Tweed’s curator is remembered for her strong advocacy


“There are very, very few Native American conservatives working in the United States,” said Wendy Savage, a colleague of White Isaacs at UMD. “Seeing her succeed in this field and get a prestigious position at Tweed at a young age was inspiring. She was really concerned about the presence of Native artists at Tweed.

Savage knew White Isaacs as a child, when her parents attended UMD. White Isaacs was born on August 25, 1974 and was the daughter of Lewis and Mary (Grandlouis) White in Duluth. She was a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation Tribe in Wisconsin.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Hamline University, White Isaacs worked as a legal assistant at the Indian Child Welfare Law Center in Minneapolis and as a legal assistant in the Minnesota attorney general’s office. She then pursued a master’s degree in museology at the University of Washington-Seattle. After completing her MA, White Isaacs worked as a curator for the New Squaxin Island Tribe Museum, Library and Research Center, where she developed museum policies and exhibits and worked with tribal artists in the Pacific Northwest. White Isaacs then returned to Lac Courte Oreilles to serve at the Tribal Cultural Center before entering the American Studies program at the University of Minnesota, where she earned a doctorate. in 2013.

“Karissa was a very successful graduate student during her time at university,” wrote her graduate supervisor Brenda Child in an obituary for White Isaacs. “She was adored by her fellow American Studies graduate students for her professionalism, generosity and sense of humor. Karissa was a supportive friend and warm colleague.”

Prior to taking on the position of Associate Curator at Tweed in 2016, she worked as an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies and Museum Coordinator at the Center for Native Cultures at Northland College in Ashland. Jill Doerfler, professor and head of the Department of Native American Studies at UMD, served on the search committee for the position of curator. She had known White Isaacs from high school and said she was “delighted to see his candidacy”.

“She was expanding Tweed’s contemporary Native American art collection in a big and meaningful way,” Doerfler said. “I’m currently on the Tweed Acquisitions Committee and really enjoyed hearing which pieces she had selected to add to the collection and why at our meetings earlier this fall. She was committed to supporting and raising the profile of Native American artists and other under-represented artists. “


At Tweed, White Isaacs held several major exhibitions, including “Intersections: Contemporary Art From Minnesota-Based Native Artists” in 2018, which featured the work of 19 artists, and “A Selection of Gashkibidaaganag” on the Ojibwe shoulder bag. Along with the Intersections exhibition, “Manifest’o”, a multimedia installation by artist Jonathan Thunder.

“Working on this project was awesome,” Thunder said. “I always hear great feedback on how this exhibition went. I would like to say this project is how Karissa and I became friends. She had my confidence when it came to discussions about art, about life, and we shared a similar humor about things. I miss her. I wish I could chat with her one more time. “

Savage and arts education teacher, Alison Aune worked with White Isaacs to develop a program based on these exhibitions at Tweed. The three would also work with teachers in the area through the “Art with Heart” in-service teacher program to educate and connect art teachers in the area.

“She had a wonderfully kind way of giving information,” Aune said. “She helped my students, who were arts education students, overcome that fear they sometimes had when teaching Aboriginal art. She taught them to approach her with respect.

Recently, White Isaacs organized “A Life Well-Painted: The Art of Carl Gawboy,” a retrospective featuring 38 works of art by Bois Forte Anishinaabe / Ojibwe and Finnish artist Carl Gawboy.

“Unfortunately, due to COVID, we were unable to open to the public during this time,” said Tweed director Anja Chavez. “However, Karissa has worked with a documentary maker to capture the exposure into a documentary to be shown in the future. It’s a project we’re excited about.”

White Isaacs is remembered by her art museum colleague Christina Woods, executive director of the Duluth Art Institute, for her advocacy for space for Indigenous artists in the Tweed.

“She really created a beautiful space for Anishinaabe artists to be seen as artists first. To be able to create whatever kind of art they want,” said Woods. “Very often if you are indigenous your art would not be looked at unless it matched some sort of iconography which white people believe is part of indigenous culture. She really went beyond that and created a beautiful collection of traditional and contemporary works of art. “

A celebration of the event of life is being planned for White Isaacs. Details of this celebration have yet to be announced.


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