ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


Rabbett Before Horses

Ojibwe artist Rabbett Before Horses Strickland is a Wisconsin-based Renaissance man. The talented artist, musician, and theoretical mathematician is best known for his paintings that reflect the culture of the Ojibwe tribe.

AIRED: December 18, 2020 | 0:56:48

[bright instrumental music]

- The following program

is a PBS Wisconsin original production.

[soft music]

[indistinct chatter]

- You wanna do any talking on the stage today?

- No, no.

- No Q&A? - No.

- You wanna go up and just say, "This is me"?

- No. - Nothing? Okay.

- I'll stand up in the back if you want...

- Over the years, I've written on Ojibwe artists

because I'm interested

in the recovery of Anishinaabe art.

Rabbett's style is entirely different.

Native artists are not in that same classical era that he is.

That it takes three weeks for something to dry,

'cause it's some real old oil paint.

- Rabbett Strickland: I don't even have a phone, so...

- Hello, Rabbett. - Hey.

- Good to see you again. Congratulations.

- We'll have to sit and talk real quick.

- Awesome show. - Yeah.

- He makes the stuff because he has to.

It's an imperative that he makes those works.

It's a bonus if they go out into the world

and people see them, people buy them,

people love them, people tell him that--

that's all bonus stuff.

It's not about any of that.

It's about the physical act.

It's about the creation of it.

- Like fan brushes?

- Yes, yes. I love fan brushes.

- I apply that, and then I matte the whole thing.

- [speaking indistinctly]

- So, you know, it takes a little more time.

- Whatever Rabbett does is beyond wonderful.

- There's nobody who paints like him.

I mean, he paints in the style of an Italian master.

- Is that chili still there?

- Yes. [laughs]

The pie-- the pie is gone, though.

- The pie is gone? - [laughs]

- Well, I started a new painting, so I...

- He's a craftsman. He's a worker.

I really admire workers.

And then, he's one of the most interesting people

I've ever met, for sure.

One of the best pure artists I've ever met,

and there aren't very many of those people around.

- Announcer: Rabbett Before Horses

was funded, in part, by

John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation,

Ron and Patricia Anderson,

John and Barbara McFarland,

Estate of Esther M. Schenk,

Ruth St. John and John Dunham West Foundation

with additional support from

Bitzer Family Legacy Fund,

John J. Frautschi Family Foundation,

Pat and Judy Sebranek,

Wisconsin Arts Board

with funds from the State of Wisconsin

and National Endowment for the Arts,

Focus Fund for Wisconsin Programming,

and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.

- She's saying something.

She talks the same way to the other cats.


Hi, Girls.

Hey, get off that!

Those are eagle feathers, you...

Get out of there!


Get off. [stammers]

Come on, get off!

It wasn't even funny, Girls.

You put holes in those feathers.



[laughs] Don't even care.

Little pest.

Well, I grew up around it.

My mother was always painting, so...

I just-- I don't know,

as a teenager, just started.

Around 14.

I was always drawing, though, cartoons and stuff, yeah.

That's from my mother.

More violet in here.

My mother grew up here,

and then their mother died,

and they went down to the orphanage in St. Paul.

In the '20s--

'30s, actually, is when they left.

They were all artists.

My mother was...

her sister was, her brother was,

her other brother was...

That's John,

my uncle John.

Commercial artist in Minneapolis.

Those are charcoals that you see,

that he's got laid out.

Then he came out to San Francisco,

where, uh, my mother went after the war.

That's my mother--

next picture is my mother, Beatrice.

That's Mary VanderVenter, my grandmother.

She was the daughter of Madeline Cadotte VanderVenter

who was the daughter of, uh,

Ogimaakwe from Bad River.

That's how she wrote her name on the Allotment Act.

And she married Frank Cadotte. That was her dad.

Frank Cadotte named his daughter after his mother,

which was...

yeah, you know.

Sometimes my mother brought some stuff up, but not a lot.

Traditional stories in San Francisco.

'Cause they were working,

$100 a month for those projects

that they built for the military.

The projects back then are just crap.

Sunnydale Projects.

Very few blacks, lot of Spanish,

so if you were ethnic looking, you were just Spanish.

You know, you're not Indian.

And I was really tall.

I remember that all my friends were short. [chuckles]

Just because both my mother

and my Aunt Teresa were artists,

you're immersed in it.

All the way up to junior high, I remember that.

When I was, uh, like,

uh, 16 and stuff, I made a lot of charts.

Tons of charts.

Just-- and making up colors, you know, just having...

I had these 18x24 sheets of paper,

and I was just making

50, you know, shades of lavender, you know, and purple.

I don't know why, I just did it.

Different reds and, you know, just working with 'em.

And then I just, uh,

I even studied pictures, like of Peter Paul Rubens.

He had some nice stuff,

with vermilion and Naples yellow

and-- wasn't really a red.

It looks like an orange-red, the capes and stuff.

Yeah, that's vermilion and Naples yellow

and maybe a little burnt sienna in there.

I use that.

That's what I'm gonna use next when I redo him.

First thing I did was, uh, a copy of somebody's.

It was, uh, Zeus shooting a thunderbolt from a cloud.

Real anatomical.

- I'm Steve Cotherman,

Director of the Washburn Cultural Center,

and I used to manage the museum

on Madeline Island for 25 summers.

