Pink dolphins, zombies, and Ojibwe tales: How friends Andrea Carlson and Heid E. Erdrich inspire each other

Heid E. Erdrich and Andrea Carlson

Heid E. Erdrich and Andrea Carlson Image Courtesy of the Block Museum of Art Northwestern University

As Andrea Carlson finished painting a pink dolphin, she sent a text to her friend, writer Heid E. Erdrich, asking what she was up to. Erdrich responded that she was reading a poem about pink dolphins. Surprised, Carlson replied with a photo of the dolphin she had painted.

The two artists frequently collaborate, but rarely in a traditional sense. More often, they find themselves working on the same things at the same time and, in the end, their work fits together.

“It’s uncanny. It happens a lot,” Erdrich says. “I think we have some shared brain patterns that vibe on each other.”

Carlson and Erdrich both work in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and share an Ojibwe identity. Each frequently wrestles with environmental issues in their work, using their art to push for change.

“That has been a lifelong interest of mine: Everything from how we talk about clouds to how the language incorporates animism into discussion of the universe,” Erdrich says. “I think cell science is just as interesting as eagles soaring.”

Meanwhile, Carlson incorporates water as a motif in most of her paintings and images, even as she explores concepts like cannibalism and Indigenous futurism.

“It’s part of our environment, but it’s also part of who we are,” Carlson says. “I always put these objects that I make on seascapes because of this idea that there is no such thing as a separate landscape.”

The two often enhance each other’s storytelling. Erdrich has written exhibition statements for Carlson and has penned poems based on her art. Carlson has contributed art to Erdrich’s poetry books and video poems. Erdrich’s recent collection of poems, Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media, features art from Carlson’s 2013 Ink Babel series. One poem, “Curatorial Statement for Wiindigo Eye,” is based off a story Carlson told Erdrich about an Ojibwe cannibal creature.

That theme of cannibalism extends into another striking poem, “Undead Faerie Goes Great with India Pale Ale,” in which Erdrich puts copper mining in conversation with zombies. “We are already eating each other,” she echoes throughout the piece.

Through her writing, Erdrich aims to spur a new Native response to environmental apocalypse. “I really feel like I have a different perspective,” Erdrich explained at a recent reading.

Carlson agrees that her Native identity gives her a unique take on today’s issues, especially land-based ones. In Uncompromising Hand, she commemorates Spirit Island, the Dakota sacred site that was destroyed to build a lock and dam near St. Anthony Falls. This past September, she projected images of the island and text onto the lock, which closed in 2015.

“What makes that island so sacred?” a child asked at the opening.

“The Basilica downtown — the really beautiful, white stone building — what if people just started coming up to it and hacking off pieces of it?” she responded. “Who are any of us to come up to someone’s sacred site and start taking pieces off it?”

These are the questions that Carlson and Erdrich engage in their work. When environmental issues facing Native people, such as pipeline construction and land loss, go under covered in media, Erdrich says the best way to talk about them is through creative work.

“Our visual art, our creative writing, our plays — these are part of our journalism for Native people,” Erdrich says. “This is how we get our message out.”

And when it comes to getting that message out, Erdrich and Carlson are stronger together.

“It’s almost like we’re doing the same things, just in different mediums,” Carlson says. “Our work supports each other.”