Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Native American Artist

Born: January 15, 1940
St. Ignatius Mission, Flathead Reservation, Montana
I have a worldview, and it's Native, it's Indigenous.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Summary of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is one of the most influential contemporary Native American artists, and one of the first Native American women to gain a foothold in the contemporary artworld. Drawing on elements of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation, her paintings, drawings, prints, and assemblages, rework these styles as a way, in her words, of "examining contemporary life in America and interpreting it through Native ideology". Smith's art brings together traditional tribal motifs and contemporary symbolism in order to articulate her concerns about land and human rights, consumerism, and environmental matters. Her imagery is political, defiant, and satirical, and regularly features desert landscapes, horses and bison, petroglyphs, and maps. Smith is also recognized for her efforts as an educator, activist, and curator, and for a skill at combining these roles as a means of bringing contemporary indigenous art to the attention of wider American public.

Accomplishments

The Life of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Art Critic Gerrit Henry writes that "For all the primal nature of her origins, Smith adeptly takes on contemporary American society in her paintings, drawings and prints, looking at things Native and national through bifocals of the old and the new, the sacred and the profane, the divine and the witty".

Progression of Art

1974

Indian Madonna Enthroned

One of Smith's earliest works, Indian Madonna Enthroned is a sculptural assemblage (or what arts writer Joshua Hunt calls "a kind of three-dimensional collage") that takes the form of a seated female figure. Smith recalled that, while a student at Framingham State College in Massachusetts, her tutor, Lia Lipton, "spent the whole semester on the Renaissance, and the Madonnas, and putti; so just for catharsis, to cleanse myself, I came home and I started working on this Madonna. I took a kitchen chair from the table and took it apart and painted it with the sky, took some burlap, took a pillow apart and stuffed her, made an ink drawing for her face, put the baby on her back. The baby is animistic because it's got a sheepskin for the body. The Madonna has bird feet for her hands; she's got a heart that has an ear of corn, necklaces made out of shells. There's one symbol after another all over her".

The figure also wears beaded hide moccasins, has an American flag placed across her lap, and she holds the book by Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux), God is Red (1973) which addresses Native American religious views and their relation to Western Christianity. The book also engages with the "mechanisms of assimilation" that were imposed upon Native communities by Christians in the United States and Canada via boarding schools and residential schools. Critic and curator Aruna D'Souza notes that the hide on the figure's back "is marked 'Property of BIA' - or Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency established by the settler-colonial government to control and deracinate Indigenous people that is now part of the Department of the Interior, managed alongside national parks and wildlife refuges".

Art historian Elizabeth Buhe says of the work, "Smith seems to say: we are not exhibits in a natural history museum. We are alive; we are here; we are creating things. It is a declaration of Native survivance". D'Souza concludes that "Drawing on Plains Indian craft traditions and modernist strategies of the ready-made and assemblage, the work exists in the same orbit as contemporaries like Marisol and Ed Kienholz while anticipating Jimmie Durham. His Self-Portrait of 1986 and, even more pointedly, Malinche of 1988-92 seem to borrow heavily from Smith's Indian Madonna Enthroned".

Multi-media - Collection of the artist

1979

Kalispell #1

Typical of Smith's drawings of the late 1970s and 1980s, Kalispell #1 is an abstract work. Its title refers to a city just north of the reservation where Smith grew up. Kalispell #1 features colored forms - primarily orange, red, and green, with limited use of blue, violet and gray - presented in parallel strokes, rectangles, triangles, and circles, on a beige (paper) background. As artist and educator Joanna Seifter comments, with this series Smith "intentionally omits signifiers of the archetypal, portable geographic map". Indeed, for the artist, such drawings, though consciously recalling works by Western masters of abstraction, are in fact a highly personal take on cartography, with the forms representing familiar objects like teepees, animals and their movements across the land, and territorial borders.

Seifter explains that Smith produced her Kalispell series "five years after the Kootenai tribe successfully reclaimed 12.5 acres of their ancestral land from the federal government by waging the nonviolent War of '74". The idea of nonviolent war stemmed from the actions of the anti-Vietnam movement (1964-73) that had achieved impressive results through nonviolent actions such as mass protests and vigils; blockades and sit-ins; and guerrilla theater. Art historian Elizabeth Buhe proceeds to interpret the Kalispell series as "maps of memory and experience rather than geopolitical boundaries," while curator Laura Phipps sees Smith's maps as "complicating common descriptions of the land of the western United States as untouched and unoccupied".

Smith said of her creative outlook, "I look at line, form, color, texture, etc., in contemporary art as well as viewing old Indian artifacts the same way. With this I make parallels from the old world to contemporary art. A Hunkpapa drum become a Rothko painting; ledger-book symbols become Cy Twombly; a Naskapi bag is Paul Klee; a Blackfoot robe, Agnes Martin; beadwork color is Josef Albers; a parfleche is Frank Stella; design is Vasarely's positive and negative space". This convergence of modern Western art influences and indigenous visual references would recur throughout her oeuvre, such as in her I See Red series, which she began a decade later (and which includes signature paintings such as Target (1992) and Migration (1995)).

Pastel and charcoal on paper - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1992

Indian Map

Indian Map was a turning point in Smith's career and was the first of Smith's artworks, in the words of art critic and curator Benjamin Sutton, to "repurpose the US map as a way of criticising land theft and countering settler foundation myths and stereotypes about Native Americans". Says Smith herself, "I began with the premise that the map didn't belong to Jasper Johns, the map was an abstract image of stolen land in this country, so how could I turn the map into a new story? I had a real struggle with that". She proceeded to collage over the U.S. map, using newspaper clippings and photographs of Native Americans by Edward Curtis (who has been strongly criticized for his images' reinforcement of the "noble savage" and "dying race" tropes) to foreground the complex history of displacement and violence that has shaped the states and borders we know today.

