Leah Yellowbird

Local pointillism artist chosen to have piece displayed in historic St. Paul chambers

Her passion for her culture is intricately displayed through her paintings resembling beadwork she grew to love in her mid 20s. The beadwork once taught by her “aunties,” developed into something she didn’t even expect in her late 40s. ​

“I went away for the winter, and I didn’t bring my beads and I was absolutely lost,” said Leah Yellowbird, local Grand Rapids pointillism artist. “I went to a craft store, in Arizona and bought paint and a piece of canvas.” ​

And she told herself, she was going to paint as if she was beading. ​

“It’s a type people typically don’t do,” Yellowbird said, of the early 19th century art. “I just happen to really like intricate things. I wanted the paint to look as if I was beading.” ​

Yellowbird had gone south with her mother for the first time, as her [mother] hated winter. ​

“She was so busy and they party hard,” Yellowbird chuckled. “I’m a live-in-the-woods person.” ​

So she painted.

Yet, she was quite lost without all the beadwork. ​

“Sometimes you don’t realize until you are without it, how much you need something,” Yellowbird said. “Something you do every day that keeps you centered. It wasn’t just art, it was healing, it’s such a solitary art, and it takes a long time, it’s very intricate. I just didn’t realize how important it had become.” ​

And yet, now, she still beads everyday. ​

That very first pointillism piece she painted at 48, was entered into a show six years ago, and she won. ​

“I was so shocked and humbled,” explained Yellowbird as she hadn’t painted for 25 years, but she couldn’t credit it all to herself. “I was happy someone was interested. I just didn’t think I was going to start a new career.”​

And it just sort of swelled from there.​

“It’s a really beautiful thing,” she said. ​

She explained she couldn’t have done this without Katie Marshall, Executive Director of the MacRostie Art Center (MAC), along with many other local inspiring artists, and that the MAC, “is the reason why I’m still working.” ​

“People help you along the way, and I don’t ever want to forget that. It’s really important for people to come to your show, and to buy your work,” Yellowbird said. “So that’s kinda cool.” ​

However, her time most recently has been spent painting a mural as she was one of five artists that were selected to create a piece to be displayed in the council chambers in St. Paul. ​

According to an article published online by the Star Tribune, “City and county leaders last December directed the Ramsey County Historical Society to commission new art celebrating the people and progress of St. Paul and Ramsey County. The new works will hang in the council chambers alongside some of the original murals, 22 feet tall and 5 feet wide, painted by Chicago artist John Norton when the building opened in 1932.” ​

“The selected artists have identified a variety of approaches to this project that are inclusive and representative of our community today,” said Chad Roberts, president of the county historical society and chairman of the community task force. “We are honored to be working with these talented people.”​

The article states, Norton’s four murals, painted in a style called WPA Moderne, were designed to show the growth of St. Paul and feature a voyageur, steamboat captain, rail surveyor and laborer.​

However, the murals have undergone scrutiny, according to the article, in recent years for their portrayal of people of color in what one St. Paul council member called “subservient roles.”​

“They are asking us to do a comparative size, it will be really large when it is done, and they will blow it up,” Yellowbird said. “They will have an open forum next week about this in St. Paul. There are a lot of people that in the Cities say you can’t erase murals.” ​

The group of artists selected, most with Native American and Latino ties, will create four new murals to be displayed next spring at the historic City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse in downtown St. Paul.​

She was chosen by a community task force organized by the Ramsey County Historical Society, who chose the artists after reviewing 20 applicants and interviewing nearly half of them.​

According to the Star Tribune, the tentative plan is to display two of the new murals on top of two of the existing Norton murals, the other two of which would remain on display so that at any given time visitors would see two historic murals and two modern ones. The new and old art would be rotated and include interpretive text.​

The installation of the new art is set for May.​

Even more important than her art, is her passion for her culture.​

“I’m just as much Lebanese as I am Native American. When you have such an odd mix of culture, you kind of have to choose one. I chose the native side of it,” Yellowbird said. “I have these dreams, and they show these beautiful designs. I got this crazy sense of urgency to share them, this style of painting is slow, but beading is slower. It was something I could share. If I didn’t keep doing them, I wouldn’t, I just had this sense of urgency.” ​

That “sense of urgency” is what pushes her everyday. ​

“I have to do this, it’s like the people that came before me went through such struggles. They are kind enough to give me what they are giving me. The elders. I’ve never been like a crazy weird person, they seem different,” Yellowbird said. “I took them serious, I think I had had a few things happen. My husband had died and you kind of search for something to give yourself purpose. I’m very fortunate.” ​

Yellowbird is originally from International Falls and moved to Grand Rapids when she was 48 after becoming widowed, and meeting her partner Jeff. She has one son, Hunter, who lives in Minneapolis as a software engineer. ​

She does most of her painting on the third floor of the Old Central School. ​

“At anytime anyone could walk in,” Yellowbird said. “I find it really helped me quite a lot. I didn’t realize how much I had separated myself from people.” ​


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