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Ojibwe artist follows his spirit home to paint

Duluth's Sam Zimmerman has a new mural at Voyageurs National Park and a new book of his Ojibwe images.

Ojibwe artist Sam Zimmerman adds purple to the deep blue paint already on his canvas
Ojibwe artist Sam Zimmerman adds purple to the deep-blue paint already on his canvas as he mixes tones to get a color he likes while working on a northern lights background for a piece in the studio in Duluth on July 29.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Sam Zimmerman remembers the puzzled looks he received when applying for a high-level administrative position with an East Coast school district a few years ago.

Zimmerman had stipulated that he needed time off during holidays to return to the Grand Portage Reservation on Lake Superior, where generations of his ancestors had lived. He also asked for time off to return for the Grand Portage Rendezvous each summer. And then he asked for more time off to return for the tribe’s moose hunting season each fall.

“They didn’t know what to think about me demanding time to go moose hunting,” Zimmerman said with a laugh. “But my grandfather taught me to moose hunt and it’s such a huge part of the culture at Portage.”

Giiwedino-Manidoog / Spirits of the North mural at Voyageurs National Park
"Giiwedino-Manidoog / Spirits of the North" is a mural by Duluth painter Sam Zimmerman created during his residency this summer at Voyageurs National Park. In addition to land mammals, birds and fish of the north country, the painting features 16,866 stars, one for every day the park had been open to the public at the mural's unveiling. The mural is on display at the park's Rainy Lake Visitors Center through August and will stay in the park permanently.
Contributed / Sam Zimmerman, Crane Superior Studio

Zimmerman got the job. But it was just another step up the ladder in an East Coast career that was keeping him away from his northern Minnesota roots, keeping him away from from his Ojibwe culture, keeping him from finding his true spirit as an artist, keeping him from the outdoors and animals and fish and Lake Superior, from the nature that now nurtures his soul every day.

“Those trips back to Grand Portage were what sustained me for nearly 20 years. But, ultimately, I realized that just coming back to visit wasn’t enough. ... I needed to go home to stay,” Zimmerman said while painting in his studio in Duluth's Denfeld neighborhood.

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So when Zimmerman walked away from a rising star career in special education administration, he left as the head of special education for the state of New York’s Department of Education, to live in Duluth and paint.

He hasn’t looked back since.

copy of Sam Zimmerman’s book “Following My Spirit Home” rests on a bench in his studio
A copy of Sam Zimmerman’s book, “Following My Spirit Home."
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

This summer, Zimmerman, 44, has a new book of his paintings published, a new mural hanging at Voyageurs National Park and art hanging in galleries in Duluth and Grand Marais. He’s now a rising star in the world of native art and culture. His work features moose, night skyscapes, loons and wolves as well as Northland fish, flowers and trees — many of them derived from the oral history passed on from the elders, and many of them the clan animals that represent Ojibwe families.

He paints under the studio name Crane Superior, the "crane" part from his family’s Ojibwe clan and "Superior" from the lake that inspires his work.

“To be able to be here and be on the shore of Superior and paint what’s here. … This is an amazing place,” Zimmerman said.

Jeff Schmidt, owner of Lizzards Art Gallery in Duluth, said he was impressed by Zimmerman even before seeing his artwork.

“He has a very big personality. He has that spark ... kind of a sass to him,” Schmidt said. “But his work also filled a niche that we didn’t have here.”

Art by Sam Zimmerman, Crane Superior, wolf
Duluth artist Sam Zimmerman picked this piece of a wolf. "Ma'iingan, Spirit of the Chase," as one of his favorites. "I had visited with the mushers and their dogs during the Beargrease (Sled Dog Marathon.) I wanted to capture the spirits of the dogs as they ran along the Lake Superior shore," he said.
Contributed / Crane Superior

Schmidt described Zimmerman’s paintings as based on the Ojibwe Woodland style of painting, but with a unique flare.

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“Almost every piece of his work has a meaning to it. There’s a deeper story behind it. ... Like the number of stars he puts in the night sky signifies something. Or the number of trees might be how many children an elder had,” Schmidt said. “He always paints his background first and even those landscapes — before he paints the actual subject, the wolf or bear or the moose or whatever — are beautiful on their own.”

Studied art, then another direction

Zimmerman moved around a lot as a child, the son of a career Army man, Tracy Zimmerman, a Grand Portage Ojibwe. The family eventually ended up in New York, where Sam graduated from high school in Salamanca. He thought for a time that he was going to be a lawyer, but he gravitated toward art and painting and earned his degree in studio art from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“I wanted to be that weird guy in the basement of a museum restoring all the famous artwork,” Zimmerman said.

