As a language specialist at Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, art has always been important to Wesley Ballinger.
Ballinger has relied on art as a key element of his projects linking Native American language and heritage. He’s also illustrated several Ojibwe children’s books, including ‘Awesiiyensag,’ which was chosen as Minnesota’s Best Read for 2011.
“Art has always been part of my life,” said Ballinger. “That’s always been my forte and love. But I’ve approached it as a hobby and never really saw a career out of it.”
Maybe not a career, but as of late, Ballinger saw his artwork expand into new possibilities. He was the illustrator of new children’s book, “Hungry Johnny,” written by Cheryl Minnema.
Ballinger said that he was contacted by the Minnesota Historical Society in the spring of 2013. Both he and Minnema were members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
While he definitely had interest, Ballinger said he had other projects that needed to be wrapped up first. He said he was able to turn his attention to illustrating the book in late January.
The book’s title character, Johnny, is excited for the community feast, but learns about patience and respect as he waits his turn. Through the book, Ballinger gets a chance to put his own touch on matters through his unique artwork.
“For kids books, I like to use as much color as possible,” he said. “Make it like a candy wrapper.”
Ballinger also tried to subtlety incorporate connections to Ojibwe culture throughout, which was recognized in a review by Debbie Reese. She noted his use of beadwork and other details among a very modern home and family.
“I really liked that (she saw that),” he said. “I made it more modern, but put nuances in, like the eagle feather hanging in the car.”
At this point, Ballinger said he doesn’t have any other illustrating projects on the table for the near future. But being part of this book did make him think about some of his own projects.
“It did kind of make me more optimistic about developing my own children’s books on Native American identity,” he said.
The book, which was published in May, is $17.95 through the Minnesota Historical Society or Amazon.com.