Jimmy Harper was born in 1966 on the Island Lake Reserve in Manitoba, which is only
accessible by air, located 350 miles northeast of Winnipeg. He is the second oldest of
five children born to his parents who are still together today. Jimmy says that his
Ojibway-Cree heritage, teachings and legends were strongly emphasized in his family
upbringing by his elders, more so than in the reserve schooling.
Harper concedes that growing up on the reservation is much different than in the city.
"Up there there's a lot of land and forest. Not much to do. I spent much of my time
watching the animals and studying their structure and movements. I've seen a lot of my
friends up there get into trouble. Myself I don't drink or do no drugs- that's how I was
raised I guess. I had a strong upbringing: stay away from this and that; don't fall into the
common trappings. Plus I think my art may of given me somewhat of a focus. I knew a
guy who was a really fantastic artist. In the later stage, he became a drinker and then an
alcoholic. Eventually he couldn't paint anymore because of his tremors. I have vowed
that will never happen to me."
Jimmy experienced what was to be one of his life's defining moments when he first
encountered the paintings and work of his late Uncle, renowned aboriginal artist Jackson
Beardy (who has been written about elsewhere on this site; see 470 Selkirk Avenue). But
even after this experience, it was a slow process but in his teenage years it was enough to
keep him out of trouble, and he sold his first piece in 1982. "When I was eight years old
I saw my first native art painting done by my Uncle, Jackson Beardy. That's what got me
started. I started doodling with pencils. I experimented with pencil crayons and later
with watercolours and pastels. I also saw some soapstone carvings my grandfather did
that inspired me to try my hand at soapstone and woodcarvings. As the years went by I
felt more comfortable with painting and I started experimenting more with oils. It was
also about this time that I started using acrylics. The oils are much different to work with
and take forever to dry, so now I pretty much stick with acrylic."
Island Lake would host an Aboriginal Week every year, and Jimmy would participate,
showing his work and giving painting demonstrations in front of people. Other people
would also demonstrate their skills in hunting, trapping, fishing, beadwork, and various
"The reason I moved to Winnipeg (1999) was to go to school and take up fine arts so I
can learn more. I like doing aboriginal and virginal wildlife painting. The reason I want
to go to school is that I want to learn how to mix mediums, airbrush, and to learn more
the various styles. I got accepted to go to school but currently there's no funding so I'm
on a waiting list. It's a four-year program. While I'm waiting I'm considering taking up
couple of courses for upgrading. I think Winnipeg is a wonderful city."
While living on Marlene Street, he became known as a soft-spoken, but talented artist by
the other residents. The teaching staff at nearby Lavallee School saw Harper's Murals on
Marlene and they asked him if he could teach native art in the school; so he started
teaching pencil drawings there twice a week for couple hours a day. "The kids found it
very interesting- they liked it. The kids were from kindergarten to grade eight. I had a
lot of fun with the kids and they had a lot of fun with me."
He received an honourarium award from MLA Nancy Allen who had nominated his two
Murals (along with the 3 other Marlene Street walls) for The Manitoba Attorney General
Safer Community Award. Looking at Harper's walls, it becomes quite apparent that his
talents are well suited to his larger scale Mural work. There were no preliminary
sketches for either wall; they were accomplished from his own creativity and rendered
entirely freehand, with no scaling or perspective difficulty whatsoever.
With most artists, when they are called upon to draw an animal or bird, that artist will
invariably use a photo reference to help them get it right on the wall. One important
difference between all these artists and Jimmy is that Harper's creations are taken right
from his mind. He doesn't look at a picture of a caribou or wolf or rabbit; he doesn't
have to, as he has spent much of his life studying the kinetic movements and postures of
all these animals. "I don't look at other people's work. I always want it to be my idea.
My ideas I get from watching animals, and sometimes watching them on the Discovery
Channel! Some of the animals I draw are hard to find and difficult to see; that's a reason
why I like the Discovery Channel!"
Perhaps Jimmy has enough of his own inspiration at this point in his career that he
doesn't need to look at how other artists are doing it. Jimmy also acknowledges that
when he goes to school for art that this will change (the blinkers will come off), but even
then it will be only to learn technique and style, and not at all to get ideas of subject
matter from others. "My art is not for a living. It is more to promote myself and it gives
me satisfaction. It's not for money. The direction I'm heading is not necessarily to sell
my art but to teach it. I want to be one of the people who keeps it going; to make sure
that aboriginal art doesn't get lost and never dies out. My goal is to become an art
teacher. I'll teach anyone; they don't have to be aboriginal kids!"
In his spare time, Jimmy sings and plays guitar in a band with friends (mainly rock and
country) and writes his own songs. He's also experimented with other instruments
including drums, keyboards and bass. He's also a mechanic and likes to work on cars. In
2002 he worked at St. Amant Centre. He took his paintings there and did some
storytelling of Native legends to the children there, an exact extension of what he had
done during Aboriginal Days back on the reserve. "That went well, the kids liked it and I
did too." When this finished, he left to go up North, and since he's been in Winnipeg
he's made a point of going back up North once a year to visit.
I was curious about Jimmy's e-mail address moniker so I asked him about it: "The forest
drummer is a bird that's found in the deep forest. Forest drummer refers to the male
grouse; he makes a drumming noise by flapping his wings. He does this every spring to
mate and look for a mate. I guess I'm looking for a mate, too!"
Jimmy shows an appropriate amount of modesty for where he is in his career right now
and is a bit critical of his own talent. He realizes that with a little bit of technical training,
he can take his craft much further. "When I first saw my late Uncle Jackson Beardy's
paintings, it became my dream that when I grew up, I would paint like him. And today it
is still my dream. As for myself I don't consider myself a good artist. But I still try and
practice my abilities to become a good artist. It's been a struggle for me. I'm a self-
taught artist. The key is patience. We all need patience to become what we want to be."
Jimmy Harper lives in East Kildonan.
Contact Jimmy at
Click here to view Jimmy
Harper's Winnipeg Murals.