Portrait of G. Peter Jemison, the Artist
By Carol White Llewellyn
G. Peter Jemison (Heron Clan, Seneca), was born in the small town of Silver Creek, NY, near Lake Erie, the eldest of two children born to Ansley and Margaret Jemison.
"My father was a seventh generation descendent of Mary Jemison from his mother's side and my father's father was also a Jemison. I never knew Mother's father, who was English. As a child, I went to a reenactment at Letchworth State Park and that's how I learned the story of Mary Jemison [the White Woman of the Genesee]."
"My Dad's father died when he was very young and my father provided for the family. He worked for a dairy farmer and went to school when his chores were finished. As an adult, he became an ironworker. My mother was a housewife who sometimes worked for the local farmers."
Both of Peter's parents were enrolled members of the Seneca Nation and his family has ties
to the Cattaraugus, the Allegany and the Tonawanda Territories.
Peter became enamored of art at an early age.
"I was in about fifth or sixth grade when my teacher complimented a picture I'd created of a postman delivering mail. You see, we didn't have mail delivery then - the general store functioned as our post office - so the picture was completely from my imagination.
"In seventh grade, students from the small local schools all went to one larger school, so I had the same art teacher from 7th grade on and she really encouraged me. During my last year of high school, I had the opportunity to study art history from the Renaissance period to the '60s at Fredonia State."
Peter's parents supported and encouraged his interest in art, taking him to exhibits of works by Van Gogh and Andrew Wyeth. This exposure further inspired him to pursue a career in art.
"I wanted to go to art school, which would make me the first in my family to go to college. I applied to Buffalo State and when I was accepted, my family had no idea how they could afford it."
Peter loved the artistic atmosphere at Buffalo State. His enthusiasm and motivation more than made up for deficits in his early art foundation, helping him to excel where others with more natural artistic gifts foundered.
The art school at Buffalo State was directly across from the Albright Knox Art Gallery, a museum of contemporary art. For a mere $5, he became a member of the museum. Suddenly, he had access to his own personal treasure trove--the museum's library.
"I spent hours in the library devouring information, and I became an art historian. I began giving guided tours of the gallery. My focus was on my art, so some of my other courses suffered," he recalls.
In 1964 while still in college, Peter had the opportunity to spend 6 months studying art in Sienna, Italy. Initially, he spoke no Italian and his host family spoke no English. Each week, his class focused on a different city, studying its art and architecture. On the weekend, the class visited the city they were studying. His knowledge and appreciation of art grew exponentially. Blessed with an almost-photographic memory for images, Peter found the exceedingly difficult Italian exams easier than did most of the students.
"While in Italy, a friend and I had a two-man exhibit at a restaurant. It wasn't until I came home that I realized how much attention the show had received here in the U.S. When I returned, some of my work was accepted into a juried exhibit at the Albright- Knox Gallery when some of my professors' works were refused. Suddenly I was on a different playing field and I encountered jealousy and resentment that surprised me.
"When I finished school, I applied to Yale. I wasn't accepted, so I sold my car and moved to New York City to become an artist."
Peter accepted a job selling and delivering art supplies.
"I learned to drive like a New York City Cabbie," he laughs.
One weekend, he took off and returned to Buffalo for an art festival. Upon his return, his employer dismissed him. Through the generosity of a neighbor, he survived until he found his next job.
"I learned of an invitational exhibit while attending an opening at the Whitney Museum and I simply walked in wearing my brown Italian motorcycle jacket. Everyone else was in tuxes," he chuckled. "I walked up to the Gallery Owner and invited him to come to my studio. I wasn't really expecting him to respond, but he came, and he accepted my work in the Tibor De Nagy Gallery's invitational exhibit for emerging artists!
"By then, I'd found a great job as a display artist on 57th Street, one of New York's most important design areas, but I didn't know how to handle success. I started hanging out at Art Bars, but the problem was that I could afford to eat or drink, but not both."
