Search

Linus Woods: Jade Elk to Jade Rabbit #2

Gallery 1C03


a semi-abstract landscape in various shades of blue, green and purple. A red rabbit is shown in profile at the right in front of large triangular shapes and an even larger curved shape that has a circle and zig zag within it. The left side of the painting is mostly open sky and land with another zig zag shape at mid-point.

Linus Woods, Jade Elk to Jade Rabbit #2, 2003, oil and acrylic on paper, 22 1/4" x 30". Collection of The University of Winnipeg. Gift of Anonymous Alumnus Donor.

Jade Elk to Jade Rabbit…

we da koo ta my life will end but the fire will not end.

Space and time gods do not worry about.

--Linus Woods, Rabbits on the Rez (from Jade Elk to Jade Rabbit)[1]


Have you ever wondered why rabbits have long ears? The boring reason is that they need them to be able to hear predators as well as to thermoregulate. But another possible reason, and a more interesting one is, that after years of trying to listen to other people’s business, their ears have stretched out. Or maybe -- and this is the most interesting possibility -- they’re spies and their ears are transmitters to worlds beyond.

Dakota/Ojibway painter Linus Woods and I share a fascination with rabbits.

Linus Woods comes from a family of artists, and he recognizes his talent as a gift from his ancestors, who he says were always artists. He honours this gift by persisting in his practice; in doing so, he has become prolific in the contemporary Indigenous art world, and has had his work exhibited all over Turtle Island. Notably, his paintings have been included in major shows such as the 2011 exhibition Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years organized by Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, which showcased work by international and local Indigenous artists, as well as 2017’s INSURGENCE/RESURGENCE, the largest exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

A collection of Woods’ paintings featuring rabbits was exhibited in a show called Rabbits on the Rez at the Indigenous Art Centre Gallery from 2002 to 2003. In the exhibition pamphlet, curator Leanne L’Hirondelle writes: “In these works a rabbit plays a key role as a witness to major events.”[1] Perhaps it is true that rabbits are always watching, always listening. The rabbit’s presence in these paintings, always shown in profile or from the back of its head, reminds the viewer to pay attention to what they are observing.

Jade Elk to Jade Rabbit #2 is the nearly identical, second version of a painting showcased in Rabbits on the Rez. What intrigues me about this specific rabbit is the ambiguous object of its gaze: Is it looking at me? At the scene behind it? Into the future? Into space? Though the surreal qualities of this rabbit -- from its red colour, to its overextended ears and laserbeam stare -- invoke the fantastical, the most uncanny part of the painting is the scene unraveling behind it. Peeking out from the right is a giant magpie -- its small curving beak and circular dot of an eye hidden but also in plain sight -- as big and as tall as the pyramid of Giza in front of it. The zigzag lines, which suggest flashes of lightning, or some sort of electrifying presence in the sky -- perhaps traces of a thunderbird -- are striking; their sharp, angular shapes look disruptive against the more organic, rounded forms and meandering lines to the left, middle ground of the painting.

Looking at this painting for the first time, I had so many questions, and I looked to the rabbit for the answers.



I had become acquainted with Jade Elk to Jade Rabbit #2 after contemplating the seven Linus Woods paintings kept in the Permanent Art Collection at The University of Winnipeg. This particular painting had intrigued me the most because of the following inscription found on the back of the artwork:

Jade was wanted by the law authorities and the local sheriff, so she went and lived with the rabbits.
There the rabbits took her in and loved her.
And even talked her into changing her last name to rabbit.
She taught the rabbits how to roll smokes and sing songs.
She even taught the rabbits how to fight better and the rabbits taught her how to run faster.
All the rabbit clans voted her chief of all the rabbit kingdoms.

-- Linus Kills Crowe Horse, 2003, Long Plains Res.

I wanted to follow this rabbit hole, hoping to find a rabbit kingdom Woods also calls “nellyville” which he tells me is situated in his backyard.

I decided to visit.

I had never been to Long Plain First Nation which is only about an hour’s drive southwest of Winnipeg but, upon arriving there one chilly September morning, I was struck by how familiar it felt, like an instance of life imitating art. More than that, I was able to appreciate the ways that Woods’ paintings activate the landscape. Everything about Long Plain First Nation felt magical; the Assiniboine River laying in the deepest fold of the undulating hills, the dashes of silvery aster, the yellows flickering at tips of tree branches, the Arrowhead Crossing Gas Bar, and the group of rez dogs chasing the car. Knowing that somewhere, in the creases of this physical dimension, I might catch a flash of a giant pyramid or an unidentified flying object in the sky was exhilarating.

