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Fresh Coast Creatives: The art of connection with Jamie John

Traverse City-based artist Jamie John, painting a mural at Adado Riverfront Park in Lansing.

This week on Fresh Coast Creatives, we talk with Jamie John – an artist from Traverse City and a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

Jamie's artistic journey delves deep into the intricate connections between personal experiences, ancestral stories and the natural world. At the heart of Jamie's work lies an exploration of his indigenous roots and the narratives of his own life.

One piece in his series, "Unceded Ancestors," was part of two shows on Long Island and in Brooklyn and embodies this theme. The piece was a collage featuring a vintage photograph of two Hopi girls amidst meticulously drawn floral linework.

"Unceded Ancestors" repaired collage by Jamie John
"Unceded Ancestors" repaired collage by Jamie John

The collage almost didn’t make it into the show when it was damaged in transit. “It was in the backseat of the car, and we had to pick up my sister before we went to get it framed,” Jamie says, “and my sister either threw her bag or her laptop case on top of the artwork.”

The picture of the Hopi girls was now lined with spiderwebbed cracks. Jamie fixed the piece using a method imitating the Japanese repair method, kintsugi, in which he used rubber cement then painted gold. Still, he wasn’t sure the piece was ready to show and emailed the curator of the show to let them know what happened.

The piece was still featured in both shows and, for Jamie, even took on new meaning.

“I look at this photograph of two Hopi girls now I see two sisters, “Jamie says. “It's much more about my relationship to my sister than it is anything else now. I don't think that takes away from the story of the subjects in the collage. I think it almost adds to it.”

Defender of the Weelaunee Forest, block print on Japanese mulberry paper, by Jamie John.
Jamie John
Defender of the Weelaunee Forest, block print on Japanese mulberry paper, by Jamie John.

The roots of Jamie's artistic journey trace back to his childhood. A pivotal moment was his participation in an art therapy class at the Traverse Area District Library, which he attended after the death of his grandfather, Raymond John.

"I think all art really is like reaching out into the world and saying, 'Does anyone feel the way that I do?'"
Jamie John

"My experiences with art therapy sort of gave me a way to articulate loss that wasn't necessarily words … to express feelings that were so big for 6- and 7-year-old me," he said.

For Jamie, art serves as a medium to bridge the gaps between personal experiences and shared human emotions: "I think all art really is like reaching out into the world and saying, 'Does anyone feel the way that I do?'"

As we wrap up, Jamie told me about something that happened to him recently, that perfectly captured the kind of experiences and connections that fuel his creative practice.

One night, Jamie was traveling, looking out over a hotel parking lot and thinking about his Uncle Robert who had recently passed away.

Bones, block print by Jamie John
Bones, block print by Jamie John

“There's like a young buck that wanders into the streetlight, “ Jamie says. “He doesn't notice me at first. And I don't make a lot of noise. We catch each other's eye. And for about the next minute and a half, we just sort of stared at each other. Thinking like, oh, it's late for you to be out here. I thought I'd be alone.”

For Jamie, his art helps him share the connections he sees in the world around him. Sometimes those are connections between the past and the present — and sometimes the connections are between things that feel deeply personal.

“My mom told me later that Uncle Robert said that he was going to come back as a buck,” Jamie says.

Support for Fresh Coast Creatives comes from the Northwest Michigan Arts & Culture Network, inviting you to Fall into the Arts, and through an award from Michigan Arts & Culture Council.