Rabbett came to my attention at the museum,

and we've gotten to know each other a little bit.

I found out all these other things

that he was interested in,

that he was a musician

and had grown up in San Francisco.

You know, Rabbett's a bit of an autodidact

in a way, you know.

I just got this-- the feeling

that he just absorbs everything around him

and really doesn't...

we never talked about formal education.

Let me put it to you that way.

Never, never-- he never told me,

"I went to this college, and I did this,

and I did that, and then..."

It was just, like,

"I soaked up all this stuff," you know.

"I went to the Palace of the Legion of Honor

"in San Francisco when I was a kid,

"and I drew copies of Caravaggio

"and the masters and I just, you know,

did all this stuff,"

and I can just picture him as a kid,

hanging out at the museums in San Francisco.

Looking at the work and drawing it

and thinking about it and absorbing it

and all of that-- I can just picture it.

And then I get the good, warm feelings from it.

- Strickland: Here I was, you know, younger

and copying all this Greek mythology,

and you know, like digging the satyrs

and the centaurs and all that stuff.

Especially the satyrs, you know,Pan and stuff.

And I said, "Well, there it is," you know.

Here I was trying to do Greek mythology,

and I can do my own mythology.

Anishinaabe mythology.

I just went out on my own, just to do free flow,

see what I could do,

and that was the first one that came out.

It's crossed over, that's just amazing.

It was like it was waiting to come, you know?

[light music]

I was homeless in San Francisco

for a couple years, and when I was on the street,

I got meat packing paper.

You know, it comes in a roll, three feet,

as long as you want.

So I had a roll of that.

Not a whole roll. Maybe 30 feet.

And I would go to these places where they're--

they do construction, and they do, like,

maybe 15 buildings or whatever, you know, at a time.

They do-- but what they would do is do something here,

the next one...

so by the time they would get halfway down,

I would sleep in this one, you know, I would go here.

And that's where I would draw.

I would draw in these-- I used Prismacolors.

Pencils, colored pencils.

Stole them.

Pearl Art on Market Street. [chuckles]

Like a buck apiece, I think.

But the most I took was the black.

You use 'em just like an oil.

So, I did that for about two years.

That was horrible. [laughs]

There was this church

that opened, like, at 4:00 in the morning,

and it had a bathroom when you went right in,

and I would use that in the morning...

to clean up.

So I-- a lot of the homeless people I saw

don't look like they bothered cleaning up.

And I had a backpack,

and I had one change of clothes.

That's what was in the backpack.

And I had the pencils,

and I had the tube for the meat packing paper.


Janine Antoine had the gallery going

for native artists on the West Coast.

I got 'em down there.

Not many of those--

there's probably eight of those.

They took a long time to do.

Just like painting,

they had about three coats of Prismacolor.

That didn't last long, though. Good thing.

Good thing it ain't cold in San Francisco.


Yeah, it gets hard.

But I kept drawing.

I stopped using reference.

I stopped copying things at 28,

and so it was like a four-year transition

into accepting...

what I could do on my own.

And then the dreams started.

It was just, uh, a group of figures,

just moving all together, and uh...

it was real murky, like underwater, and blue.

Everything was blue.

I couldn't really make out any detail.

It was like a blur, like looking through

a lens that's not in focus.

I could see hair, though,

and it just looked like they were in a lot of wind,

so I tried to figure out a way to do that,

and that's where I started using hair as wind.

And at first, it was just like a regular dream,

and I didn't know what the heck it was,

but then when they started repeating,

it was kind of strange.

I found the scribbles.


apparently, I wake up in my sleep and draw.

It was always a group.

It was usually the four winds.

I figured out who they were,

'cause the winds are blowing air like Botticelli's.

And, uh, the winds flew.

So they showed up a lot in the earlier paintings.

In the air.

And, uh, the Gichi Manidoo and-- and Nokomis.

Gichi Manidoo has always got a lot of hair.

And, uh, that's probably 'cause in my, uh,

subconscious, there's a--

Medicine men had lots of long hair,

so this guy is just wrapped in hair in these dreams.

Nokomis, that means grandmother.

Very wise old woman.

Basically, just all our oral traditions go back with her.

And Nanabozho, of course,

an emissary from the Gichi Manidoo,

a planter of new medicine.

Those three stripes are high Midewin

that he carries.

The early stories I read had Nanabozho shape-shifting

into a rabbit for different reasons.

So that's why I did it.

It had nothing to do with

me being called Rabbett, you know.

All my old copying of, like, Greek mythology

and the satyrs, you know, the half-goat, half-man and...

that half-rabbit with the ears, you know,

that played into it just great.

All the paintings have him in it.

That's the deal we made. [laughing warmly]

Winona or Winoah, that's his mother.

He's the only human, really.

West Wind, that's his dad.

One day she was picking berries in the field and...

a sudden gust of wind,

that was it, conception of Nanabozho.


She died in childbirth,

but then I always show them like Madonna and child,

even though she wasn't there.

Nanabozho was brought up by Nokomis.

That's his grandmother.

Nanabozho's sun, Nanabozho's moon...

that's his light, and that's his dark.

So he has his own night and day that follows him,

and what gave 'em away was tattoos on their face.

Like, he has a tattoo of the sun

on half of his face,

and he had the moon on half of his face.

