Tweed Museum of Art

University of Minnesota Duluth

Duluth, MN



Shared Passion: The Richard E. and Dorothy Rawlings Nelson Collection of American Indian Art


Tweed Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth is featuring Shared Passion: The Richard E. and Dorothy Rawlings Nelson Collection of American Indian Art, running through October 14, 2001. (left: Patrick DesJarlait (American, Ojibwe, Red Lake, MN 1921 - 1973 St. Paul, MN), Drying Corn, 1971, watercolor (or tempera) on paper, 6 x 8 inches)

Richard E. and the late Dorothy Rawlings Nelson of Duluth, Minnesota are well-known as collectors of American Indian art, artifacts and historical material related to American Indian culture, particularly of the Great Lakes region. This exhibition features over 100 outstanding examples from several aspects of the Nelson collection, including exquisite examples of bead and quill work, basketry, weaving, including variously-scaled containers, functional and decorative objects, primarily from Ojibwe, Plains, Eastern Woodlands, Northwest Coast, and Navajo peoples. Also featured will be 40 paintings and works on paper by prominent contemporary American Indian artists including Frank Big Bear, David Bradley, George Morrison, Fritz Scholder, Patrick DesJarlait, Norval Morrisseau, and Carl Gawboy. In addition, a selection of hand colored lithographs by noted nineteenth century artists James Otto Lewis and Charles Bird King represent rare portrayals of the Great Lakes Ojibwe.

Organized by the Tweed Museum of Art, and curated by Martin DeWin and Peter Spooner in conjunction with Richard Nelson, the exhibition will be booking a national tour to begin in January, 2002. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with writings by David Bradley, Mary Tso, and interviews between Richard Nelson, Carl Gawboy, Kent Smith, and the curators. (right: Fritz Scholder (American, Luiseno, b. 1937, Breckenridge, MN), Another Martyr #2, 1993, cast bronze, ed. 5/12, 14 x 8 1/2 x 4 inches)


Following is an essay excerpted from the catalogue for the exhibition. The essay is titled "The Collector's Eye," and is written by Richard E. Nelson. The Catalogue was available August 1, 2001 and has ISBN number 1-889523-18-6. The essay is reprinted with permission of the Tweed Museum of Art.

This collection had its genesis in the late 1950s. At that time I was serving as the Presbyterian Campus Pastor at Iowa State Teacher's College (now the University of Northern Iowa) in Cedar Falls. My fascination with the arts grew during my nine years in Iowa. In study groups we discussed contemporary novels and plays, sponsored art exhibits at the student center, sent students to national conferences, summer service projects and junior year abroad programs. A strong support system was provided by out national denominational structures and annual national campus pastor's meetings. Growing numbers of international students brought the world to our doorsteps. (left: David P. Bradley (American, Chippewa, b. 1954 Minnesota), American Gothic: Dorothy and Richard Nelson on the Shores of Gitchi Gami, 2000, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 24 inches)

A major influence in starting the collection came from Motive, the magazine of the Methodist Student Movement. In 1958 1 bought Jim Crane's "Pieta" as a Christmas gift for my late wife, Dorothy. Crane was a cartoonist for Motive, and his work had been exhibited in the community. Soon other works were added to the collection. We focused on religious subject matter in artworks done by contemporary artists. The longer we collected, the broader the definition of "religious" became. (right: David P. Bradley (American, Chippewa, b. 1954 Minnesota), The Shores of Gitchi Gami Revisited, 1995-96, acrylic on canvas, board and fabric, shells, 48 x 36 x 2 inches)

In the 1970s there was a major shift in the collection. We began to purchase Native American material, mainly from the Woodland area. First it was birchbark items, then other basket types, beadwork and art by contemporary Woodland artists. During the years we formed what I describe as "a major-minor collection."

With our Native American collection we had come full circle. Now crosses by Fritz Scholder and New Mexican retablos grace the walls of our Duluth home, hanging with a Black Friday by Spruance or Sister Mary James Ann's Iron Crosses, Bruges. They all carry memories of a forty plus years' journey nourished by artists who reflected those decades.

