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Video: Local artist puts John Beargrease's legacy in paint

Jan 26, 2021 04:33AM ● By Editor

Watch the WDIO-TV Report here

Image: Sam Zimmerman

By Baihly Warfield from WDIO-TV - January 25, 2021

Many generations after John Beargrease delivered mail by dog sled along the North Shore, his legacy mushes on -- in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and in the people still telling his story.

"Storytelling is such a huge, important part of just indigenous culture, learning the stories and hearing the stories," Sam Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman is a local artist who grew up hearing stories about John Beargrease. 

"There were easier ways to support your family and take care of your family," Zimmerman said, reflecting on Beargrease's grueling job. "There's 100 other things he could have done that were so much easier that wouldn't have taken him away from his family."

But he says Beargrease loved the land and felt comfortable on it. And now, he's putting that legacy in paint. 

"He's just such an amazing regional and national hero -- just a figure that's so important to us," Zimmerman said. 

Beargrease is the first of five portraits of prominent Ojibwe Minnesotans from St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties that Zimmerman will paint. A grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council is making it possible. 

He painted the sky for a different piece and suddenly had the vision for the Beargrease portrait. 

"It's weird when you can feel the spirit of the piece and you have to kind of just trust it and go along with it," he said. 

It's not a traditional portrait. Zimmerman knew if he was going to do it, he had to include the dogs. 

"I kept thinking, well, I don't want to do a portrait that you would see a standard portrait, just face and eyes," he said. "Plus, we're talking about the late 1800s. There's not a lot of photographs of him, of his face, that are quality to reference." 

With each stroke, he hopes the painting conveys peace and power. There are always hidden messages in his work. 

"There's going to be another story in the stars," he said. 

52 points of light represent Beargrease's journey around the sun, and the Ursa Major constellation honors his Ojibwe clan, the Bear Clan. 

"If I could meet John Beargrease, I would want to talk to him about his experiences with the animals and what was the most beautiful day that you ever had," Zimmerman said. "You know, talk to me about something that you saw, like just to hear his stories. I think that would just be amazing." 

But for now, he will do his part to pass the legend on. 

"This is not my story. This is his story." 

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon starts at 9 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 31. No spectators are allowed. WDIO will live stream the start and provide updates along the trail. 

To see the original article and read related posts, follow this link to the WDIO-TV website.

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