[laughing] Gotta be...

And the Eyes of the Dead, he was always there.

That omnipresent of all the past ancestors

that have passed away and died,

all the atrocities and everything,

it's always there; it's always present.

It's a reminder.

And the Eyes of the Dead had the eye in the spear.

Kind of was a spiritual battle, you know,

not a blood battle.

I think a lot of people make the mistake

of thinking that they're people.

They're not; They're spirits.

Manidoo, yeah.

There's 11 Manidoo I always use.

Those are the ones I've always seen in dreams.

Like a living mythology.

It's now, yeah, just adding on a little bit.

Taking from the traditions

and putting it into something new.

I'm sure many changes happen...

over a long period of time.

I'm sure each storyteller embellished,

you know, even though they think they're doing

the exact same story.

- My name is Winona LaDuke, Beenasayequay Nindizhinakaaz

from Gaa-waabaabiganikaag Ishkonigan,

from White Earth Reservation.

I travel around and speak and go to meetings,

and one day, I was in San Francisco

at the American Indian Contemporary Arts,

and I saw a postcard

of one of his paintings owned by Janine Antoine.

And I said, "Who is that who is doing that work?"

And she said, "Well, this guy named Rabbett Strickland."

I said, "He's gotta be Ojibwe."

And she said, "Yeah, he's Ojibwe."

She said, "He's living in different people's houses."

I knew that Rabbett was telling stories

of Anishinaabeg history

and our mythological beings, of our beings,

and I knew that very few people would know what that was,

but I knew what-- exactly what he was painting,

and I was wondering why he was in San Francisco

painting such a thing when the Ojibwe people

would be very interested in what he had to paint.

And so, um, four different trips to San Francisco.

Each time, I tried to find Rabbett,

and I would get closer and closer,

and he would've moved someplace or moved someplace else,

but the first time I met Rabbett,

I met him in San Francisco at a woman's house,

and I was just totally mesmerized by his painting

and by his work and the stories that he was telling,

and I'd come from far, and he knew that.

And he knew that I'd been looking for him for a while because, you know,

I'm drawn to this place

where we are here,

Moningwunakauning, our island,

and I am drawn to our stories.

And so I found him there,

and we began this long conversation

about what he was doing and where he was doing it,

and, you know, he kept saying to me,

"It's all about the walls."

He would move from house to house

according to who had big walls that were available.

You know, he had this pattern of migration

to a new placewith walls

where someone would offer him some Folger's coffee,

from what I could gather,

and some light eating and a place for his cat.

- The last apartment I had in San Francisco,

he converted a Victorian to six units,

and I got one on the bottom for $900.

Real tiny, okay, this is how wide it was.

Okay, and it had one wall.

I think 8x12.

That's pretty cool. That's all I wanted.

And it had one window looking out.

You could see the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was in Bernal Heights on top of a hill.

And I had one cat there, Booz, and I didn't have a bed.

I slept in the corner on the floor, wood floors.

One night, it was just really storming,

and this water was flying in, in the back...

so I-- I called the landlord.

He wasn't there, blah, blah.

I told him what's going on.

And so, I just ignored it for a while,

and it was filling up back there.

The drain wasn't working.

So I-- I got dressed and went out and I-- I saw it

was shooting out of the pipe, the drain pipe coming down.

It was just shooting directly in this crack,

so I blocked that, and then it stopped.

So I-- I left.

I usually walked maybe two, three miles,

and I just went out the next day.

He had come by to fix it,

and he walked in, and he saw this big painting.

So, one of his best friends was Annie Nakao.

She controlled the pink section

of the Sunday Examiner.

So he told her, so she calls, though, and comes over,

and I showed her.

I had maybe 20 canvases, I mean, rolled up,

half of them rolled up in the corner.

You know, just doing paintings and then rolling them up,

'cause you know, I would sell one,

but I wasn't selling a lot.

And so, she saw a few,

and she wanted to put it in theExaminer .

That was on a Thursday.

It went into the Sunday paper Sunday.

And then, that's when the calls came in,

and I had, uh... the rent was $900.

I had $1,100.

There was a show in two weeks.

I was hoping to sell at least one.

And, uh...I just--

I made so much money in one week,

it's ridiculous, you know.

Way over a couple hundred grand.

I mean, they were bidding over them,

just because of the article.

Just because of a leak. [laughing]

That was a big turnaround right there.


I had a bank account.


- When you're an Anishinaabe person and you see his work,

it fills your heart up with something,

'cause you see something that you've heard spoken of,

you see beings that you've heard stories told of,

and he gives them... life.

He gives life to our stories in a way

that no other artist that I know has.

[light music and whistling]

[birds chirping, squawking]

- The crows are really cautious, really cautious.

To the extent of losing

some of the stuff that I put out just for them,

the blue jays will take it.

They'll jump up, go in the tree.

Then, the blue jays come flying in.

- I spent a lot of time visiting with him,

and then, he looked at me, and he says,

"You know what my real passion is?"

I'm looking at the guy,

and the guy's doing, like,

an 8x14 painting that looks like a Botticelli.

It's Anishinaabe mythological beings

going through the sky on turtles

with, you know, all these butterflies,

and I was, like, trying to imagine,

"What could be your passion

more than spending 12 hours a day

painting with oils

in an ancient manner of ancient beings?"