We actually purchased our first Native American art in the early 1950s at Sault St. Marie, Michigan -- a small porcupine quilled birchbark container. It is still in our collection. Little did we realize that as the decades passed it would be joined by dozens of additional quilled birchbark pieces. Or, that our interests would expand to include the variety of material you see in the current exhibition and catalogue.

In the late 1970s, our growing interest in Native American art developed a focus. A conscious decision was made to collect historic material from the Great Lakes area. Most of our married life has been lived on the shores of Lake Superior at Sault St. Marie, Michigan and Duluth, Minnesota. It seemed natural that the materials used to form items in the collection would come from the birch, ash, willow, spruce, cedar and basswood trees and grasses or animals in the area. We found no end to the activity of the craftpersons who formed the baskets and containers we gathered. At first we bought almost everything we saw to get examples of quill work, containers, baskets and styles. Later we began to look for examples of fine craftsmanship and materials. (left: David P. Bradley (American, Chippewa, b. 1954 Minnesota), Harvesting Wild Rice, 1985, acrylic on canvas, oval, 10 x 8 inches)

"The collector's eye" was being educated through a familiarity with materials, by living with the objects in our home, reading the books in our growing library, visiting museums in this country and abroad, and learning from other collectors and dealers. From containers and basketry, the collection grew to include the distinctive floral beadwork seen on the bandolier bags, moccasins and other beadwork of the region. (right: David P. Bradley (American, Chippewa, b. 1954 Minnesota), Madonna of the White Earth Reservation (The Guardian Angel), 1982, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 15 inches)

In the 1980s, our interests expanded when we began to collect the work of contemporary Native American artists. It was an exciting decade for us as we learned to appreciate another dimension of collecting. I still remember standing in line during the Santa Fe Indian Market waiting for lunch at the French bakery at La Fonda when, in casual conversation, a woman told us that David Bradley was an artist we should watch. Before we left Santa Fe we had purchased our first painting from him, learned he was Ojibwe and an enrolled member of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. In subsequent years we have been challenged by his vision, enjoyed his humor, satire and biting social commentary on life in the 20th century, and have been sensitized by his political concerns. Our collection reveals only a partial vision of his work. It makes us realize how "the collector's eye" can distort one's perception of an artist by the selective process collectors use in forming a collection. (left: Dance Apron (front & back), ca. 1920s, (Ojibwe, Nett Lake, MN), floral and foliate beaded applique, spot-stitched, on black velvet, backed with fabric, 18 1/2 x 19 inches)

Those of you who have seen the video Standing in the Northern Lights, released in 1991 by Grace Productions know the charm of George Morrison (1919-2000). In some respects, he was the dean of contemporary Native American artists. I have seen the deference and respect shown him by his peers at a national meeting. We visited him at his studio at Grand Portage Reservation on the north shore of Lake Superior: His horizon line paintings are jewels which reflect the lake as seen through his eyes. "The collector's eye" learns to put itself at ease with other visions, too. While Morrison is known as an abstract expressionist, he also constructed monumental wood totems and wood collages from fragments found on the beach. The print Wood Collage Fragment, gives limited insight into this form.

Other artists in the collection continue to enhance our vision. Carl Gawboy has lived and worked in the Duluth area for years. He usually works with watercolors, painting early scenes depicting his Finnish and Ojibwe heritage. On seeing his early work On the Road in our home recently, he said, "Even then I was using the oils like watercolors." Patrick DesJarliat was involved in an early controversy about whether his work met a criteria for "Indian Art." Like Bradley, he reflects the influence of the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. (right: Man's Yoke, ca. 1920s (Ojibwe, Nett Lake, MN), floral and foliate beaded applique, spot-stitched, with round mirrors, on velveteen, backed with fabric, 36 x 16 inches)

A collector friend told me he has artwork which is visually so disturbing that he stores it in a closet. Some may find Frank Bigbear's drawings disturbing. They are colorful, vibrant, intense, full of contemporary images, personal dreams, visions and cultural references.

We hope this exhibit gives insight through "the collectors' eye" into the formation of a collection, the ways in which it grows, takes new directions and surprises us as it graces our home. We share with you the excitement of seeing it in the Tweed Museum of Art.


All images portrayed here are from the Richard E. And Dorothy Rawlings Nelson Collection of American Indian Art, Courtesy of the Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth.

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