Indigenous artist Brian Dow finds success ‘painting for the people’

“There are hundreds of times I’ve wanted to give up,” said Dow. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to prove to these people that I can do it,’ because they laughed at me. I thought while you go to work from 8 a.m. to 4:30 a.m., (and) you don’t like your job, I do what I like to do. “

Her laughter didn’t stop him, it made him move on. Now, just seven years later, some of his paintings have been selling for five-figure prices, and earlier this month one of his designs was on display by US Representative Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. in the Chamber of the Congress House in Washington, DC

Originally from Ponemah, Red Lake, Dow came from humble beginnings and has made a name for himself as a visual artist.

Pick up a brush

Dow never imagined where he is now. Several years ago he worked as the custodian and housekeeper at the Palace Casino Hotel in Cass Lake, living from paycheck to paycheck. One day all he knew was that he had to change something.

“I was like, ‘Okay, we have to do something different, what will it be?'” Dow said.

He began to write a manuscript, but soon realized how long it would take to write a book and turned to sketching with white charcoal on black graphite paper. Soon after, he started painting.

“I was scared to pick up the brush,” said Dow. “It was hard, but when I took my first picture I said, ‘Wow, look at this, look what I did.'”

Brian Dow, a Bemidji-based visual artist who paints mostly Anishinaabe-inspired designs, is standing in front of some of his work in his apartment on February 17.  (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Brian Dow, a Bemidji-based visual artist who paints mostly Anishinaabe-inspired designs, is standing in front of some of his work in his apartment on February 17. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Then he started to share his pictures with the world.

Dow remembers exactly the day his career began: January 14, 2014. That day he officially decided that he would become an artist.

It was also when he first sold two of his paintings in a week for nearly $ 500 apiece to women in Colorado and California and realized that art could be a realistic career path for him.

“It was there that I realized that there was money to be made in art,” he remarked.

And where Dow started out as a steward, one of his paintings now hangs in the casino lobby.

He had no formal education or a background in art like many others, he was interested in drawing and art as an adult but didn’t go any further until he reached adulthood. Dow took a year of classes at Leech Lake Tribal College, where he was mentored by art teacher Dewey Goodwin.

Evolving style

Although he has only worked as an artist for a few years, Dow’s style has evolved significantly during this time.

So has his trust.

“As a beginner, I didn’t sign my paper. I didn’t think anyone would want my name on the wall, ”Dow said. That changed quickly.

Dow describes his work as “(painting) my culture on canvas from old chiefs to today with stories.” Motifs of Turtle Island, traditional dancers, and ojibwe flowers are ubiquitous in Dow’s work.

He began with many silhouettes of Native American images. He then switched to more colorful designs and recently experimented with ojibwe flowers.

Brian Dow points out prints of his previous work in his apartment on February 17th.  (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Brian Dow points out prints of his previous work in his apartment on February 17th. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Dow said the floral designs represent the Ojibwe culture and “allow other tribesmen from different tribes to see that you are indigenous people from the forest area” when on pow-wow trails.

The designs are Dow’s take on ancient Ojibwe floral patterns and continue the tradition of keeping a legacy alive for years.

“Before I started painting those old ojibwe flower patterns, I asked an older thug I met at my first sales show if I was okay with painting these patterns from a long time ago,” said Dow. “He told me to paint what I feel. “Don’t care what people say about who you are and what you paint. You are here to paint for the people. ‘”

Dow said he was respectful of his floral designs and did a lot of research to recreate them.

“For many, it’s medicine. If I can do something that many people love, it is medicine for them. I’m only here to give you this if you want to hang a painting in your home or office, or even carry my artwork, ”he said. “I finally created something that thousands of people on Turtle Island love, and I appreciate that.”

The importance of much of his work is rooted in the values ​​of Ojibwe. One of his most respected hanging paintings is in the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis. This painting shows the creation story of Anishinaabe.

Wearable art

In the past few months, more people have seen Dow’s work than ever before. He started working with myBemidji’s Kevin Johnson and printing some of his designs onto face masks.

