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Seneca artist G. Peter Jemison awarded national arts fellowship


Artist G. Peter Jemison stands in front of his "Water is Life" mural, which was installed on the Floreano Convention Center facing the Genesee River. - PHOTO BY REBECCA RAFFERTY
  • Artist G. Peter Jemison stands in front of his "Water is Life" mural, which was installed on the Floreano Convention Center facing the Genesee River.
G. Peter Jemison, the former manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site and an Indigenous artist, has been recognized for his work with a $70,000 fellowship from the nonprofit Americans for the Arts.

Jemison said receiving the Johnson Fellowship for Artists Transforming Communities, given annually to an artist who demonstrates a sustained commitment to civic participation and has inspired positive change through their work, comes at a time of transition and reflection for him.

“There was such a long period of time when my job really replaced my time with my art, and so I kind of flipped that around when I retired, and made art number one,” he said. “And with that comes a little bit of existential searching. Even with success, you still have to examine your own thoughts and desires for the work that you’re doing.”

Jemison, 78, retired last year after 36 years as site manager at Ganondagan, the hilltop location of a razed 17th century Seneca village. During his tenure he oversaw the construction of a scale replica of a Seneca bark longhouse and the Seneca Art & Culture Center, a performing arts hub and interpretive facility that presents Seneca and Haudenosaunee contributions to society.

His artwork incorporates themes of political and social commentary, cultural memory, and his relationship to the natural world, and is collected by global institutions. He curates art exhibitions that increase representation of Native American artists in the contemporary fine arts world.

The fellowship this year specifically aimed to recognize an artist working in rural towns, villages, and tribal communities, according to Americans for the Arts. Jemison was chosen by a panel from a pool of 12 national nominees.

“Peter’s visionary efforts over decades have helped lay the groundwork to bring Indigenous perspectives into curation and cultural equity concerns,” Americans for the Arts wrote in announcing the award.

The fellowship honors Jemison as an artist and for his leadership in reconnecting communities to cultural traditions. He facilitates the Iroquois White Corn Project, which brings Indigenous and regional communities together for husking and other work to process the heirloom plant into products that are sold commercially.

Since retirement, Jemison has continued his work on the Iroquois White Corn Project but has dedicated the lion’s share of his time to making fresh work.

“This is my focus now: What am I trying to say?” he said.

An exhibit of Jemison’s new work will be launched by the Seneca-owned K Art Gallery in Buffalo on March 2. He will present his art and cultural projects later this year at the Americans for the Arts headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. She can be reached at [email protected].