And he said, um, "The Theory of the Prime.

Theoretical mathematics."

[laughing] I was like...

And I thought, you know, what I thought is, like,

"Of course, you know,

that would be what Da Vinci would say too."

Someone who has that complex of a mind

that can put together these multi-dimensional stories.

- Strickland: And you know what odd perfect numbers are, now?

Okay, well, there's even perfect numbers, okay?

A perfect number is a number

which is the sum of its proper divisors,

and the proper divisors are all the divisors

except the number itself.

So six is a perfect number.

One, two, and three, divide six,

and their sum is six.

That's what makes a perfect number.

The next one is 28, the next one is 496,

and they keep getting bigger.

I don't think they know if there's infinitely many,

but Euclid did that, actually, 2,000 years ago.

And I think, uh, René Descartes,

he invented analytic geometry.

He said, "I see no reason why there shouldn't be an odd perfect."

So everybody started trying to resolve that,

either, you know, for it or against it.

It doesn't matter, a resolve's a resolve.

Is a resolve, huh? [chuckles]

Like a rose is a rose.

- And so, each time I go see him, I ask about his math,

and as people know, he has a chalkboard up

where he's working on his latest formula

and his formulation which, you know, I honor

and am entirely baffled by,

and I'm hoping that someday I can bring someone

intelligent enough to his presence

to have a conversation with him about theoretical math

because I am not that person,

but I-- I recognize what he's doing.

- And I could see patterns and things, way back,

maybe four, five years old.

So I've always had it.

Went to college a little.

College is really slow.

And I kind of wanted to just

work on certain problems anyway.

So I started looking for something to create a tool

for Additive Number Theory, 'cause they have none.

To work with primes like, uh,

things like Goldbach's Hypothesis.

A modern way to say that would be...

every even number greater than four

can be expressed as sum of two odd primes.


Anything that has partitions.

And so, I started studying partitions.

And I looked at it--

So if you put them in variables, C and D,

you find out that C squared minus D squared

equals C plus D,

where C equals D plus 1.

You just insert this into this, and it proves that.

- He said he wanted to go someplace, you know.

First he wanted to go to Santa Fe,

and so I think that my sister,

who did not have a driver's license, but is a good driver,

was dispatched because Rabbetts don't drive

and Rabbetts don't fly, as I recall.

And so I dispatched my 6'2" sister to be his partner,

driving him across the country

in some vehicle that he did own.

- Janine Antoine was a friend of LaDuke's,

and one day she says, uh,

"Winona LaDuke's looking for you."

And I said, "Who's that?"

And she said, "Well, it's an old friend from college."

And I said, "Well, does she have any big walls?"


You know, to paint, you know.

She says, "Yeah, she's probably got some big walls up there."

I think it wasn't that long after that I went up there.

Pretty hard to just jump up and go.

Had to get Lorna Haynes to come out and drive me.

I didn't know where I was going.

So I paid her way, and uh...

she came out on a plane.

Went to Santa Fe.

- We took him to Santa Fe

and the great Indian Art Market there

and enjoyed that, but you know,

his real calling was to come home.

So first, he came back to my house,

and I had renovated a little cabin next door

for the artist in residence.

I had taken things off and extended the wall

so that he could actually have a wall upon which to paint.

- That's where I did "Out of the Sun."

I finished it there; I started it in Santa Fe.

And then I glazed it, and I rolled it up,

and I brought it up there and finished it.

Not a big wall. [laughs]

It was right-- just like that.

I mean, I had to lay on the floor,

you know, on the bottom.

Big shaggy rug.

- People from our village would go see him.

You had to be careful, 'cause you'd interrupt him,

and he's not a patient fellow.

He's not-- he's interested in what he's doing,

and his world is so immense,

and his dreams and his stories are so widespread

that, you know, he has little time

for others, but he would tolerate.

I just-- I remember it was so funny

'cause he was just, like, "Me and the cats, moving in."

And the thing is, is that in my little life,

you know, there's-- I felt like in this moment,

I could be like a benefactor to a great artist.

A patron. A patroness of the arts.

And so I had this moment where I felt like

I could do that, and I thought about

the Medici family

and I thought about how they financed Da Vinci

after looting the Americas and such.

And I thought, "How great is it that

I have this moment to be a patron to a great artist?"

In my little modest way of,

I will feed you, I will get you traveling here,

I will pay some money so that you are sustained,

and I will give you a place to do your art.

- And then, uh, I was down in Minneapolis.

I did a show down there,

and I hooked up with some people,

and I stayed down there for a while.

I was gonna go to White Earth again,

but instead of turning that way, I just--

I went the other way, up to Bayfield.

Full circle.

I asked my mother if she wanted to go,

but then she passed away.

She didn't want to go.

"What do you wanna go back there for?

There's nothing there." [laughs]

When I first got here, I didn't know where I was,

and I was looking for Rita, my cousin.

J goes around, and she says, "Well, just come up J,

and the first right," so I was on the other side

going to the first right and I couldn't find her.

I said, "There's nobody here."

She says, "I'm standing right here."

Then she figured out, "Oh, you're on the other side.

You gotta come through town and then take the right."

I basically-- when I got here, I slept in the car

'cause she had a big dog.

He was real mean.

Me and Booz slept in the car.

Rita's an artist.

She does a lot of craft,

a lot of birch bark.