 Art by Sam Zimmerman, Crane Superior, Lynx, otter and others
Sam Zimmerman picked this piece, "Ojiig with Nigig, Bizhiw, and Gwiingwawaage," as one of his favorites. "This was my first non-mural constellation piece that was created to share star teachings with school communities and currently is my most intense detailing in any of my work," Zimmerman said.
Contributed / Crane Superior / Jeff Frey

Instead, he became an art teacher in the heart of New York City. His experiences with children with disabilities moved him to venture into special education. He rose up the ranks of the New York City school district and quickly was overseeing special ed programs across 10 schools in the Bronx, and then dozens of schools across New York City, then across the state.

Zimmerman lectured abroad. He helped found schools in Africa. By 2015, at age 38, he was deputy head of schools in Brooklyn with 130,000 students under his care.

Yet, despite his success in his role as an educator and administrator and advocate, Zimmerman felt a constant tug to do something else somewhere else.

“I didn’t paint for almost 20 years … with everything I was doing in life, there was no space for art,’’ Zimmerman said. “I was doing good work, good things, and doing it well … but it was destroying my spirit.”

Zimmerman said it was on trips to northern Minnesota that others close to him saw his burden.

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“Every time I’d see my dad, he would ask me how I was doing, ask me if I was happy ... It’s like he knew before I did that it was killing me,’’ Zimmerman said.

Ojibwe artist Sam Zimmerman holds onto a painting of a Luna moth
Sam Zimmerman holds onto a painting of a luna moth on a slice of wood.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

While Zimmerman didn’t grow up in Minnesota, he started visiting relatives at Grand Portage when he was 12. He went back every year, sometimes multiple times, and bonded with his his father’s father and other relatives and elders with Grand Portage Band roots.

“My grandfather told me stories of growing up in Grand Portage and Mineral Center. ... He told me about the people I was from, gave me this sense of place,’’ Zimmerman said. “He was my favorite person.”

Ojibwe artist Sam Zimmerman uses a fan brush to mix purple paint in with the wet deep blue tones on the canvas
Sam Zimmerman uses a fan brush to mix purple paint in with the wet, deep-blue tones on his canvas.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Those stories continue to be the basis for Zimmerman’s work. His paintings focus on the outdoors and nature and are often laced with Ojibwe lore, culture and spirit with multiple themes running across the canvas.

At age 17, he came out to both parents as gay. While his Italian mother and her family rejected him, he grew closer to his Ojibwe relatives.

“My grandfather always knew I was different,’’ Zimmerman noted. “When I told him, he said, 'Great, you are Two Spirited.’ It was something to be celebrated. He shared this view with others.

“Minnesota was always home because it was where I was most accepted,” he added.

Sugarbush maple syrup camp is the best time to be outdoors for Ojibwe photographer Vern Northrup and his family.

But it was on his 40th birthday vacation to Alaska in 2018 with his best friend, when he was immersed in the Native art of first nations and Inuit people and immersed in the scenery of the far north country, that he realized it was time to go home, even though home for him was a place he had never lived before.

He also realized that it was time for him to paint again.

“Everyone had forgotten that I was an artist before everything else,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone but me.”

In July 2019, Zimmerman returned to Minnesota, eventually found a house he liked in western Duluth that he purchased, and settled in to stay. He started painting constantly, more than 300 original works over the past three years.

080622.o.dnt.ObjiweArtist3.jpg
Artist Sam Zimmerman holds a paint tray as he takes a break from painting while he talks about his former life living in New York City.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“I didn’t paint for nearly two decades. I have some catching up to do,’’ Zimmerman said. “‘All of these paintings are inspired by my being home.”

Just as the COVID-19 lockdown was hitting in 2020, Zimmerman landed a book deal with Duluth-based, Native-owned Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing. The book, released this summer, features more than 80 of Zimmerman’s colorful images, many of fish and wildlife and Ojibwe people. But it also features Ojibwe stories, mostly based on tales his grandfather told him or that he learned around the fire each summer at the Grand Portage Rendezvous.

“It’s a chapter book. Not like one you’d sit down to read, but because each chapter has a theme,” Zimmerman said.

Each image illustrates a story of Ojibwe culture with the words to the story printed in English and Ojibwemowin.

“Just getting the words right, with every (Ojibwe band) having a different dialect, and then getting the elders to agree on the details … it was really quite a process,” Zimmerman said. “But this book got me through COVID.”

A painting of a moose hangs in the studio of Ojibwe artist Sam Zimmerman
A painting of a moose hangs in the studio of Ojibwe artist Sam Zimmerman in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

There are elements of his grandfather’s stories in much of his work.

