Ojibwe artist follows his spirit home to paint
Duluth's Sam Zimmerman has a new mural at Voyageurs National Park and a new book of his Ojibwe images.
DULUTH — Sam Zimmerman remembers the puzzled looks he received when applying for a high-level administrative position with an East Coast school district a few years ago.
Zimmerman had stipulated that he needed time off during holidays to return to the Grand Portage Reservation on Lake Superior, where generations of his ancestors had lived. He also asked for time off to return for the Grand Portage Rendezvous each summer. And then he asked for more time off to return for the tribe’s moose hunting season each fall.
“They didn’t know what to think about me demanding time to go moose hunting,” Zimmerman said with a laugh. “But my grandfather taught me to moose hunt and it’s such a huge part of the culture at Portage.”
Zimmerman got the job. But it was just another step up the ladder in an East Coast career that was keeping him away from his northern Minnesota roots, keeping him away from from his Ojibwe culture, keeping him from finding his true spirit as an artist, keeping him from the outdoors and animals and fish and Lake Superior, from the nature that now nurtures his soul every day.
“Those trips back to Grand Portage were what sustained me for nearly 20 years. But, ultimately, I realized that just coming back to visit wasn’t enough. ... I needed to go home to stay,” Zimmerman said while painting in his studio in Duluth's Denfeld neighborhood.
So when Zimmerman walked away from a rising star career in special education administration, he left as the head of special education for the state of New York’s Department of Education, to live in Duluth and paint.
He hasn’t looked back since.
This summer, Zimmerman, 44, has a new book of his paintings published, a new mural hanging at Voyageurs National Park and art hanging in galleries in Duluth and Grand Marais. He’s now a rising star in the world of native art and culture. His work features moose, night skyscapes, loons and wolves as well as Northland fish, flowers and trees — many of them derived from the oral history passed on from the elders, and many of them the clan animals that represent Ojibwe families.
He paints under the studio name Crane Superior, the "crane" part from his family’s Ojibwe clan and "Superior" from the lake that inspires his work.
“To be able to be here and be on the shore of Superior and paint what’s here. … This is an amazing place,” Zimmerman said.
Jeff Schmidt, owner of Lizzards Art Gallery in Duluth, said he was impressed by Zimmerman even before seeing his artwork.
“He has a very big personality. He has that spark ... kind of a sass to him,” Schmidt said. “But his work also filled a niche that we didn’t have here.”
Schmidt described Zimmerman’s paintings as based on the Ojibwe Woodland style of painting, but with a unique flare.
“Almost every piece of his work has a meaning to it. There’s a deeper story behind it. ... Like the number of stars he puts in the night sky signifies something. Or the number of trees might be how many children an elder had,” Schmidt said. “He always paints his background first and even those landscapes — before he paints the actual subject, the wolf or bear or the moose or whatever — are beautiful on their own.”
Studied art, then another direction
Zimmerman moved around a lot as a child, the son of a career Army man, Tracy Zimmerman, a Grand Portage Ojibwe. The family eventually ended up in New York, where Sam graduated from high school in Salamanca. He thought for a time that he was going to be a lawyer, but he gravitated toward art and painting and earned his degree in studio art from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“I wanted to be that weird guy in the basement of a museum restoring all the famous artwork,” Zimmerman said.
Instead, he became an art teacher in the heart of New York City. His experiences with children with disabilities moved him to venture into special education. He rose up the ranks of the New York City school district and quickly was overseeing special ed programs across 10 schools in the Bronx, and then dozens of schools across New York City, then across the state.
Zimmerman lectured abroad. He helped found schools in Africa. By 2015, at age 38, he was deputy head of schools in Brooklyn with 130,000 students under his care.
Yet, despite his success in his role as an educator and administrator and advocate, Zimmerman felt a constant tug to do something else somewhere else.
“I didn’t paint for almost 20 years … with everything I was doing in life, there was no space for art,’’ Zimmerman said. “I was doing good work, good things, and doing it well … but it was destroying my spirit.”
Zimmerman said it was on trips to northern Minnesota that others close to him saw his burden.
“Every time I’d see my dad, he would ask me how I was doing, ask me if I was happy ... It’s like he knew before I did that it was killing me,’’ Zimmerman said.
While Zimmerman didn’t grow up in Minnesota, he started visiting relatives at Grand Portage when he was 12. He went back every year, sometimes multiple times, and bonded with his his father’s father and other relatives and elders with Grand Portage Band roots.
“My grandfather told me stories of growing up in Grand Portage and Mineral Center. ... He told me about the people I was from, gave me this sense of place,’’ Zimmerman said. “He was my favorite person.”
Those stories continue to be the basis for Zimmerman’s work. His paintings focus on the outdoors and nature and are often laced with Ojibwe lore, culture and spirit with multiple themes running across the canvas.
At age 17, he came out to both parents as gay. While his Italian mother and her family rejected him, he grew closer to his Ojibwe relatives.
“My grandfather always knew I was different,’’ Zimmerman noted. “When I told him, he said, 'Great, you are Two Spirited.’ It was something to be celebrated. He shared this view with others.
“Minnesota was always home because it was where I was most accepted,” he added.
But it was on his 40th birthday vacation to Alaska in 2018 with his best friend, when he was immersed in the Native art of first nations and Inuit people and immersed in the scenery of the far north country, that he realized it was time to go home, even though home for him was a place he had never lived before.
