez. "However, Karissa worked with a documentarian to capture the exhibit in a documentary that will be presented in the future. It's a project we're very excited about."

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White Isaacs is remembered by her fellow art museum colleague, Christina Woods, the Duluth Art Institute's executive director, for her advocacy for space for Native artists in the Tweed.

"She really made beautiful space for Anishinaabe artists to be seen as artists first. Being able to create whatever kind of art they want," Woods said. "So often, if you're Native, your art would not be looked at unless it fit some kind of iconography that white people believe belongs to Indigenous culture. She really pushed past that and created a beautiful collection of traditional and contemporary artwork."

A celebration of life event is in the process of being planned for White Isaacs. Details of that celebration are still to be announced.

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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