Paints her birch bark.

All the beading, you know, all that stuff.

Yeah, she paints, and then her grandfather,

Burt VanderVenter, painted.

It's in the genes, but I think it's more growing up in it.

- 'Cause I just love colored leaves.

- You know, I was happy to see him when he moved back

to his territory here and happy to see his welcoming,

and I'm glad he's much closer, and I'm glad he's happy here.

I'm just so grateful for what he brings

in his art to our communities.

[chuckling warmly]

- Then I met up with Jean.

"Show me around."

I had her number from LaDuke's

on the Rolodex for Red Cliff,

and I just happened to be looking through that thing,

and I saw that name, and said, "Okay,

I'll get ahold of her."

We hit it off right off the bat.

- When I first met him,

his partner, Jeanie Buffalo, was still alive.

Jeanie became ill later and passed away,

but at that time, he and Jeanie

were living in a house outside of Bayfield.

I went up to see him and discovered that

what he really, really wanted to be was

the greatest Native American mathematician of all time.

It's like, "What?!" [laughing]

"I've done the math. The math works," he says.

[laughs] Okay, whatever that means.

You gotta-- you really need to tell somebody

who gets that the math works, 'cause I don't, you know.


- This started in my late 20s.

I had this idea here for, like, ten years

before I had the second part.

Even though it's really simple now,

took a long time for me to see that-- that pattern.

And I would wake up, maybe 2:00 in the morning,

and go write something down and-- dead end.

It's always working-- must be working on it,

'cause it's amazing how

all of a sudden, something clicks,

like this clicked just a couple days ago.

I woke up, and I-- like, a voice told me,

"Check what Euler did."

It's a Swedish name, E-U-L-E-R,

but they pronounce it "Oyler."

Just all I needed was a priority argument.

So I knocked out half the odd integers.

They can't be a perfect number.

Just like that.

That's so cool. [laughs]

- I said, "How do you do these paintings?

What's the process?"

And he said, "Well, I do these drawings,

"and then, I transfer the drawings

to the big canvases."

And I said, "Well, where are the drawings?"

"Uh, they're around here somewhere."

"Well, can you show me some drawings?"

So he pulls out this big old beaten-up portfolio

and he pulls a pile of drawings out of the portfolio,

and they're all dog-eared and coffee-mug-stained,

and they're just a mess, you know.

And they were incredible.

The drawings were amazing.

Little notations in the margins

where you could see his thought process working out

and how he was gonna do these and transfer them

to the big canvases, and then he did grid marks

on the drawings and then transfer the grid.

I mean, it was just fascinating,

and I said, "Dude, these drawings are incredible, man.

We should preserve these drawings.

At the very least, let's mat and frame some of these."

Visitors come in, and they look at Rabbett's paintings,

and they just go, "Wow, these are amazing,"

but for me, it'show you got to the amazing part

that's most fascinating.

And he'd never thought about it.

He just stuffed 'em in the portfolio.

It was amazing.

That was one of the things that most endeared him to me

was just his sort of disregard for some of the things

that other artists hold as precious.

He just said, "Eh, it's just an old drawing, you know."

And I thought, "Ah, that's great," you know,

he doesn't-- he doesn't attach great importance to this,

and that's really the sign

of a guy who's got his vision and knows where he's going.

- I did an arc.

Whoever I start with.

But I just put her shape here.

Then I got him about the same size.

Then they just follow.

You know, from the sketch.

And I had 'em in these blocks.


The same spaces-- they're in the same space.

Then I just start working on each one.

They all went off her.

She's the first size.

This will be real dark here.

Looks too wide.

I'll do a lot of that,

keep changing stuff... as I look at it.

mostly in terms of size.

This isn't a hard lead.

But they don't go on as well if you use the hard ones.

I'll try and smear it a bit

so it doesn't just all...

A lot of this will get taken away with the glaze.

Kind of like a wash over it.

Something like this takes three days

to cut around all that hair and stuff.

You know, and then move your way up-- or two days.

As long as you can sit.

More like three hours now.

I used to sit eight.

But I'm sitting more like three.

Of course, younger, you can sit a long time.

Every day for eight hours? That would kill me.

Especially down on the bottom, all bent.

Your neck gets out of whack.

Die right there...

with cats on me. [laughing]

- One of the things that's most interesting

about Rabbett is that he gets dreams,

and then the dreams tell him

he's got to commit these to canvas.

He has to paint the dream

in order to move on to the next dream.

So he had a dream about this subject,

and it was gonna be real complicated.

There was a lot going on in this painting,

and it was going to be a big painting

about the right to consciousness.

Native peoples' right to consciousness.

In other words, their right to their own beings.

And so he had this vision,

and he thought, "I live in this house

"with rooms that are 12x12

with 9-foot ceilings, if I'm lucky.

Where am I gonna do this big painting?"

And he stepped into his living room,

and here's the big cathedral ceiling,

and he said, "I'll do it in here."

So when I went-- the next time I went to see him,

he had built a wall down the middle of the living room,

all the way to the top of that cathedral ceiling.

So the wall was 20 feet long and 15 feet high,

and he had stapled a giant canvas to it.

The canvas was probably-- I think it was around

17x9 feet.

He'd stapled this giant canvas up there,

and he was working on this painting,

and I thought, "Oh, my God. What is this?"

