The discovery of his Dene family brought color to John Rombough’s art
“Everyone needs color in their life,” says Chipewyan artist John Rombough.
For the 49-year-old contemporary woodland painter, color entered his work in his early 20s after reconnecting with his biological father and his Dene roots in the Northwest Territories.
Rombough’s most recent piece is a large acrylic on canvas he completed just a few days ago.
“So it’s a springtime painting with the two ancestors welcoming the bear to the land, surrounded by grandfather rocks, and everything has a spirit,” Rombough said.
“And the colors just represent new growth…in spring everything melts and everything becomes one again from winter on.”
An early interest in art
Rombough traces his passion for art back to his early childhood.
He was born in the remote community of Sioux Lookout, Ontario. When he was three years old, he and his two older sisters were adopted by Lyall and Carol Rombough, and he soon moved to Breadalbane, a small rural town in central Prince Edward Island.
“My mom couldn’t have kids. Their friends were adopting three native kids, so they were sort of following the same idea of adopting kids,” Rombough said.
“And that was really like a positive feeling, and my mom was so excited to have the three of us.”
Rombough and her two sisters were part of the Sixties Scoop, from the early 1960s to around the early 1980s, when thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their homes and adopted by non-Indigenous families.
“Some people have been through the worst. Mine at least has a good, positive ending…growing up in the south and coming to the north really shaped who I became and who I am now.”
Rombough credits his natural inclination for the arts to being raised in an artistic and supportive environment.
“My parents were really okay with me doing art…I kind of grew up in PEI surrounded by art and artists and potters.”
His adoptive parents also kept artwork reflecting their children’s heritage throughout the house.
“Growing up with Indigenous art around me, I was drawn to it from an early age.”
The journey to rediscover its roots
After high school, Rombough studied graphic design but found it unsatisfying. He spent most of his time in college working on his contemporary Woodlands style drawings and developing his personal art style – black ink drawings.
Meanwhile, Rombough discovered that her birth mother had passed away due to health issues. This sparked an interest in reconnecting with her biological father.
“I knew I had to reach out to my birth father’s family.”
When he turned 18, his parents had sat him down and shown him his adoption papers, so Rombough already knew his biological father was from Łutselkʼe, NWT
Rombough didn’t want to just call him, so he decided to write a letter to the leader of Łutselkʼe.
He remembers being upset when he read the letter he received in response.
“It was a letter from my mother-in-law. It read, ‘Your birth father is here, and we’re glad you’ve reconnected. And we’ve been waiting for you to come back.”
Rombough says he “dropped everything” and went to Łutselkʼe to meet his biological father.
Meet his biological father
Rombough’s biological father, Alfred Catholic, is Dënësųłinë́ (Chipewyan) and reconnecting with him in 1993 was Rombough’s first real exposure to Dene traditions and culture.
“It was a culture shock for me…I felt like a little kid, but in an adult body,” he said. “My dad was very patient and taught me the Dene roots and, you know, how to survive and hunt… It was really, really fun.
Meeting and connecting with the Dene culture through his father inspired Rombough to develop his black ink drawings and bring color to them through paint.
“Once I moved up north, I was just, you know, with the culture and the beautiful land – I wanted to add some color to my art.”
A “wonderful and unique” Woodland style
Rombough cites Norval Morriseau as an early inspiration. Morriseau was an Anishinaabe artist who helped found the Indian Group of Seven, an Aboriginal-led art movement in the early 1970s.
Rombough discovered it through one of his parents’ books when he was a child. The style is characterized by bright, bold imagery containing symbolism that often reflects Indigenous stories and myths.
Sarah Swan, an art critic who also runs a Yellowknife-based mobile art gallery, describes Rombough’s work as “a very beautiful extension” of the work of the Indian Group of Seven.
But Swan says Rombough has also made the style his own.
“It’s more contemporary. It has strong Nordic themes. And then the way he incorporated geometric shapes is wonderful and unique to him. Also, his use of color is really lively and joyful.”
Transition to professional artist
Rombough lived full-time in Łutselkʼe for seven years. He started selling his work in the early 2000s
“I started with a gallery in Yellowknife called Nor-Art. I didn’t know the owner and I just walked in and showed them my work and they were very interested in taking me on as an artist…it just evolved from there,” he said. .
Rombough says painting is now a full-time job. He has produced over 4,300 paintings over the past 27 years and he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“I’m just going to keep busy and produce fast, build up my inventory, work with three or four different galleries across Canada and sell on social media, just post new paintings.”
Rombough currently lives in Yellowknife and the North has become his home.
“I’ve learned so much over the past few years, and I’m really connected with the land.”
He remains close to both of his adoptive parents, while feeling connected to his biological father and his Chipewyan heritage. Although he has never met her, he says his art also reflects his biological mother’s Ukrainian roots.
“I think I also have a bit of Ukrainian in my art, ie the very fine details, the vibrant colors… It’s beautiful art that they do.”
Advice to other artists
Rombough also organizes workshops to help support young artists.
He encourages them to develop a solid foundation in drawing before they even pick up a paintbrush.
“There are artists coming up who just need a little nudge, and through these workshops it really helps them come out of their shell… I’m grateful to be a part of that and to be a mentor for the next generation of artists.”