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An Untraditional Artist: Hillary Kempenich paints a unique story at Watermark Art Center

Hillary Kempenich speaks at an artist talk and exhibit reception Thursday at the Watermark Art Center. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 3
A viewer takes a photo Thursday of one of the paintings in the exhibit "Indanishinaabekwew – I am an Anishinaabe Woman," at Watermark Art Center. (Jordan Shearer| Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 3
Watermark Art Center's Miikanan Gallery is featuring the exhibit "Indanishinaabekwew – I am an Anishinaabe Woman," with paintings by Hillary Kempenich. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 3 / 3

As someone who can't be easily defined herself, Hillary Kempenich doesn't like expectations about what her artwork should look like.

Kempenich was raised in the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. However, she has a heritage blended from various tribes. She acknowledges some traditional Native American elements, but doesn't want to be tied to a dated or romanticized portrayal of her people.

Although she may buck at stereotypes about how viewers interpret her, Kempenich embraces her identity tightly. That identity, in fact, is the focus of her recently opened exhibit at Watermark Art Center's Miikanan Gallery in Bemidji. The exhibit, "Indanishinaabekwew — I am an Anishinaabe Woman" will remain open through June 23.

Kempenich gave some background to her artwork and her family history during an artist reception Thursday at the center. Karen Goulet introduced Kempenich to the small crowd that came to hear from the artist.

"There is an honesty that is refreshing. She is not following any formula that dictates what Native art should be," Goulet said. "She is, in a fashion, liberating us to return to the kind of thinking that has kept our art alive for centuries, through many changes."

Kempenich is a blend of Chippewa, Cree, Blackfoot, Assiniboine and Dakota tribes. She also has French Canadian roots. In fact, an ancestor on her father's side, Louis Riel, was the founder of Manitoba. That mixed heritage even came through in the language she spoke, Metis, which is a combination of Cree, Ojibwe Assiniboine and French.

When she moved off her home reservation to Grand Forks, where she still lives, she began to realize how her own experience as a Native person was not necessarily universal. Once she realized that, she returned to her family to learn about the background she represented.

"I didn't realize the words that I spoke were not English," Kempenich said. "But whenever I started interacting with other tribes that were Chippewa, or Ojibwe, they didn't understand me either."

Kempenich remembers being an artist since she was four years old and tried to buy art supplies at the local store. Much of her learning since has been self guided and self learned, though she's also followed what other artists have created. It wasn't until 2012 that she decided to pursue her artwork as a career.

Some of her work in the gallery portrays Native American women in traditional ways. Other works simply depict scenes from nature, designs or a combination. She takes aspects from the various tribes she descends from and works them into the her work.

Goulet said one of Kempenich's strengths is working in contemporary ways—a quality which still connects her to her traditional heritage.

"One of our Ojibwe creative traditions is to always be contemporary. Introduction to new materials, concepts, designs and other information has been embraced, explored and transformed, and we have made it our own," Goulet said during her introduction. "Hillary Kempenich is a name we will all be hearing more often as she advances in the contemporary art world."

Even though her artwork may vary in mediums and techniques, Kempenich views it as a way to tell stories of the place and people and from she comes from—a background that is both traditional and unique.

"I'm not a writer, so this is my way of honoring those stories and trying to preserve those stories," Kempenich said.

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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