"Well, this is my dream. It's my vision.

Here it is, you know."

And I thought, "This is unbelievable."

The next thing was, "Where are you gonna show that?"

Well, that didn't really matter,

although there was always the question of,

"Man, I think I could sell this for a lot."


There was always that,

but it was like, "Where are you gonna show it?"

I said, "I think you should bring it over

to the museum and show it."

He said, "It's not finished."

I said, "That doesn't matter.

"You can come over to the museum and finish it.

"Let's get a stretcher frame built for this thing.

We'll take it over to the museum on the island."

I got one wall in the entire museum

that's big enough for that painting.

We commissioned a master cabinet builder

to build the ultimate stretcher frame for that thing.

The stretcher frame alone cost over $1,000, [laughs]

and then we haul it in pieces over to the island,

and of course, he comes over with the canvas rolled up

and lay it out on the empty floor of the museum and go--

it took forever to get that thing stapled up

and re-stretched, and then we hung it on the wall,

and it weighed a ton because of the stretcher frame,

and we had to put cleats on the wall.

It was an incredible process.

And then there was this giant painting.

The deal was Rabbett could come in whenever he wanted

and work on the painting.

That actually worked,

except when there were visitors in the museum,

because they would distract him.

[laughs] They would be asking questions.

And the next thing you know is he's talking to them

instead of painting, and he looked at me one day

and said, "I don't think I'm ever gonna finish this thing."

But it was marvelous in the museum.

It just looked incredible on that big wall,

and people loved it.

They just came in by the droves to see it.

They were pretty fascinated by it.

- I got sick of taking the ferry,

and I stopped working on it.

[laughs] I came out and took it down.

"Eh, this is boring."

- When the painting finally came down,

we took it off the stretcher again,

because it was-- you couldn't--

we couldn't even get it out of the building

unless we took it off the stretcher,

and then we took the stretcher apart,

and we wrapped up all the big pieces to it,

and the next time I saw him, he was no longer

living in the house with the cathedral ceiling,

and he had moved into a trailer.

And I went up to visit him in the middle of the winter,

and there, laying in the snow,

was the $1,000 stretcher frame.


And I said, "You need to put that in the garage

"or something, you know,

"because you're gonna need to re-stretch

that painting someday."

And there's the frame.

But what's so great about the guy

is he wasn't thinking about stuff like that.

You know, that sort of thing wasn't important.

What was important was making the art,

getting to the next dream and vision,

and the execution of that next piece.

- I think it's about doing it. Yeah.

I do that with mathematics.


I hit on something last week, real nice.

I turned the lights off at 8:00, you know,

just pitch black-- you see how dark it gets out here.

Pitch black.

Beautiful idea came into my head.

I-- I said, "Oh, God.

"If I don't write it down, I'm gonna forget it.

"I gotta get up and turn the lights on

and write it down."

Took me, like, 20 minutes just to do that,

'cause I didn't want to turn the lights on.


But I had to.

I said, "This is pretty good," so...

I don't know what that is.

Just a flash.

[mellow, upbeat synthesizer music]


- You hear this music

that he cobbles together at home,

and you think, you know, "Jeez, man,

this is pretty good stuff."

I remember that when we're talking about

San Francisco when he was a teenager

and he's playing in bands and he's a singer

and he's been to the Fillmore and he's been to the Avalon

and he saw, you know, The Grateful Dead

and he did this and, "Oh, by the way,

I was gonna be the singer for the Grass Roots,"

and all of this stuff, right, you know,

it's mostly just 'wow'--

the wow factor you get.

[Rabbett laughs]

- Rabbett: This a lady did when I was not 17 yet.

She was an artist.

But that's me. I'm sleeping on a couch.

And then me playing a guitar.

My mother played guitar and piano.

Got it off her.

I think I had an aunt who played an organ.


And then-- but I learned a lot from other people,

you know, that I hung around with later.

Yeah, more from them.

Jamie and the Intruders.


Oh, my God.

Yeah, that was right before the Beatles came out,

Jamie and the Intruders.

A lot of, like, Army kids--

parents were in the Army,

playing over at Presidio Teen Club.

I think it was, like, five months in that one group

and then, boom, the next band.

The group. Always the lead singer.

And I quit the other one,

and back then you didn't care, just cutthroat.

[laughs] Just went to another.

They're all mad at me, and I went to the other group

'cause they were doing, like, originals.

You do a lot when you're young, you know, so...

seems like a long time, but it's not.

Just filling up every day.

All the way through about 18,

then I didn't want to play no more.

They were still going, and I didn't want to.

Started-- I started getting into painting.

♪ Excy gonna ride

♪ Ride them ponies with me

♪ Excy gonna ride 'em

This song was for Jean Buffalo.

After she passed.

They called her Excy.


♪ Excy gonna ride

♪ Ride them ponies with me

♪ Excy gonna ride 'em

She had a horse named "Memengwaa."

Means "butterfly."

♪ Ride them ponies with me

In the back, that's her, um, Sonia Buffalo singing with me.

♪ Oh, yeah

- I did not know Jeanie before.

I just knew who the Buffalo clan was

up at Red Cliff,

and then I met Jeanie through Rabbett.

What was amazing about their relationship

was that she had a head for the details of life

and for business kinds of things.

She really was sort of his representative.

