Bottom Line: Ojibwe Artist Finds Business Path to Benefit His Community
Wesley May’s plan is simple.
He plans to open a textile mill on his home reservation of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. Then he intends to sell T-shirts, hoodies and a whole line of clothing, to make $100 million in 10 years and to give most of it away.
“You got to realize how simple it would be,” May figures. Just one-third of the U.S. Native population, plus some non-Native customers, can give him a good start. “If I get a million of them to buy at T-shirt at $30 dollars, that’s 30 million right there.”
Chatting with a boundlessly enthusiastic May, the plan doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. He’s already started Wesley May Arts, designed and sold 800 T-shirts and 70 hoodies. This summer he received a $5,000 loan through the website Kiva.org, a non-profit focused on reducing global poverty. “Kiva is a really good marketing tool, I got 80 people all over the world [to support the loan].”
Now last week May received word that he was approved for a start-up loan through the Minnesota Indian Business Loan Program, which can cover up to 75 percent of start-up costs for individuals enrolled in a federally recognized Minnesota tribe. He’s seeking help from the Northwest Minnesota Foundation for the remaining 25 percent.
May hopes to buy an industrial embroidery machine, strong enough to put his designs on denim. He has his eye on an empty building that once produced houses for the reservation and he wants to start hiring band members. “I want to take over that building and start making those jeans and making the hoodies right here.” He hopes to eventually hire 50 to 100 people.
Sharon James, small business development manager for the Red Lake Nation, knew he was a good candidate for the business loan. “It’s unusual for an entrepreneur to have such a market established, and an excellent following already.
As to May’s seeming naiveté about his business future, James said that’s part of being a good entrepreneur. “It’s not naiveté, it’s more someone who doesn’t take no as an answer.” Such entrepreneurs find a way to make things happen, she added.
May has overcome his share of challenges to make things happen. A few years ago, he had just gotten out of jail on bail after a driving-while-intoxicated arrest when he got stopped for another DWI. He was sentenced to 66 months for the first offense to be followed by 66 months on the second – a possible 11 years in prison. May decided it was time to change his attitude. “I acknowledged my mistake, I trust in the Creator.”
After entering a prison intensive “boot-camp” treatment program, he was released just 13 months later. “I got a whole new life. I’ve been sober for 40 months now; I take my new life seriously. I’m here to share my art; I’m here to do great things with people and for them.”
May worked for the Red Lake fisheries, but felt called by something from his childhood. “When I was a little kid, I used to sit around with my uncles, and they would be drawing and I would just sit with them.”
As he grew up, he was especially impressed with the abstract expressionist landscapes of George Morrison, a Grand Portage Ojibwe. May found his own style in a blend of abstract and realism using a special color palette – “the four colors of the medicine wheel, because that’s where we’re all rooted in spirituality.”
May quit his fisheries job in 2011 to pursue art full time. He produced T-shirts that he took to a craft show at a mall not far from the Red Lake Reservation. “I started off on 30 shirts printed up, and they were gone in a half an hour.”
Soon he was traveling with family and neighbor children to art shows and powwows. “We were struggling and yet we had everything we needed – sold enough to get back home, sold enough to pay for what we needed. Everything’s happening just the way it’s supposed to. It’s just amazing; it’s keeping me calm.”
May has discovered a skill working with children, locally and at gatherings. He hopes he can be the example an elder was for him at the Heart of the Earth School in Minneapolis. The elder visited to teach drum and Ojibwe language. “I asked him one day, ‘What do you get paid?’ and he said, ‘Nothing. I just do this to be with you.’ I never realized the impact that would have the way I do now. Time is more important than that money.”
Now May gladly invests his time with children. He teaches art basics, gives them materials and then tells them there is no wrong way to draw or paint. “When you see the sparkle in their eye when they see they can’t do nothing wrong. ‘Fix it and move on (he tells them).’ … Use that mistake to make it more beautiful.”
May’s philosophy grew from experience and believes he can be a role model. “I feel like I’m a good enough example now. I’ve been through a lot of stuff, and I’m still smiling. … You can’t change something that’s already happened. Just fix it and move on. It all works out.”