Peter rose to head of the display department, but the NYC nightlife caught up with him and the heady experience of becoming an overnight artistic sensation at the age of 22 took an emotional toll. He became severely depressed and he decided to leave New York City, accepting a job teaching art in Buffalo. He could now travel and see more of the world.
He soon took a job as a decorator on Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco for the company out of New York City, called Design Research and he married a first time. During his stay in California, a group of Native Americans took over Alcatraz Island, and the movement was lead by a Mohawk. This incident made an impression upon Peter. Although he had always known he was Seneca, he knew little of Seneca ways. He became inspired to explore his identity and began his journey home to his Seneca heritage.
At this time, he and his wife moved to Schenectady.
The privately owned Museum of the American Indian decided to curate an exhibit of contemporary Native American artists. The artists in this show decided that they wanted to open a gallery for Native American Artists in New York's gallery district of Soho, which became known as American Art. Peter had works exhibited there and eventually curated a number of the gallery's exhibits.
By 1972, a Native American movement gained ground. Artist Lloyd Oxendine was interviewed by Barbara Walters on the Today Show and Peter's pieces were featured. His work appeared in Art in America that same summer, and the Native American Dance Theater arose to prominence in New York City.
It was also about this time that the American Indian Movement (AIM), a Native American activist organization, came onto the international scene. Its seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. in 1972, and the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, drove awareness of Native American issues.
Peter began curating shows of contemporary Native American Artists that he displayed in Native Communities throughout New York State. He transported the shows in the back of his van.
He was soon hired by the President of the Seneca Nation to become the head of its Education Department.
By now, Peter had developed an intense desire to discover more about his heritage, an interest that his wife did not share or understand, which caused their split. He began meeting long-lost family members, learning the Seneca language, studying Iroquois social dancing and discovering his roots, as he continued his art.
In 1975, an arsonist burned down a building on his Grandmother's property in which nine year's worth of Peter's work was destroyed. In devastation, he gave up art for three years until a commission inspired him to pick up his artist's tools again. During this time, he returned to ironworking, an occupation he began in College and worked at during the summers.
Soon thereafter, he was invited by the American Indian Community House to return to New York City to run its gallery, which he moved from 38th and 5th to West Broadway in Soho. Peter worked with his friends, on a shoestring budget, to renovate the loft.
"I'd connected with some big name artists, and friends from around the country such as Jolene Rickard, Jesse Cooday, and Will (Guy) Henson were curating exhibits, and they shipped me their shows to exhibit. We got rave reviews in The New York Times, the Village Voice, New York Magazine, the Daily News and others. In spite of that, I was still doing everything in the gallery.
"We had some of the best work that was being done and I was able to introduce works of many artists such as Edgar Heap of Birds, George Longfish, and Jaune Quick to See Smith to New York City audiences. It really relaunched my career, but I needed to find a way to balance my work as a curator and my work as an artist, and I needed to be able to work on multiple pieces simultaneously."
This proved to be quite a challenge. He turned to creating handmade paper which he worked on in the papermaking studio and then, having turned his living room into his art studio, completed his work there. Inspired by seeing New York subway straphangers carrying bags of all sorts, he began his "Paper Bag Series," working on real paper bags using his handmade paper. Pieces from this renowned series are displayed in museums across the country.
In 1985, Peter was offered the opportunity to become Site Manager at Ganondagan, so he picked up and moved from New York City to Victor.
"At first, I really wondered if I'd done the right thing," he recalls.
When he arrived, a falling down barn, a collapsed chicken coop, a house in shambles and an abandoned cider mill/welding shop - the current Visitors Center- greeted him.
Images included in this article:
Peter Jemison in Studio, 2009
- Late Snow, on handmade paper, 1982.
- Big Brown Spring, acrylic on paper, 2008.
- At The Border, oil on canvas, 1985. Part of the permanent collection of the Rochester Museum and Science Center.
- Jacqua, drawing on paper, 1987.
- Ansley's Fish, 1982. Part of the permanent collection of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.
To be continued: Portrait of G. Peter Jemison, Life at Ganondagan