Woods’ work is known for its inimitable use of geometric shapes, lush colours, and impressionist brush strokes to capture his homelands. Most present in his paintings are animals such as horses, buffalo, rabbits, wolves, bears, coyotes -- any animal that could be prowling around his home on the reserve. Sometimes the animals are painted in the centre of a typical Long Plain scene; sometimes, though, they are made to witness a supernatural event. Jade Rabbit, in the Jade Elk to Jade Rabbit paintings, is one of the latter. Though Woods is often reluctant to provide an interpretation of his paintings, he is always happy to suggest that there is a metaphysical or inter-dimensional event occurring in his work.

I learned that Jade Elk was the name of a former girlfriend of Woods who packed up and moved to Victoria, BC one day and, due to the lasting impression she had left on him, he wrote the story of Jade Rabbit in her honour.[2] The story, however, was not meant to direct a viewer’s interpretation of the painting. According to Woods, the story is just meant to be a humorous companion to this artwork. I’m almost tempted to believe him.

Stories influence so much of Woods’ work. His paintings are results of personal and oral histories, Dakota or Ojibway stories, memories, funny recollections, information collected through his encounters with others or online. Ironically, without these stories, his paintings would lose their mystery. Telling these stories with his brushstrokes, Woods himself becomes something like the rabbit, or a trickster, watching us take in the story, and purposely obfuscating our attempts to find meaning.      

Unfortunately, I did not get to see any rabbits at “nellyville” or even at Long Plain. They must have known I was looking for them. 



In 2016, a Chinese rover named Jade Rabbit died on the moon after being there for two and a half years. Jade Rabbit was named after the pet of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e. The association between rabbits and space (or the moon) is prevalent in stories around the world, from ancient legends to contemporary pop culture in the form of video games.

Rabbits were present when the world was created, and they will be present when the world ends; Linus Woods assures me of this. He recounts that his grandfather used to tell him that rabbits never complain; they are awake for the entirety of the year, enduring every season. This, to me, is suspicious behaviour.

For Woods, rabbits have always been associated with the supernatural and with space. He tells me about islands formed from abandoned spaceships on which human-sized rabbits live. Like Jade Elk to Jade Rabbit, Woods’ work often incorporates rabbits (or some other animal) and a multidimensional or supernatural element. His work is known for its juxtaposition of traditional imagery and science-fiction elements. When I ask him about this, he says everyone always says that, but that’s just how he sees the world.

His paintings do provide a beautiful space in which to imagine Indigenous cosmologies and traditional ways of being, colliding with the futuristic. In a world where Indigenous people are hardly imagined to exist and flourish in the present, where our presence is erased from the land, contemporary Indigenous artists like Woods who engage in imagining these collisions are doing crucial work.



I hope that after reading this text, you will be more aware of the rabbits around you. They’re there, during every season, and they are watching and listening. Maybe you’ll see them in dreams and nightmares. Maybe you’ll catch one staring at you from afar. Or maybe you’ll nearly trip on one as it dashes out frantically in front of your feet. Maybe you’ll see the evidence of a rabbit’s presence in the form of tracks pressed into freshly fallen snow. Maybe, as you look for the rabbits, you’ll notice some of the magic that makes up your world. I hope that makes you wonder about worlds beyond.

I owe my vivid dreams of giant rabbits giving me the side-eye to Linus Woods. Like the rabbit in Jade Elk to Jade Rabbit #2, Woods’ artwork wants to be seen and recognized, to be contemplated, but it is also evasive, furtive and resistant to capture.

Marie-Anne Redhead
Curatorial Intern
September 2020

Marie-Anne Redhead (Ininiw/francophone) is a member of Fox Lake Cree Nation who is currently completing her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree in English at the University of Winnipeg. Through her research and writing practice, she is interested in the liberating potentiality of decolonial and Indigenous art forms, as well as in language and relationship or placed-based identities.


References

Milne, Marlene. “Follow the Bunny: A responsive essay by Marlene Milne to ‘Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump’.” ConunDrum Online, 2007. Accessed 21 August 2020.

L’Hirondelle, Leanne. Rabbits on the Rez: New Works by Linus Woods. Gatineau, Québec: The Indian and Inuit Art Gallery, 2002.

Conversations with the artist, August and September, 2020.

Endnotes

[1] L’Hirondelle, Rabbits on the Rez: New Works by Linus Woods.

[2] Conversation with Linus Woods, August 2020.

[1] Linus Woods, in Leanne L’Hirondelle, Rabbits on the Rez: New Works by Linus Woods (Hull, Québec: The Indian and Inuit Art Gallery, 2002), unpaginated.