Dow is proud of one of his latest series of paintings – a series of three ojibwe floral designs on a black background – that he made during Indigenous Peoples Week. These are heavily depicted on masks and shirts.

“I made hoodies, shirts and masks out of them, and they all sold out very quickly. Fortunately, people loved these designs, ”he said. “My first hoodie order sold out within 36 hours.”

His first shipment of masks sold out in less than a day.

Brian Dow wears one of his face masks with an ojibwe-style tobacco leaf design in his apartment ahead of some of his work on February 17th.  (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Brian Dow wears one of his face masks with an ojibwe-style tobacco leaf design in his apartment ahead of some of his work on February 17th. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Dow currently paints all of his paintings in his Bemidji apartment. He looked around the wall of his apartment for some of his prints and originals and said, “This is only a fraction of what I’ve done in my seven years as an artist. There’s a lot of work out there that I’ve never photographed. “

Dow said Johnson at myBemidji contacted him in December to work with an indigenous artist.

“We worked together as a collaboration so my work would be sold in his new business,” he said. “It’s a good partnership there.”

Dow said he was also grateful for working with Jason Schoning of Happy 420 Merch in downtown Bemidji, who worked with him on the launch of his hoodies.

In the pre-COVID-19 era, Dow sold his work on pow wows, trade shows, art exhibitions, and more. Since COVID, his work has exploded on social media.

“That’s where I get all of my sales on social media,” he said. He described it as a “chain reaction”. When a person sees his design on a hoodie and tells someone else about it, he will reach a wider audience than he could have imagined.

Exhibited in thousands

You don’t have to look far to see Dow’s work.

It hangs in medical complexes, tribal colleges, tribal council buildings, elementary and high schools, Bemidji State University, drug and rehab facilities, casinos, a local youth center, clothing, and most importantly the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis.

Dow has also painted billboards in Red Lake and on the borders of the Red Lake Nation, and completed murals at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in Minneapolis and the Thief River Falls Seven Clans Casino Indoor Waterpark.

“I can say that thousands and thousands of people have some of my work,” Dow said, noting that he has sold paintings to people in more than 40 states.

Along with the thousands of people who own a piece of his artwork and clothing, have seen it even more around the world in the past few weeks.

Recently, one of Dow’s masks was given to US Representative Ilhan Omar during a visit to the region in late January. She wore the mask, which was printed with Dow’s tobacco leaf pattern, to address Congress. Dow wasn’t aware of this until he started tagging photos on Facebook and saw a photo of Omar carrying it on the floor of the house.

Now more photos of Omar in the mask have been published in the Star Tribune and even The Guardian, which is based in London.

Dow was initially surprised and a little bit conflicted as he didn’t consider himself a political person and wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about it. Now he is grateful for the light it sheds on his work.

US MP Ilhan Omar wears a Brian Dow-designed face mask while Congress meets on February 4th.  Screenshot from a live broadcast.

US MP Ilhan Omar wears a Brian Dow-designed face mask while Congress meets on February 4th. Screenshot from a live broadcast.

“When I saw that on the convention floor, I was happy, I haven’t lost my humility about it,” he said. “My work of art is not politically oriented, my work of art is for everyone.”

Dow says he is trying to be humble and generally not seeking publicity for his work as he feels he is doing what the Creator intended him to do.

He also ripped that Omar was wearing her mask upside down, but that it was still good-looking.

What’s next?

When he started making art years ago, Dow hoped this would be a way to support his family and give him meaning. He has had success in both areas and now has ambitions to start his own small business and online shop.

In the distant future, Dow hopes to finish the book he has started and to pass on his knowledge to others. He said his 10-year goal was to be a better speaker, “have a strong voice and make people hear”.

His advice to other artists is: “Just don’t give up.”

Dow also hopes to hire some assistants in the future to help more with printing and distributing his work so that he can get back to what he loves to do best: painting.

Those who want to see more of Dow’s work or order prints or clothing can find him on Facebook or email him at [email protected]

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