She was making sure that people knew about his work,

that things would get sold, that, you know,

reproductions, prints, and cards and things

would get made and that they would be available for sale.

And then when Jeanie got ill and then passed away,

there was sort of this vacuum in a number of ways.

I mean, certainly emotionally.

- She got me a place to stay at her friend's house

down in the basement, and then, uh,

me and Booz were down there,

and I was painting out in her garage.

It wasn't that long after that

I went over to where she lived,

and Sonia was still there.

That's the daughter.

Had her hand in everything, though.

Lot of stuff for the community, you know.

Always busy.

Good writer, good speaker.

Great laugh too.

You could hear her across the store.

She-- always talking to people.

But that laugh just never ended, you know. [chuckles]

I think I got it on, uh,

one of those little cassette things.

Not the same, though. [chuckles]

"Back Roads."

Did you ever hear "Back Roads"?

When I first came here with Jean, I--

she would show me-- I felt lost.

You know, just ride around on the back roads,

'cause there's a lot of back roads here.

♪ Let's just

And they're real quiet when you get on them.

♪ Ride around

♪ On the back roads

♪ On the rez

Somewhere within a year,

she found out that she had breast cancer again.

I think she had it five years earlier

and it just-- it returned.

♪ Riding around

So our relationship had that third party, cancer.

The last year was probably the worst.

♪ On the rez

They travel; you know, you think you lost it,

but it went somewhere else.

These little cells went to her brain

and then went to her vertebrae, and that was it.

It was eating her vertebrae pretty bad,

so it must have been really painful.

It was hard to watch

someone so independent get broken down.

Like, trying to get up and put her clothes on,

you know, she couldn't do that.

Hard to watch.

- I watched him for a while, kind of...

just sort of flounder a little bit.

I mean, I'm sure a lot of that was just the process

of working through grief,

but some of it was very practical, like,

"Who's gonna take care of my stuff,

my business part?"

So a lot of that didn't help,

but I think today he's come out of that pretty well,

to the point where he's--

he shared some music with me this last year,

and one of them is a song that's about her specifically,

so he's worked through it, and he's back to making

a lot of good paintings and having good humor.

Being funny again, or still, you know.


[bird cawing, bird chirping

- ♪ On the back roads

I didn't have nothing.

I didn't have nowhere to go,

and I was trying to get a trailer,

so I sold a painting, and I got this,

and then I got this cleared.

I remember the bears going through--

there are strawberries up here,

before I got up here.

So they were coming through

and hanging out up here and playing out in front.

Didn't bother me.

A couple big ones walked around, you know,

looked in there.

Cats were like, "What?"


There was owls back here in the trees

and falcons, you know.

It's nice out here. It's nice and quiet.

Good for painting.

[birds cawing]

- I come from a family that my mother would do a sketch,

and the painting would grow and change

as if it had its own life.

And so I am used to what begins as a piece of art,

it is not what it looks like at the end.

Rabbett is a much different style of painter.

And he will take the image that he saw in his dream,

and he will make from that

the story in the same image.

- Then it'll kind of go down, and then there'll be the...

Horizon and the shoreline

with the mountains coming up through here.

And I'll put a lot of detail in those mountains.

That'll be nice.

Might have to block all this out to do that.

I didn't want to start any big one.

I was gonna do the little one, real slow, over the summer.

It's just stressful.

It's painful.

You know, neck's all whacked out.

So what do I do?

I start another one.

Just in me, I guess.

Gotta do it.

- He's a jazz painter, man, in a way.

There's just stuff that comes out that

you couldn't do it again if you tried.

It's just in the act of making it

or the act of playing it, it just spills out.

Then you can go back and review it later.

Listen to it or look at it.

Or think about it, in the case of the math,

but you go back and look at it later and say,

"I don't know where that came from, but that was pretty cool,

"but I still think I should move the guy's head

an inch that way," right? [laughs]

- If you can sit there and do it,

it'll look nice when it's done.

I gotta change his head. [chuckles]

I think that's it-- it's making his arm look short.

It's not really short.

I don't know about this.

I don't wanna get into his face,

'cause I'll sit here forever until I'm done.

This isn't sharp anymore.

So then... now he's got two eyes.

Lower it down.

Now I gotta change everything.

Little fatter.

That'll be a mess.

Okay, I'm gonna get away from this

'cause I'll be doing this tonight, then.

Darn it.

There, I started it. [laughs]

Now-- see, now everything will be that much lower.

That'll be pretty good.

At least I can sit on that one,

and I can turn it upside down and work on the leaves.

It doesn't matter which way the leaves go.

Same with the grass.

Of course, it had to be more complicated.


- Here is this master who is painting

with his commitment to a thousand years of story.

It's an entirely Anishinaabe experience that he's painting,

because when you see that art and you

are learning your cultural history or you know it,

you understand what that is.

And different art is for different times,

but his is a timeless art that speaks to this time.

- "Nanabozho and the Wolf."

It's from the re-creation story.

Actually, I got most of the illustrations

for the re-creation story.

Everybody thinks, you know, that him on the turtle...

they think that's the beginning.

That's the end of the story.

You know, where he brings-- gets the muskrat

and brings up the dirt.

Yeah, that's the end.

There's a whole story before that.

I saw it in a--

Someone had written it out way back.

It's dusk...

and the sunset.

