Finding his Dene family brought colour into John Rombough's art

Dene Artist and contemporary Woodlands painter, John Rombough, has been painting for over 27 years. Having been adopted as a young child, Rombough was inspired to begin painting in his early 20s after reconnecting with his Chipewyan Dene birth father.

Adoptive parents cultivated artistic expression, coming North inspired his unique style

Rombough often works on many paintings simultaneously. (Emma Grunwald/CBC)

"Everyone needs colour in their life," says Chipewyan artist, John Rombough. 

For the 49-year-old contemporary Woodlands painter, the colour came into his work in his early 20s after reconnecting with his birth father and his Dene roots in the N.W.T. 

Rombough's most recent piece is a large acrylic on canvas he finished just a few days ago.

"So it's a spring painting with the two ancestors welcoming the bear back on the land, surrounded by grandfather rocks, and everything has a spirit," Rombough said. 

John Rombough sits next to his most recent painting. “I usually go by the seasons,” he said. “So, I paint different paintings related to the four seasons." (Emma Grunwald/CBC)

"And the colours just represent new growth … in the spring everything's melting and everything is becoming one again from the winter." 

An early interest in art

Rombough traces his passion for art all the way back to his early childhood.

He was born in the remote community of Sioux Lookout, Ont.  At 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 located in central Prince Edward Island.

"My mom couldn't have kids. Their friends were adopting three Aboriginal kids, so they kind of were following the same idea of adopting kids," Rombough said. 

John Rombough as a child, holding a fish that he caught in the creek near his house in rural P.E.I. (John Rombough/Submitted)

"And it was really like a positive feeling, and my mother was so excited to have three of us." 

Rombough and his two sisters were part of the Sixties Scoop, from roughly the early 60s to early 80s when thousands of Indigenous children were removed from their homes and adopted by non-Indigenous families. 

"Some people went through the worst. Mine at least has a good, positive ending … growing up in the south and coming up to the North really shaped me to who I became and who I am now."

John Rombough with his two sisters, Rose and Bernadette, in the 1980s. (John Rombough/Submitted)

Rombough attributes his natural inclination for the arts to having been raised in an artistic and encouraging environment.

"My parents were really supportive of me doing art … I kind of grew up in P.E.I. surrounded by art, artistic people, and people doing pottery."

His adoptive parents also kept artwork that was reflective of their children's heritage throughout the house.

"Growing up with Native art around me, I was drawn to it at an early age."

The journey to re-discovering his roots

After high school, Rombough studied graphic design but found it unfulfilling. He spent most of his time in college working on his contemporary Woodlands style drawings and developing his personal art style — black ink drawings.

One of John Rombough’s paintings, completed a few years ago. (John Rombough/Submitted)

During that time, Rombough discovered that his birth mother had passed away due to health issues. It sparked an interest in reconnecting with his birth father.

"I knew I had to reach out to my birth dad's family."

When he turned 18, his parents had sat him down and shown him his adoption papers, so Rombough already knew that his birth father was from Łutselkʼe, N.W.T.

Rombough didn't want to just call him up, so he decided to write a letter to the chief in Łutselkʼe. 

He remembers feeling overwhelmed when he read the letter he got in reply. 

"It was a letter from my stepmom. She was like, 'your birth dad is up here, and we're so glad that you reconnected. And we've been waiting for you to come back.'"

John Rombough in a recent photo with his birth father, Alfred, and half-sister, Lisa. (John Rombough/Submitted)

Rombough says he "dropped everything" and went to Łutselkʼe to meet his birth dad. 

Meeting his birth father 

Rombough's birth father, Alfred Catholique, 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 just a little kid, but in an adult body," he said. "My dad was really patient and taught me the Dene roots and, you know, how to survive and hunt … It was really, really fun."

John Rombough’s father, Alfred Catholique. (John Rombough/Submitted )

Meeting and connecting with Dene culture through his dad inspired Rombough to expand on his black ink drawings and bring colour to them through painting. 

"Once I moved up north, I was just, you know, with the culture and the beautiful land — I wanted to add colour 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 Indigenous-led art movement, in the early '70s. 

Rombough discovered him through one of his parent's books as a child. The style is characterized by bright and bold imagery containing symbolism that is often reflective of Indigenous stories and myths.

John Rombough paints in the contemporary Woodlands style, popularized by Norval Morrisseau in the late 1960s. He typically paints landscapes, wildlife, ancestral spirits, and Indigenous myths using black supporting lines, vibrant colours, and fine details. (John Rombough/Submitted)

Sarah Swan, an art critic who also runs a Yellowknife-based mobile art gallery, describes Rombough's work as "a really nice extension" of the Indian Group of Seven's work. 

But Swan says that Rombough has also made the style his own. 

"It's more contemporary. It has strong northern themes. And then, the way he's incorporated geometrical shapes is wonderful and unique to him. Also, his colour use is really sort of 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-ArtI didn't know the owner and I just kind of went in and showed them my work and they were very interested in taking me on as an artist … it just kind of evolved from there," he said. 

John Rombough holds up one of his recently completed paintings. (Emma Grunwald/CBC)

Rombough says painting is now a full time job. He's produced over 4,300 paintings in the last 27 years and he doesn't plan on slowing down anytime soon. 

"I'm just going to keep busy and fast producing, building up my inventory, working with three or four different galleries across Canada and selling on social media, just getting new paintings out there." 

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 with both of his adoptive parents, while also feeling connected to his birth father and Chipewyan heritage. Even though he never met her, he says his art also reflects his birth mother's Ukrainian roots. 

John Rombough’s adoptive parents, Lyall and Carol Rombough, taken around 2017. (Submitted by John Rombough)

"I think I have a little bit of the Ukrainian in my art as well, which is the really fine detail, vibrant colours … It's a beautiful art that they make."

Advice for other artists 

Rombough also holds workshops to help support young artists.

He encourages them to develop a solid drawing foundation before even picking up a paint brush. 

"There are some upcoming artists that just need a little push, and through these workshops that helps to really break them out of their shells … I'm grateful to be a part of that and be a mentor to the next generation of artists."