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Born to Solomon and Elizabeth Blake DesJarlait, Patrick DesJarlait was the fourth of seven children. He is a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe. As a child Patrick spent a lot of his time wandering through the woods alone or with friends. The experiences that he had in the forests around his home often became the subject matter of his drawings that he had done as a child.
After his mother died when he was seven years old Patrick spent most of his time in boarding schools in Red Lake and Pipestone, Minnesota. Red Lake High School is where he first developed an interest in an art career, with the encouragement from his English teacher, Miss Ross. After completing his high school education, he went on to study art at Arizona State College in Phoenix.
A year later, in spring 1942, during World War II, DesJarlait entered government service, and was sent to teach an art workshop at a nearby Japanese Relocation Camp. When he observed what was happening to the Japanese people in America, he was reminded of what had happened to his own people. Months later Patrick joined the US Navy, which sent him to San Diego, California. There he worked with artists from Walt Disney Studios, as an animator, producing training films for the Navy.
After World War II ended, Patrick returned home to Red Lake where he focused more on his artwork. A short time later, the DesJarlait family moved to the Twin Cities. Patrick found employment as a commercial artist. "Because of his experience of working with films he was chosen to design the animation for a television commercial for Hamm's Brewery. Soon, the comical and gentle Hamm's Beer bear (created by Cleo Hovel) became a familiar part in the lives of television audiences of the 1950s." After creating the Hamm's bear, he went on to do other commercial art, including a new version of the Land O'Lakes butter maiden.
DesJarlait's individual style of painting was very different from the style of his commercial works; it is also different from the studio style that was prevalent after World War II. The subject matter of the work he produced was Red Lake Ojibwe and their modern lives. His watercolor paintings have a distinct style that is all his own. In many of his paintings his figures are abstracted, and some critics attribute to him influences from Cubism and Mexican Muralism.
Instead of using his watercolor paints in washes he applied the paint by itself right to the surface or the paper. In his piece "Wild Rice Time", a male and a female stylized figures are collecting wild rice in birch bark containers. Patrick's use of arced lines and a limited palette engage the viewer to study the piece carefully. "For each of his paintings there were several sketches to find one that captures the scenes portrayed the best."
Later in his life he wanted to combine art with education. His son Robert DesJarnait writes: "His dream was to teach non-Indian people about the beauty and dignity of the Ojibwe traditions. With this dream in mind, he traveled throughout Minnesota talking to students about art." His passion for art also influenced his children; three of his five children – Robert, Patrick, Jr. and Larry – are actively engaged in art careers.
- Anthes, Bill (2006). Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940–1960. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822338666. p. 93-94.
- Anthes (2006), p. 94.
- DesJarlait, Robert (February 20, 1996). "Patrick DesJarlait & Family: Red Lake Ojibway Tradition".
- Houze, Rebecca (2016). New Mythologies in Design and Culture: Reading Signs and Symbols in the Visual Landscape. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 9780857855213. p. 93.
- Anthes (2006), p. 99.
- Henkes, Robert (1995). Native American Painters of the Twentieth Century: the works of 61 artists. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.