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Pictographs by James Simon  

In Pictographs, Ojibway artist James Simon Mishibinijima brings to life the legends passed down to him by generations of Elders. In this collection of drawings, each image tells a story, silently communicating lessons of harmony, interconnectedness and peace.


Transcending the familiar iconography of the Near North—the crows, the wolves, the loons and the ravens—the drawings of James Simon, known as Mishibinijima, propel readers into a fantastical spirit world, one that is as powerful and mysterious as it is beautiful.

In Mishibinijima’s Pictographs, smooth, quiet drawings serve as a reflection of place, not just of the wild geography of forest and rock of his native Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island but also of the ancestral wisdom of the Elders, whose telling images remain graven into stone on the north shore of Lake Superior and at the burial sites of LaCloche Island.

Mishibinijima’s world is quiet, devoid of language—a world in which the artist listens to the fauna, in which pictographs articulate the essential interconnectedness of nature and in which images themselves become texts of dimly-remembered lessons recited by Elders long passed.


2018—eLit Awards,

Review text

The pictographs read like nature—administered Rorschach tests, with interpretations revealing themselves after prolonged analysis.

Pictographs: The Graphic Art of James Simon Mishibinijima showcases the intriguing and haunting art of a master who combines the traditions of First Nation spiritual art with a penetrating outlook on modern society and ecology.

Raised in Manitoulin Island’s Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve in the Lake Huron area, the artist grew up having two surnames: Simon, which was given to him by missionaries, and Mishibinijima, which is ancestral. Mishibinijima spent his early life surrounded by and fascinated by the pictographs of his culture. Once fluent in their language, he incorporated them into his own artistic endeavors.

At times, the pictographs read like nature—administered Rorschach tests, with one image immediately obvious but several other possible visual interpretations revealing themselves with prolonged analysis. ‘Serpent Spirits,’ for example, shows what first appear to be two human/bird chimeras, but hints of the serpents of the title can also be seen, prompting viewers to wonder: Are these forces complementary, or antagonistic? Which, if any, is dominant? These questions prompt longer, and repeated, viewings.

The pictographs’ titles are listed on each opposing page, along with an occasional comment by the artist. But given the excellent introduction and primer by Tom Smart, curator and supervisor of the Peel Art Gallery, it’s often best to admire and interpret Mishibinijima’s drawings without any additional directional guidance.

Mishibinijima’s pictographs are full of circled dots—symbols for life, energy, and intelligence that are often shown hidden within the outer contours of the creatures represented. There’s an overall theme of environmental consciousness, and the aspiration of harmony with nature, that carries throughout the book. For example, ‘There’s a Bigger Picture to Reliance’ shows several animal figures superimposed on each other, sharing a common body part that could be the wing of a bird, the carapace of a turtle, or the shell of a snail. It’s a simple yet elegant commentary on the common origins and common needs of living creatures.

Most of Mishibinijima’s original pictographs are graphite on paper, losing nothing in translation to the printed black-and-white pages of the book. There are also some examples of a different style he began using in 1974, featuring interwoven branch and leaf lines and devoid of the animal representations depicted in the majority of the book. With these, the artist describes the colors of each piece in its respective commentary, as with ‘The Forest—Sanctuary’:

—Greenish forest
—Brownish hills
—Red and yellow sunset

Or, with ‘Forest Edge’: ‘Just tones of greens.’

Though perhaps not as visually striking as his other pictographs, these works focus on plant life in a way the others don’t, and they offer interesting studies in patterns, symmetry, and asymmetry.

Mishibinijima’s art utilizes the seemingly primitive approach of pictographs in a sophisticated way while retaining the essence of what made them so effective for so much of human history. Though deeply relevant for contemporary society, Pictographs: The Graphic Art of James Simon Mishibinijima taps into a wellspring of creative thought that spans centuries.

—Peter Dabbene, Foreword Reviews

Review quote

‘Arresting, elegant, and powerful, the pictographs approach storytelling in an entirely new way to draw readers into a world of spirits, animals, lessons, and knowledge. A silent exploration of interconnectedness and history, the collection speaks volumes.’

—Open Book Ontario

Review quote

‘Unique and an inherently fascinating read from cover to cover, Pictographs: The Graphic Art of James Simon Mishibinijima is an uncommon and very special addition to personal, community, and academic libra[ries]....’

—Midwest Book Review

Introduction or preface

The development of a pictographic style

At the core of Mishibinijima’s pictographic art is a conception that pictographs painted on rock faces across the Canadian Shield and that are incised on sacred birch bark scrolls of the Great Medicine Society of the Anishnabek are the repositories of religion, ethics and history of the Anishnabek people. His art reflects a lifelong quest of continual searching for ways in which the past and present, the spiritual and the human, the animate and inanimate can co-mingle in things both seen and sensed.

Mishibinijima has spent much of life exploring the islands and waterways of Manitoulin Island, the shores of Birch Island, the La Cloche mountains and the northern edges of Lake Huron. Contemplative, patient, Mishibinijima’s purpose on his journeys of discovery is attuning himself to a place’s spiritual energy radiating from land and water, and from the souls that have lived and travelled along these routes for millennia. Watching, listening, being attentive to subtle visions that connect him with Mother Earth, her children and the souls of ancestors connect Mishibinijima’s present with the ancient past.

According to legend, spirit portals exist all around Manitoulin Island that allow access to the spirit world for prayers that are offered up to those who have come before and who have passed on. Conversely, these same portals also allow spirits to return to the human realm and initiate contact. Over the course of his time living in these landscapes Mishibinijima has developed a rare facility at reading—internalizing—the language of the pictographs that are painted and etched onto the rocks above the water line and making their ancient grammar tell his own stories. They are visual markers of these portals. His own pictographs are part of this ancient tradition.

—Tom Smart

[ Continued in Pictographs... ]


Credit: Jean Simon

James Simon Mishibinijima, one of Canada’s foremost Native artists, has created a unique body of work over the past four decades which has attracted a loyal following in North America and overseas. He was born in 1954 in Wikwemikong, Manitoulin Island, where he grew up immersed in the legends of the Ojibway people.

From the 1970s to the present, Mishibinijima has explored many of the sacred places around Manitoulin Island and originated the coveted Mishmountain series, among others. His uplifting philosophy has found resonance with those who seek solace in the midst of tragedy, and meaning in a world that is often confusing and frightening.

In his work he underscores the wisdom of the Elders’ teachings as a way to foster respect and peace. He also emphasizes the interconnectedness of all life and calls upon nations to preserve our natural surroundings for the benefit of our children.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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ART / Native American

ART / Canadian

ISBN-13: 9780889844056

Publication Date: 2017-09-19

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 208

Price: $24.95