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Native artist teaches culture, ecology through trash cans

Baihly Warfield
Updated: September 11, 2020 10:29 PM

Trash and ecology are usually adversaries. But a Native American artist in Duluth found a way to marry the two. 

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Sam Zimmerman's family is from Grand Marais and Grand Portage, and he returned to painting when he returned to the Northland after years on the East Coast. 

He draws inspiration from the natural beauty of the North Shore. 

"All my pieces focus on the beauty of St. Louis, Lake and Cook County," Zimmerman said. 

But the denigration of that beauty is what inspired his latest public art project. 

"I saw all these really kind of extreme posts on Facebook about tourists coming out and garbage, and garbage and garbage," he said.

So when Grand Marais put out a call for artists, he asked if he could make their trash cans his canvas. 

"I said, well, I want six of them. And if you give me six of them, I will put six fish on them. I want to honor those that are sports fish that people love to fish, but I also want to raise awareness about the fish that are threatened," he described. 

So he painted walleye, pike, sunfish and trout in the former category and sturgeon and paddlefish for the latter. 

"In researching, I discovered that the oldest lake sturgeon recorded of record was 152 years old," Zimmerman said. "So this painting actually has 152 white fins on it with the seven grandfather teachings of the Ojibwe people inside. And there's actually seven rocks underneath each tree."

Zimmerman hides symbolism in every painting, public or commissioned. In the pike, it's a favorite thing to hunt for on the shore.

"The fins are actually agates," he said. "They have the colors and the tones of the agates, and then also he's actually had a little snack of perch inside of him." 

His art is also an opportunity to share his culture. Each Grand Marais trash barrel has the fish's name in English and Ojibwe. 

"I get to ... teach the language, and then I also get to protect the lake. So it was a win-win," he said. 

After the six fish-painted cans, he did another six with other animals - cranes, eagles, loons, bear, moose and foxes. 

The barrels are scattered around Grand Marais. He said his family has made a scavenger hunt out of finding them. He joked that he hasn't even found the walleye yet. 

And in the stressful time of the pandemic, painting has brought him solace and perspective. 

"Be kind not only to ourselves but to our families and to actually enjoy this time as much as we can," he offered. 

He's about six months out right now on commissions, especially now that school has started back up. For his day job, he works as the Special Education Director at Harbor City International.

His Instagram is @CraneSuperior.

Credits

Baihly Warfield

Copyright 2020 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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