He also realized that it was time for him to paint again.
“Everyone had forgotten that I was an artist before everything else,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone but me.”
In July 2019, Zimmerman returned to Minnesota, eventually found a house he liked in western Duluth that he purchased, and settled in to stay. He started painting constantly, more than 300 original works over the past three years.
“I didn’t paint for nearly two decades. I have some catching up to do,’’ Zimmerman said. “‘All of these paintings are inspired by my being home.”
Just as the COVID-19 lockdown was hitting in 2020, Zimmerman landed a book deal with Duluth-based, Native-owned Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing. The book, released this summer, features more than 80 of Zimmerman’s colorful images, many of fish and wildlife and Ojibwe people. But it also features Ojibwe stories, mostly based on tales his grandfather told him or that he learned around the fire each summer at the Grand Portage Rendezvous.
“It’s a chapter book. Not like one you’d sit down to read, but because each chapter has a theme,” Zimmerman said.
Each image illustrates a story of Ojibwe culture with the words to the story printed in English and Ojibwemowin.
“Just getting the words right, with every (Ojibwe band) having a different dialect, and then getting the elders to agree on the details … it was really quite a process,” Zimmerman said. “But this book got me through COVID.”
There are elements of his grandfather’s stories in much of his work.
“I try to paint a moose every year in honor of my grandfather,” Zimmerman said, pointing to a moose painting hanging in his studio. “This one has 103 stars in the sky because it would have been his 103rd birthday.”
Zimmerman does much of his painting in a converted stall of his alley garage, often with the big door open to make him feel more outdoors.
“Almost all of my work is a celebration of Ojibwe culture, or the natural world, or both,” he said.
He’s tending a garden to grow traditional plants and medicines like sage and sweetgrass and tobacco. He has a cedar tree growing in the backyard. The stones under his fire pit, from Grand Portage, form a medicine wheel. There are lilacs transplanted from his great grandmother’s home in Chippewa City, a long-removed settlement just outside Grand Marais.
“She’s here with me,” Zimmerman said.
Even when he’s busy painting, he takes time to see the natural world around him, like a bee buzzing in his raspberry patch.
“I saw it and went up to it and said 'hello' little bee. And it’s almost as if it wanted me to paint it, so I did,” Zimmerman said.
He hasn’t left the world of education. He served for a time as an administrator at Harbor City International School in Duluth and is starting a new position with the Minnesota Department of Education developing Native American curriculum. Zimmerman will continue to live in Duluth and make regular trips up the North Shore to visit his ancestral homeland. And he will continue to paint — pieces big and small, public and private.
In summer 2020, Zimmerman signed on to paint his most public project to that point: Grand Marais city trash cans. He transformed the metal bins into works of art festooned with brightly colored fish, animals and birds with each critter’s name written in English and Ojibwemowin.
This summer, the Voyageurs Conservancy and the National Park Service hired Zimmerman as a resident artist for a week in June when he painted a mural, "Giiwedino-Manidoog, Spirits of the North." The three-panel work illustrates the native wildlife and fish of the border lakes region. Zimmerman added 16,866 stars to the sky on the mural, one for every day Voyageurs National Park had been open to the public.
“I wanted people to not only appreciate how wonderful the fish and wildlife and the water and the night sky are at (Voyageurs National Park), but to also for them to understand that the Ojibwe people were here with the same animals and the same lakes and the same sky long before any white fur trader showed up,” Zimmerman said. “I try to put meaning like that in everything I do.”
About the new book
Sam Zimmerman's new illustrated Ojibwe storybook, “Following My Spirit Home,’’ is a coffee-table style book of his artwork with stories for each piece written in English and Ojibwemowin. It’s published by Duluth-based Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing, $49.95. It is available at local bookstores, including Zenith Bookstore, Lizards Gallery and Indigenous First Gift Shop in Duluth, Superior Finds in Two Harbors, and Joy and Company and Drury Lane Bookstore in Grand Marais, and online at blackbearsandblueberries.com .
Zimmerman has upcoming book talks/signings:
- Sept. 9 at Johnson Heritage Center and Museum in Grand Marais, 5-7 p.m.
- Oct. 8 at Chik Wauk Museum & Nature Center on Saganaga Lake, 2-3 p.m.
- Nov. 1 at Lake Superior College in Duluth, noon-1 p.m.
- Nov. 10 at the Virginia Public Library, noon-1 p.m.
Sam Zimmerman’s mural, "Giiwedino-Manidoog / Spirits of the North," will be on display through August at the Rainy Lake Visitor’s Center at Voyageurs National Park and is expected to be on permanent display at the historic Ash River Visitor’s Center in the park.
Sam Zimmerman's Ojibwe artwork will be on display during September at the Johnson Heritage Post and Gallery in Grand Marais, cookcountyhistory.org/johnson-heritage-post-art-gallery.
More on Crane Superior
Find Sam Zimmerman's work under his studio name, Crane Superior, at Lizzards Art Gallery and at the American Indian Community Housing Organization gift shop in Duluth, and at Joy and Company in Grand Marais.
Follow Zimmerman on Facebook and Instagram @CraneSuperior or email him at CraneSuperiorStudio@gmail.com .