Minnesota 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 fueled him. Now, seven years later, some of his paintings for five figures have been sold, and earlier this month one of his designs was featured on a face mask worn by U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., In the Chamber of the Congress House in Washington, DC
Pick up a brush
Dow, originally from Ponemah, Red Lake, 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 said to myself, ‘OK, we have to do something different. What will it be? ‘”Said Dow.
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 that. 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)
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.
One of his paintings hangs in the lobby of the casino where Dow once worked as a custodian.
He had no formal education or any background in the arts. Although he was interested in drawing and the arts, he did not pursue it until adulthood. Dow took a year of classes at Leech Lake Tribal College.
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.
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)
Dow said the floral designs represent the Ojibwe culture and “allow other tribesmen of different tribes to see that you are indigenous people from the forest area” when on powwow 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.
“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.
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)
Before the pandemic, Dow sold his work at powwows, trade shows, art shows, and more. Now his work has exploded on social media.
“That’s where I get all of my sales on social media,” he said.
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.
Recently, one of Dow’s masks was given to US Representative Ilhan Omar during a visit to the region in 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.
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.
“When I saw this on the congress floor, I was happy. I haven’t lost my humility, ”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 joked that Omar was wearing her mask upside down, but that it was still good-looking.
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? “Just don’t give up.”
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]