Now exhibiting at PAMA in Brampton, Ontario

Mishibinijima, The Last Artist Standing
(And Still Painting Really Good Stuff)

Manitoulin Island artist James Simon Mishibinijima’s life path is about survival. His mother’s stories of her harrowing past in a residential school and his own survival as one of the last working artists from the first wave of Woodland First Nations’ Art movement

At a time when his contemporaries (i.e Carl Ray,  Arthur Schilling, Carl Beam and Daphne Odjig)  are falling off the mortal coil, 63 year old Mishibinijima continues to be a First Nations inspirational artistic force. His work is in constant demand from arts institutions, private galleries, museums, and currently can be seen at PAMA – Brampton, Ontario’s and Peel Region’s public gallery. A series of his paintings in the current Peel 150 exhibition is entitled “Indian Residential School Paintings”. They tell Mishibinijima’s mother’s stories as she gave them to him and as they revealed themselves in his dreams. Her stories are depicted as pictographs.

“These paintings’ deceptively simple style provide the maximum opportunities for someone experiencing his paintings, particularly children and young adults, to reflect on this tragic chapter in our nation’s history and to understand the pain and trauma that people their own age experienced,” explains author and curator Tom Smart. “Mishibinijima’s paintings are intended to open dialogues about personal and community values, and about the need to confront the truth.”

Mishibinijima began showing his work in 1969 at a time when the world was enthralled with the works of Woodland First Nations’ artists.  Just15 years old, his paintings were being compared with the likes of the older, more established artists, such as the members of the Indian Group of Seven  - Daphne Odig, Alex Javier, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray and American born Joseph Sanches. 


We met back in 1983. I was helping with the promotion of his first exhibition at the Whetung Art Gallery in the Curve Lake First Nation. He was billed as the artist James Simon (although he would usually sign his paintings as Mishibinijima). Growing up in Wikwemikong, one of the few Unceded Territories in Canada, he had been given the name James Alexander Simon by missionaries who found his First Nations’ name Mishibinijima difficult to pronounce.

We didn’t talk much at that seminal art exhibition and sale beyond how crazy busy it was.  There were interviews with the media and a long line of art buyers who made the two-hour trek to the reserve north from Toronto to snap up any James Simon painting before the log gallery walls were covered in red sold stickers!

Busy Busy Busy. Within a year his paintings were touring public galleries in America, Austria and Germany. It wasn’t long before he found that he could best answer the European demand for his work by moving to Germany. He became the toast of Berlin, had an audience with Pope Paul the Second, and was very, very successful.

His following is still strong in Europe but he and wife, Jean,  felt the need to come back to Manitoulin Island on a full-time basis. They now operate the Mishibinijima Private Gallery in their home town of Wikwemikong.

I have been an artist for 48 years and I hope to paint for many more,” he told me when we reconnected three decades later in the PAMA parking lot in Brampton.  “My main objective of being an artist has always been to express concerns about our natural surrounding.  That is how I originated when I had my first show in Toronto back in 1969. The series about my mother’s residential school nightmare, is an important departure from what people might be used to seeing from me, but it is a story that I have to tell … and paint.”

VIDEO - George Socka interviewed the artist during the show's installation. Press here to watch the 2-minute YouTube.


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