By Dottie Indyke
If you’re a fan of author Louise Erdrich, you’re probably familiar with Joe Geshick’s symbolic artwork. Geshick has illustrated the covers of five of her books, including The Antelope Wife. Both the author and the artist are of Ojibway heritage, both live in Minnesota, and both are inspired by their heritage in their creative endeavors. For Geshick, this means interpreting traditional Indian ceremonies in paintings that portray the spirit and earth worlds with stylized figures, earth-toned colors, and geometric symmetry.
“I don’t paint the actual ceremonies,” Geshick points out. “I’m talking about my own experiences taking part in the ceremonies.” These gatherings include the annual Sundance Ceremony at Greengrass, SD, where he’s danced. Geshick’s artworks portray such subjects as deer spirit helper, sacred circle, and bear clan, and he’s very careful about what goes in a painting and what doesn’t. “I refuse to use the pipe or the medicine bundles—it’s very disrespectful. These are instructions that were handed down to us—just use it for ceremonies,” he says.
Geshick, who is of the Ojibway moose clan, lives in far northern Minnesota on the outskirts of the town of Ely, just 30 miles from the Canadian border. It’s an area where nature and culture intertwine, and Geshick is as connected to the woods and lakes as anyone: His mom grew up here near Basswood Lake in an Indian village, and he fishes for walleye and trout on the many nearby lakes. He used to hunt, but, he says, “I can’t hunt deer anymore because a spirit of a deer helped me out one time in a ceremony.”
He paints in a garage that he’s converted into a studio and typically spends two or three weeks sketching a composition before he embarks on a painting. Using a palette knife or brush, he emphasizes such earth tones as greens, blues, browns, yellows, and grays, adding red sparingly, usually on his figures’ garments. His paintings are full of symbolism, with the circles representing God, the vertical lines and columns signifying a connection between the earth and sky, and thin, wavy lines showing the flow of communication between people, animals, and earth. “What I like to do is use a lot of paint and a lot of texture, and I like the colors to interact with each other with a purpose, and that brings out the spiritual quality of the work,” he explains.
Born near Faribault, MN, Geshick grew up on the Ojibways’ Nett Lake Reservation, hunting and fishing with his brothers. His mom would smoke the fish, tan the hides, and make birch-bark baskets. Still, it was a struggle for her to support the family, and she often found herself on welfare.
So they moved to Canyon, MN, to work as lumberjacks. Then, when his sister moved to Duluth, Geshick followed and began painting at age 19. He landed briefly in the Stillwater Prison when he fell in with a bad crowd, then he followed his sister to Chicago, and then again to New York City in 1979. This is where his career finally gelled when he enrolled in the Art Students League, learning to paint landscapes and still lifes. A job making pen-and-ink drawings of artifacts at the Museum of the American Indian got him back in touch with his heritage.
And that motivated him take off for Reno, NV, in 1985, on a spiritual quest to study with a Sioux medicine man. There, he began participating in Indian ceremonies and started painting in his current style as well as teaching art. In 1990, Geshick relocated again to the Lac La Croix reservation in Ontario, Canada, where he had relatives; he found work teaching art to elementary schoolers and adults while exploring his family’s heritage.
From Canada he returned full circle to northern Minnesota, settling in Ely with his wife LeAnn, a weaver, and moving into a house that has nothing but woods and lakes beyond it. “It’s very connecting to nature and peace and quiet, and we have relatives in this area. It’s a place where a person can go out and experience the true spiritual quality of our ceremonies. We do tobacco ceremonies and pipe ceremonies every morning,” says Geshick.
He often spends weeks or months on an artwork, turning out somewhere between six and 18 paintings a year. “My background and my life have been very complicated,” reflects Geshick. “The spirituality helps me a lot. And people who buy my work get a spiritual quality from it.”
Geshick is represented by Warrior’s Work Gallery, Hill City, SD.
Featured in “Native Arts” September 2007