When I arrived at the studio of artist G. Peter Jemison, a thin spindle of smoke bristled skyward from the chimney, paying homage to the brutal sub-zero February wind chill. The studio’s little cast-iron stove was working overtime to raise the internal temperature so it would be as warm and welcoming as the studio’s atmosphere. Paints and tools cascaded across two tables, and a mantle of drawings, paintings and natural materials adorned the walls of the former one-room schoolhouse, turned artist’s haven.
Peter loved art from an early age. Both his parents and the art teacher he had from seventh grade on encouraged him, supported his interest and helped him develop his talents.
After earning an art degree from Buffalo State, Peter moved to New York City, where he found acclaim not only as a visual and display artist, but also as a curator of exhibits featuring Native American artists. When the American Indian Community House in New York City decided to launch a gallery, Peter was hired to curate and run it. The gallery began receiving rave reviews in publications such as The New York Times, the Village Voice, New York magazine, and the Daily News. Despite accolades, the economics of running a gallery meant he did almost everything himself, leaving little time for his own art.
In 1985, he was offered the position of site manager for Ganondagan State Historic Site. The move to Victor would help him discover more about his Seneca heritage that goes back eight generations to Mary Jemison, White Woman of the Genesee, who was adopted into the Seneca Nation at the age of 15. The position would also allow him to contribute to the cultural legacy of his people, to better balance his work with his art, and to integrate the two.
It wasn’t until he arrived at the site, with its dilapidated barn, collapsing chicken coop, ramshackle house and abandoned cider mill/welding shop, that he wondered if he’d made a serious error in judgment.
Fortunately, Peter is a man of vision who is also unafraid of hard work. Today, Ganondagan flourishes, as does Peter’s career as artist and as curator of Native American art exhibits.
– Story is continued below video
Interview with Peter Jemison about The Iroquois Creation Story Film from Carol White Llewellyn on Vimeo.
To see the entire interview, please visit www.communivisionstudio.com.
An influence on art
“When I came here, I had to immerse myself in the history that I had only a vague notion of,” he shared, referring to the history of the Iroquois Confederacy, and of the Seneca Nation, one of the Confederacy’s six member nations.
“I began to have a real historical view of my own people from the 17th century through today. That added to the content of my work, because I now knew things that influenced who we are today.”
He admits that balancing the demands of his work at Ganondagan and the creation of his art has been challenging, but adds, “I am a driven person. If I decide I want to do something, there’s very little that can prevent me from doing it.”
The Iroquois Creation Story is a case in point. This is a film he is currently producing, in collaboration with choreographer Garth Fagan and filmmaker and Rochester Institute of Technology professor Cat Ashworth. His inspiration for the film came from a verbal recitation of the Iroquois Creation Story by Chief John Eartha Gibson to Tuscarora anthropologist J.N.B Hewitt in the late 1800s. Hewitt translated and published it in Victorian-style English. More recently, Peter’s late cousin John Mohawk annotated and adapted it into a book called The Iroquois Creation Story: The Myth of Earth Grasper that had since been all but forgotten. Peter used this book as the starting point for the film.
As he began work, Peter realized he would need to produce concept drawings for those involved, including the animators from RIT, in order to convey the story and his vision.
“The ideas just started coming. They began flowing out of me, and I was filling notebooks with drawings,” Peter explained.
Those drawings created a visual treatment that set the film in motion and infused the project with an energy that resonated through everyone working on it. As the film evolved, Peter’s role as producer expanded to encompass the casting of singers, dancers, actors and helping to set up film shots.
The Iroquois Creation Story film is projected to be finished by July 2015, in time for the opening of Ganondagan’s Seneca Art and Culture Center.
With regard to his two- and three-dimensional works, Peter draws on his Seneca roots and the concept of orenda, which he explains as, “Every living thing has a spirit, and that spirit can be revealed to us, sometimes in a profound way, sometimes simply that we see it.”
Nature and orenda are infused throughout his work, whether he is painting poppies on paper, embellishing a canvas with butterflies, creating a cherry blossom canopy on a parasol or converting a hand-crafted paper bag into a visual statement for exhibition in museums across the country.
Like many artists, Peter struggles with perfectionism.
“One of the things that I’ve really been thinking about lately … is to accept who you are … to accept yourself and the work that you do. You’re not trying to be anyone else. You can only be yourself. When I remind myself that what I’m doing is good, that I should be satisfied with it, then I’m happier.
“I am very self-critical, so it’s not easy to be completely satisfied with what I do. I always have to be improving or working at it. It’s my nature.”
It is that passion for excellence that has driven him to excel at his work as torchbearer and guardian of Seneca culture at Ganondagan, and as an artist who shares his interpretation of the world.
“The purpose of art is to help people see,” Peter asserts.
He goes on to explain that, when an artist creates a work, and a viewer observes it, a channel is opened within both of them that better allows them to see, and to perceive all that is beautiful in the world.
Peter’s work undoubtedly provides a remarkable entrée into nature’s splendor.
story and photos by Carol White Llewellyn.
Carol is a writer, digital media specialist, and producer of the cable program Conversations with Creatives, where she interviews artists and explores their careers, their work and their philosophies about art.