Jean LaMarr is a study in resilience.
When she was a child in the 1950s, her father strictly forbade drawing or coloring. “It was considered playing when I should be working,” she said.
She grew up to be one of the Great Basin region’s most prolific artists.
In the early 1960s, when LaMarr was 15, her family dropped her off at an employment office in Reno. She spent the summer as a live-in servant for the family of an orthodontist.
She became the kind of teenager who bought her own car, her own clothes, and her own independence.
In the ’70s, she enrolled in the art department at UC Berkeley, where she wanted to make artwork that told the stories of her family and her community—members of the Northern Paiute and Pit River tribes near Susanville, California, where she grew up. To her professors, however, only mid-20th-century abstractionism would do. Artwork about families, communities, and cultures was dismissed as folk art. “I was just learning that people have a voice,” LaMarr said. “But I didn’t have a voice.”
She found her voice—step by hard-won step.
After college, LaMarr founded the Native American Graphics Workshop in Susanville to teach and host Indigenous artists. She made a career as a painter and printmaker who tells the stories of her own tribes and others, and she’s now the subject of a retrospective at the Nevada Museum of Art, The Art of Jean LaMarr.
Step by step
One day, while LaMarr was still at Berkeley, an artist from New York visited her class. He taught her an important lesson—although maybe not the one he had intended. “He walked in there naked, with dark glasses over his face, handing out invitations to his performance to everyone,” she recalled. “It wasn’t life shocking or changing. But it showed me art could be anything.”
LaMarr would hand in paintings to her professors that looked like Rothkos. After they were graded, she would add high-desert landscapes into the backgrounds and family and community members in the foregrounds. Sometimes, she’d add flourishes that proudly proclaimed “folk art,” like wide borders dotted with roses or poppies.
She said that sticking it out through grad school wasn’t easy, that the campus climate was chilly to non-white students, that glares and sneers weren’t uncommon.
She realized, much as her professors dismissed narrative artwork, that the rest of the Bay Area seemed to have a taste for it. Thinking back on the murals that the region’s Chicanx artists were painting at the time, she said, “They were all over, everywhere.” She easily forged off-campus friendships with those artists.
“They were sharing and caring, where the white people were not,” LaMarr said. “Chicanos … they just loved my work and started including me and getting me doing murals.” The muralists taught her how to distill a long story and a lot of research into a wall-sized image and how to get an entire mural painted within a week. (Step 1: Have a great team.) Eventually, LaMarr led her own mural projects, including one in Susanville and one in Berkeley’s Ohlone Park.
The reason she got involved with the Ohlone Park project, she said, is that she was disturbed by an early proposal she had seen by another artist—an image that relied on stereotypes of gangly, Indigenous men with disheveled tufts of hair.
“They looked like cavemen coming out of a cave,” LaMarr said. “They were horrible. … Some neighborhood people said, ‘Jean, you’re an artist, you’re a Native American and you gotta help us with this. He’s putting something bad, and that’s going to be forever in the minds of those children that played in that park. … I thought, ‘Oh, are they watching too much Popeye?’” (Some of the animated Popeye shorts from the 1930s and ’40s contained flippantly demeaning portrayals of Indigenous people, like Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh, a clueless brute who tries to steal Popeye’s girlfriend.)
LaMarr’s mural tells a more accurate story. Its four panels depict Northern California’s Ohlone Tribe at different times, from pre-colonization all the way up to 1995, the year she painted it.
LaMarr’s exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art is a compendium of paintings, prints, and multimedia installations that spans her career—a half century and counting. In much of her work, she depicts people going about their everyday lives—doing ranch work, playing games, gathering outdoors, dressing up for a night on the town. But she never lets those activities take place in a vacuum. There are ever-present reminders of forced assimilation, displacement, and genocide.
In one image, a group of teenage girls poses outdoors, smiling and goofing off as if they’re in between takes on school picture day. Next to them is one of those lurking reminders: a package design for Indian Queen, the brand of brooms that girls used at Stewart Indian School in Carson City, which LaMarr’s mother attended as child, where, at the time, girls’ education included substantial training in domestic servitude.
A series of oversized, abstract landscape paintings show off Northeast California’s mountains in mood-boosting colors—cherry red, peach, butter, and lavender. This is LaMarr’s stomping ground, where the Great Basin meets the Sierra. It’s the backdrop for her childhood memories of adults hunting and kids swimming in the river under a wide, blue sky. “I never felt racism there,” she said, before explaining how acutely she felt it in school. But these paintings aren’t purely monuments to the solace of nature. In each picture, a black stratum seethes underground, filled with human remains. In Shasta and Lassen Counties, land containing burial grounds was taken from the local tribes for mining, military testing, and other purposes.
“For the Pit River people, PG&E has so much of their land,” LaMarr explained. “They don’t use it. They don’t need it. The people need it to gather or to live.” In 2021, PG&E returned 756 acres near Hat Creek in Shasta County to the Pit River Tribe as part of a court-ordered settlement. LaMarr sees the size of the returned parcel as “kind of an insult. They should have given 25,000 acres. That’s only a smidgen of what they have for Pit River land.”
As an activist, LaMarr has taken on a long list of topics. She was talking about changing the name of the Squaw Valley ski resort long before the subject made its way into our region’s public consciousness. (It was renamed Palisades Tahoe in 2021.)
She wants to see the Ohlone Tribe receive federal recognition. (The tribe lost its status in 1927 after having been miscategorized by an anthropologist as “extinct” and is still fighting to regain it.)
“My next works are going to be making comments about residential schools and what they had to deal with,” LaMarr said. “So, I got this pope-looking guy,” LaMarr said. “He’s waving his hand. It’s so scary. I’m going to put a little boy crying. It’s so gory, and people don’t want to talk about their Christian past ’cause it deals with horrors.” (“Residential schools” a.k.a “Indian boarding schools,” started in the 1890s, when the U.S. and Canadian governments began forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families en masse. Abuse was rampant. The Catholic Church played a major role. The pope finally apologized last month.)
She also plans to address, in her future work, the fact that many children in residential schools grew up without parental affection. “The babies need cuddling,” LaMarr said. “They need lovins. They need to be hugged by somebody, but nobody was hugging. No one was loving. And so they’d go to a big sister type of girl, then she’d hold onto them and pat them. And that made it a little bit better.” Her mother was among these girls.
No matter how urgent or raw LaMarr’s subject matter may be, she has laced it—intricately, expertly, and sometimes deliciously weirdly—with humor.
If you like your humor dark and dry, look for tight, neat rows of fighter jets in place of polka dots on a cowboy’s collared shirt. (LaMarr said she got the idea when she noticed military aircraft practicing close enough to her house to feel invasive, rattling her windows.) If you like it gushing with satire, you’ll find that here, too. (I’ll plot spoil this on Instagram after the show closes on May 29, but for now, I’ll just tell you there’s a sudden jolt of comic relief hiding around a corner in the NMA exhibition, and it’s yours to anticipate.)
I mentioned to LaMarr that I was taken by how she’d found opportunities to use humor in so many places, in so many ways.
“Well the thing is, Indians, that’s how we get by,” she replied. “You have to make fun of it.”
“I’m not a commercial artist,” she added. “I just want to get that information out. I always tell people my work is my solace. It’s my weapon as well.”
Kris Vagner is a Reno journalist, arts writer and editor (and former RN&R staffer). Vagner is the founder of Double Scoop, an online Nevada arts journal. This article about Jean LaMarr was originally published on May 5, 2022 on Double Scoop.