Jean LaMarr’s journey from villain to hero at the Nevada Museum of Art

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As a teenager, Jean LaMarr played the villain in a school play. Not by choice. She’s Native American, and at her high school in Susanville, California, that meant she was typecast as a heel.

LaMarr would become the hero of the production. When the other kids forgot their lines — which she had also memorized — LaMarr began to dialogue the different roles with herself on stage.

She further recalls being harassed for wearing her traditional buckskins and riding bareback on horseback as part of a town parade. There was the assignment in fourth grade to paint a mural depicting British colonial explorer Sir Francis Drake Christianizing Native Americans after claiming their lands along the Pacific coast for England.

LaMarr only realized years later how racist his treatment was. After all, compared to her mother, Jean LaMarr’s childhood was a fantasy.

LaMarr’s mother was forcibly removed from her home, taken from her parents, and in 1924, at the age of six with her sisters, sent to the federal administration Stewart Indian School in Carson City, NV. Countless other local children suffered the same fate, tens of thousands across the United States. More in Canada.

The bodies of hundreds of indigenous children discovered in mass graves at the site of former Indian Residential Schools in Canada over the summer of 2021 has brought this terror to the mainstream news consciousness in Canada and America as it has never been before. There is no reason to think that the treatment of Native children in American residential schools was any better than that experienced in Canada where the bodies continue to be found in large numbers.

The tragedy of the residential schools has always been at the center of Aboriginal concerns. The generational trauma continues today.

“I want people to understand how much we feel bad for our ancestors and all those people who didn’t survive,” LaMarr told Forbes.com. “We want people to empathize with us and understand why we are suffering so badly. They need to understand the horrible loneliness the children went through. My mom talked about (how) all the girls cried every night – every night – every night cried.

Visitors to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno can see LaMarr’s interpretation of her mother’s experience in labor, We danced, we sang, until the matron arrived, which recounts her mother’s experience of being forced to scrub Stewart’s toilet with a toothbrush. The girls sang and danced together to pass the time until a strict matron approached.

It is among more than 100 paintings, prints and sculptures spanning five decades of art and activism on view from January 29 to May 29, 2022, during “The Art of Jean LaMarr”, a major retrospective.

LaMarr (Northern Paiute/Pit River, b. 1945) organizes We danced, we sang, until the matron arrived as a performance piece to be presented at the exhibition with songs and dances. LaMarr will spare the audience a song passed down from his mother recalling his time at Stewart.

Sung in the Piute way, it ends with “rabbit tripe, rabbit tripe, I’m so hungry I’ll eat rabbit tripe”.

“They were starving all the time,” LaMarr said.

Of those who died in boarding schools, “we want their bones to come home and be buried in their homeland,” she added.

What Jean LaMarr went through as a child, what his mother went through, inspires LaMarr’s commitment to devoting his talent and positivity to Native American children. In 1994, she moved from San Francisco to the Susanville Indian Rancheria permanently to reconnect with her homeland and give back to her community. She established the Native American Graphics Workshop and studio for Native artists to learn and experiment with printmaking, papermaking, painting, video, and new experimental art forms.

While serving everyone, LaMarr is particularly pleased with how the program has benefited children.

“A lot of Indian kids are afraid to show what they can do because they’ve been criticized so much, they’re embarrassed about it, they’re a little shy about it; I have to compliment them a lot to encourage them because it helps them in school – I tell them, ‘Ignore everything, do your best’. LaMarr said. “We have to maintain culture and traditions; I try to instill pride in these children who work with me. Proud of who they are. Proud to be an American Indian. Proud of what they can create.

LaMarr only had one child herself. She wishes she had more, but growing up and as a young woman, she listened to people who wondered why poor Native Americans had so many. Instead, she “adopted” children around her.

LaMarr continues to play the hero role.

Some of the children join his Mean Jean Mural Machine project which teaches young people how to paint murals. At 76 and needing the help of a cane to get around, LaMarr can no longer scale the scaffolding and ladders needed for a muralist, so she passes on the skill she considers vitally important. .

“We need murals all over California” sharing Indigenous stories and reminding non-Natives that Indigenous peoples continue to persist, she says. An unwavering commitment to “rejecting the idea of ​​the extinct American Indian” has long served as the essence of LaMarr’s artistic creation.

His method of spreading this message is through what LaMarr describes as “communication art” – prints, posters, murals – works of art designed to be seen by large audiences outside of museums and galleries. She learned this strategy from Chicanx artists she met in the Bay Area. After graduating from high school in 1964, LaMarr moved to San Jose as part of the Indian Relocation Act which encouraged Native Americans to leave traditional lands and assimilate into the general population of urban areas.

At San Jose City College and then UC Berkeley in the 1970s, she befriended artists and professors engaged in Chicanx causes and political issues, learning about the Mexican mural movement, leading her to deeper engagement and exposure to graphic printmaking and public mural techniques. .

She saw the artists of Chicanx strengthen their presence in society by painting murals as widely as possible.

At the same time, she immersed herself in indigenous activism. She participated in protests during the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in San Francisco in 1970. She participated in protests during the occupation of Pit River in Shasta County the same year when Native Americans challenged land claims by Pacific Gas & Electric and the federal government.

Politics merged with art in his life for good at Berkeley where questioning authority was encouraged. She still vividly remembers seeing a student challenge an art history professor during her graduate studies and the impact it had on her.

“I was so used to cowering in power – if there was something about me, I would accept it,” LaMarr said. “Then I realized I had a voice and I was shocked to see that. I finally realized I had a voice and I could share my own opinion and make up my own mind.

What she didn’t take away from Berkeley was the European abstraction and modernism championed by her teachers. To do well in her classes while staying true to herself, she would submit abstract paintings for grades, then bring them home to use as a background to put “the real stuff” in – depictions of members of the family, elders, friends, memories of Susanville, images that would have been perceived as “folk art” by the instructors.

Fifty years later, Indigenous peoples continue to populate LaMarr’s works, his central message being their historic and ongoing treatment. This treatment has come a long way since the days of the residential schools, it has an equally long way to go before it achieves equality with white people.

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