“I try to paint a moose every year in honor of my grandfather,” Zimmerman said, pointing to a moose painting hanging in his studio. “This one has 103 stars in the sky because it would have been his 103rd birthday.”

Garage studio

Zimmerman does much of his painting in a converted stall of his alley garage, often with the big door open to make him feel more outdoors.

Ojibwe artist Sam Zimmerman is surrounded by artwork and inspiration
Sam Zimmerman is surrounded by artwork and inspiration as he works on a piece in the garage of his Duluth home.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Almost all of my work is a celebration of Ojibwe culture, or the natural world, or both,” he said.

He’s tending a garden to grow traditional plants and medicines like sage and sweetgrass and tobacco. He has a cedar tree growing in the backyard. The stones under his fire pit, from Grand Portage, form a medicine wheel. There are lilacs transplanted from his great grandmother’s home in Chippewa City, a long-removed settlement just outside Grand Marais.

“She’s here with me,” Zimmerman said.

Sam Zimmerman talks about being able to grow things in his own garden
Sam Zimmerman talks about being able to grow things in his own garden, not something he could do living in New York City.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Even when he’s busy painting, he takes time to see the natural world around him, like a bee buzzing in his raspberry patch.

“I saw it and went up to it and said 'hello' little bee. And it’s almost as if it wanted me to paint it, so I did,” Zimmerman said.

He hasn’t left the world of education. He served for a time as an administrator at Harbor City International School in Duluth and is starting a new position with the Minnesota Department of Education developing Native American curriculum. Zimmerman will continue to live in Duluth and make regular trips up the North Shore to visit his ancestral homeland. And he will continue to paint — pieces big and small, public and private.

Artist Sam Zimmerman holds a paintbrush while he talks about living in New York City
Artist Sam Zimmerman holds a paintbrush in his studio.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

In summer 2020, Zimmerman signed on to paint his most public project to that point: Grand Marais city trash cans. He transformed the metal bins into works of art festooned with brightly colored fish, animals and birds with each critter’s name written in English and Ojibwemowin.

This summer, the Voyageurs Conservancy and the National Park Service hired Zimmerman as a resident artist for a week in June when he painted a mural, "Giiwedino-Manidoog, Spirits of the North." The three-panel work illustrates the native wildlife and fish of the border lakes region. Zimmerman added 16,866 stars to the sky on the mural, one for every day Voyageurs National Park had been open to the public.

“I wanted people to not only appreciate how wonderful the fish and wildlife and the water and the night sky are at (Voyageurs National Park), but to also for them to understand that the Ojibwe people were here with the same animals and the same lakes and the same sky long before any white fur trader showed up,” Zimmerman said. “I try to put meaning like that in everything I do.”

Pages opened to a story about Sam Zimmerman’s grandfather
Pages opened to a story about Sam Zimmerman’s grandfather are printed in Ojibwemowin and English next to the painting about the story in a copy of Zimmerman’s book, “Following My Spirit Home.”
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

About the new book

Sam Zimmerman's new illustrated Ojibwe storybook, “Following My Spirit Home,’’ is a coffee-table style book of his artwork with stories for each piece written in English and Ojibwemowin. It’s published by Duluth-based Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing, $49.95. It is available at local bookstores, including Zenith Bookstore, Lizards Gallery and Indigenous First Gift Shop in Duluth, Superior Finds in Two Harbors, and Joy and Company and Drury Lane Bookstore in Grand Marais, and online at blackbearsandblueberries.com .

Zimmerman has upcoming book talks/signings:

  • Sept. 9 at Johnson Heritage Center and Museum in Grand Marais, 5-7 p.m.
  • Oct. 8 at Chik Wauk Museum & Nature Center on Saganaga Lake, 2-3 p.m.
  • Nov. 1 at Lake Superior College in Duluth, noon-1 p.m.
  • Nov. 10 at the Virginia Public Library, noon-1 p.m.

Voyageurs mural

Sam Zimmerman’s mural, "Giiwedino-Manidoog / Spirits of the North," will be on display through August at the Rainy Lake Visitor’s Center at Voyageurs National Park and is expected to be on permanent display at the historic Ash River Visitor’s Center in the park.

September showing

Sam Zimmerman's Ojibwe artwork will be on display during September at the Johnson Heritage Post and Gallery in Grand Marais, cookcountyhistory.org/johnson-heritage-post-art-gallery.

More on Crane Superior

Find Sam Zimmerman's work under his studio name, Crane Superior, at Lizzards Art Gallery and at the American Indian Community Housing Organization gift shop in Duluth, and at Joy and Company in Grand Marais.

Follow Zimmerman on Facebook and Instagram @CraneSuperior or email him at CraneSuperiorStudio@gmail.com .

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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