An artist's quest to discover her heritage as a Black woman on display in Granite Falls
Jammie Niemeyer grew up with no connection to her African American heritage. At age 44, she delved into the stories of 44 African Americans — and discovered herself.
GRANITE FALLS — Growing up in a community where she was the only Black person was “very tough,” said Granite Falls native Jammie Niemeyer.
“It takes a toll on your brain and mental health. I felt I was a tree that had been chopped down,” she said.
Coming to terms with her identity as a Black woman wasn’t so easy either.
It took 44 years.
She was a mother to three daughters and grieving the recent death of her husband when she decided it was time to “figure this out.”
'Who am I?'
Niemeyer answers that question through her art with the portraits she created of 44 African American men and women. She chose scientists, civil rights leaders, professional athletes, musicians and entertainers. She learned their stories and invites others to learn about them with portraits that celebrate the spirit of each.
Their accomplishments helped her appreciate and understand her African American heritage. Theirs are the shoulders she stands on today.
Now 46, Niemeyer said she started her quest by learning the story of Florence Griffith Joyner. This was an obvious choice for her.
Niemeyer was Jammie White when she graduated from high school in Granite Falls in 1984. She had excelled as a sprinter in track, and had aspirations of becoming an Olympian herself.
Ray Charles. Billie Holiday. Malcolm X. Mohammed Ali. Jesse Owens. Prince. Colin Powell.
Niemeyer said their stories are inspiring, but added that they are all people, and have their warts as well.
They had one thing in common: Each overcame challenges as Black people in America.
As has Niemeyer.
She never knew her biological father, who is Black, and to this day does not know his name. She grew up in an all-white household. She had no connection to African American culture anywhere in her life.
She has painful memories dating to early childhood of being bullied and treated differently because of her race.
Yet she always had her art. “Art has always been a part of my life. Always. As a kid, (I) couldn’t keep pencils out of my hand,” Niemeyer said. Teachers chastised her for the doodles and images that filled her notebooks, but they were essential to her.
Dyslexic, she relied on her art for the visual cues she needed for learning.
She also credits her art for mentally keeping her from going down the “bad rabbit holes” she could easily have fallen into during her times of struggle.
Her early art focused on drawing. Her 44 caricatures of famous African Americans reflects her growth in it. Each image is replete with much more than meets the eye for those who examine the details.
Her art took a major step just three years ago. Her partner introduced her to wood burning almost surreptitiously. It immediately became her passion. She is creating a range of works. They celebrate her love for the outdoors, her heritage, her love for family, and the worlds of fairy tales and fantasy.
Niemeyer makes her home in the Alexandria area today. She focuses her day on art as well as art instruction. She offers classes and posts videos she produces of different art techniques.
Her search for her African American identity has included efforts to learn about her biological father. It has yielded some success. She discovered a cousin, and met him at his home in Arizona.
“It was crazy looking at someone who looked like me,” she said.
Her cousin does not know his father, either. The two believe his father is a brother to Niemeyer’s father. Her cousin is also an artist and his mother is white. He too lived in a mainly white area that did not accept him, she said.
Her portraits of African Americans have been on display at a variety of locations from Marshall to Montevideo to Granite Falls over the past year. In Montevideo, she spoke to an audience about her journey to discover her identity.
But mostly, she speaks through her art. It has carried her through many difficult challenges in life. Were it not for her art, “I could very easily be a different person than I am,” she said.
“Art has been a huge, absolute guide helping me through all of this journey. Of course, it is not finished,” Niemeyer said.
See her art on her Facebook page Creative Creations by Jammie .