They're gonna start walking down to another place

to sleep,

and then he's gonna go hunting,

but still they're going towards where

the Mishipeshu is, the chief lynx,

or whatever they wanna call it.

They call it Water Monster, too,

so Great Lynx would be Mishipeshu.

The sleeping on the sandbar is a giveaway.

That's in all the stories I've seen about it,

so the background will have that water,

and that's a sign of what's to come for the wolf.

In the story, they're sleeping,

but then the wolf gets up and goes off by himself.

Nanabozho told him if he's hunting,

if he's chasing a moose or anything,

if he ever comes to a stream

or any kind of water-- body of water,

always shake a stick in there first.

Don't jump it.

And so he didn't. [laughs]

When he jumped it, the Mishipeshu was in there.

Grabbed him and ate him.

And Nanabozho has that dream that something happened,

and he wakes up and goes and looks.

So Nanabozho talks with the Kingfisher

and the Kingfisher knows everything that went on,

and he gives him information about what happened

if Nanabozho will give him color.

That's how that goes, so...

And then he finds out what happened.

Then the whole thing is tracking down

the Ogima Mishipeshu,

the chief guy,

and they describe those Mishipeshus

as lying on sandbars, you know,

to get heat, like an alligator

or some kind of amphibian,

so that's how I made him.

Kind of got him more like a water monster.

It's actually a revenge story, the re-creation story.

You know, a lot of lessons in there, too.

But I'm not a storyteller, so...

- That mythology is really critical to--

to any indigenous people telling their stories.

I mean, they've gotta have an origin story,

creation mythology.

You know, mythology is only myth to a point.

There's a lot of belief systems and reality

goes along with the whole creation of mythology.

What I love about Rabbett's paintings

is he's always got Nanabozho in there.

In his heart and soul, in his mind,

you gotta open up the portals

for those stories to flow through.

And you make a deal with Nanabozho.

"I'll put you in all the paintings

as long as you continue to feed me those stories,"

Right? The portals are open.

You know, great songwriters,

they tell you that they're just a conduit.

The songs come through them, not to them,

and I think you see a lot of that in him.

That art comes through him

as much as it comes to him.

- Well, I was doing it in San Francisco,

same thing, yeah.

I had 'em down there in Santa Fe,

and I wasn't scanning them.

They're gone.

I wasn't keeping track of who got 'em.

So there's a lot of paintings out there that, yeah.

With the same subjects, the re-creation story,

at least with Nanabozho and the Wolf,

'cause it involves Nanabozho and uh, shut-eye dance.

They're long, long stories, so...

lot of material.

- My understanding of the Ojibwe creation stories

and the whole mythology is that Nanabozho's got

kind of that trickster thing going for him,

but he's also-- bears witness.

He's such an important key component to all of this.

There has to be a witness,

somebody to say, "This happened,"

to be there, and so he bears witness

for all of the things that happen.

And at the same time, he's mischievous.

And that, in a sense, is Rabbett.

He's a trickster, he's mischievous,

and he's bearing witness today.

At the ripe old age of 70 now,

he bears witness to his universe

and the values that he's seeing in his culture,

and he does that with his paintings

and indirectly with his music

and his math and all of that other stuff.

But really it's about the art.

- He's the Michelangelo of the Ojibwe

because of his style and his gift.

He's an Italian classic painter and thinker,

and let us be honest.

That's a rare, rare gift that that man has,

and in that style

of whether it's Michelangelo or Da Vinci,

where you can have this

incredible artistic gift

and a mathematical mind,

you know, and...

and just live in your world.

You know, that's part of what I love about Rabbett

is he is, you know-- he's really about his world.

And, uh, if you get, you know, a moment to be in his world,

it's a pretty good gift.

I don't ever stay long,

'cause I don't wanna outlive the welcome.

You know, I'm usually like, "Hi, how are you?"

But you know, I would not wanna ever outlive the welcome.

- ♪ They like it, they like it a lot ♪

♪ They like that blood in you and me, yeah ♪

♪ Sure enough, they want it, hey, hey ♪

♪ Every drop

[scats, hums]

That would be the end of that one.

Just sing-- go out singing, uh,

"Everybody wants to be an Indian."

♪ Everybody wanna be

I don't know.

♪ An Indi-- [music stops]

You know.

[chill music]

♪ Everybody wanna be

♪ An Indian

♪ They like that history

♪ Oh, sure enough, they like it ♪

♪ They like it a lot

♪ They like that blood in you and me ♪

♪ Sure enough, they want it

♪ Hey, hey

♪ Every drop

♪ I stand high-high-higher

♪ I stand high-high-higher

♪ I stand high-high-higher

♪ I stand high-high-higher

♪ I stand high-high-higher

- Announcer: To purchase a DVD

ofRabbett Before Horses

or call 800-422-9707.

- Announcer: Rabbett Before Horses

was funded, in part, by

John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation,

Ron and Patricia Anderson,

John and Barbara McFarland,

Estate of Esther M. Schenk,

Ruth St. John and John Dunham West Foundation

with additional support from

Bitzer Family Legacy Fund,

John J. Frautschi Family Foundation,

Pat and Judy Sebranek,

Wisconsin Arts Board

with funds from the State of Wisconsin

and National Endowment for the Arts,

Focus Fund for Wisconsin Programming,

and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.


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