As the artist herself acknowledged, her Map invited comparisons with Jasper Johns's famous 1961 oil painting, Map. Johns was interested in the idea "of knowing an iconic image [the map of the United States] rather than just seeing it out of the corner of your eye". By subverting the conventions of cartography, but without disturbing the overall ratios and naming of the states, Johns's ferocious application of paint asked his viewer to look more closely, and more critically, at an image that had become so familiar as to be effectively unseen.

Sutton notes that "the broiling composition is dominated by thick strokes of red, orange and pink that evoke smeared blood but also petroglyphs like those near Smith's home in Albuquerque, New Mexico". Moreover, the paint has been allowed to drip down, obscuring, and confusing the map's borders, something Smith would repeat in later map-based works in order to call into question the validity of these territorial boundaries, and to express "an explicit commentary on the land as a contested space". Commenting on her Maps series in general, curator Laura Phipps argues that they collectively "highlight the willful historical amnesia of Indigenous life and reclaim the land masses of North America".

Oil, paper, newspaper, and fabric on canvas, two panels - Artist's collection

1992

Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People)

One of Smith's best-known works, Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People), incorporates items including articles from the Flathead Reservation's Char-Koosta News, historical photos, comic book pages, gum wrappers, and other objects featuring stereotypical images of Native Americans. Atop the collage, she painted broad stokes of white, yellow, green, and red paint (influenced by the Abstract Expressionists), over which she painted in black and white the outline of a near full-scale canoe. Above the canvas is a clotheslines from which hang more objects, including a plastic tomahawk, Red Man chewing tobacco, a Washington Redskins cap, a Cleveland Indians pennant, and a beaded belt.

Of the work's title, art historian Suzanne Fricke writes that "Trade references the role of trade goods in allegorical stories like the acquisition of the island of Manhattan by Dutch colonists in 1626 from unnamed Native Americans in exchange for goods worth 60 guilders or $24.00. Though a somewhat apocryphal than true, this story has become part of American lore, suggesting that Native Americans had been lured off their lands by inexpensive trade goods. The fundamental misunderstanding between the Native and non-Native worlds - especially the notion of private ownership of land - underlies Trade". Smith herself has stated that if Trade could speak, it might say "Why won't you consider trading the land we handed over to you for these silly trinkets that so honor us? Sound like a bad deal? Well, that's the deal you gave us".

Curator Laura Phipps writes "[Smith] employed pop-culture imagery to indict the celebration of a republic built on stolen land [and that the] painted canoe becomes a stage on which the violent and exploitative history of this country is performed, as she masterfully collages historic photographs, zoological illustrations, and clippings from newspapers and magazines [...] For Smith, these objects stand in for the worthless trinkets, spoiled food, and contaminated goods offered by the United States government in their treaty negotiations with tribal nations, from 1778 to today. That much of this paraphernalia is still widely available in 2023 speaks to the incredible resistance that many feel when faced with their own culpability".

Oil and mixed media - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

2000

State Names

Since Indian Map (1992), Smith has created several other collaged works based on maps of the United States, because, as she insists, "maps can tell stories". With State Names, in which the artist has allowed dripping paint (bringing to mind, perhaps, blood or tears) to obscure and/or confuse the borders between states and countries. The work highlights the arbitrary nature of borders and boundaries. She also makes selective use of names of the American and northern Mexican states, and Canadian provinces and territories, whose etymology is of indigenous origin (such as Saskatchewan, Oklahoma, and Chihuahua) while omitting all those names introduced by the European settlers (such as New England and New York).

As arts educator Anne Showalter and art historian Beth Harris note, by recreating a format (a map with state names in large font) that is familiar and typically "educational", yet rendering it simultaneously unfamiliar, "Smith calls attention to the colonial history of North America that is so often left out of standard education, and prompts viewers to think about their past, and therefore their present, in a different way". Showalter and Harris also recognize that Smith's decision to paint the oceans black brings an additional "ominous" sensibility to the work. Said Smith herself, "a map is not an empty form. [...] it's not an icon of this incredible country. It's not just a vacant idea, it's real. It's about real land - stolen land, polluted land".

Oil, collage, and mixed media on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

2018

Trade Canoe: Fry Bread

In recent years, Smith has collaborated with her son, Neal Inuksois Ambrose-Smith, to create a series of sculptural Trade Canoes. Trade Canoe: Fry Bread features the skeleton form of a canoe, made of synthetic sinew and pine wood, which allows viewers to see a pile of stale "fry bread" inside. As the Garth Greenan Gallery explains, "The Navajo and Apache made the first fry bread from scant government provisions during the notorious Long Walk in 1864 - a 400-mile, 18-day forced march away from their homelands during which many died. The bread is at once a symbol of cultural resilience and adaptability even as it is a reminder of immense cruelty". Moreover, fry bread, and other low-quality foodstuffs have contributed to increased rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses amongst Native communities.

Trade Canoe: Fry Bread is also an example of the "Nomad Art" that Smith has often associated with. The idea relates to a nomadic lifestyle in which the nomad in question takes only the things that they need from the earth and respect the materials they have used. Thus, Smith often uses nontoxic and biodegradable materials in her works. Canoes feature prominently in many of Smith's works because for her they are a vessel for "piling my dreams on for a journey across the land". Curator Laura Phipps adds that "An important representation of her tribe's history, [the canoe] is also a nod to her own conception of artists as intellectual and cultural traders".

In another work from the series, Trade Canoe: Making Medicine (2018), she and her son filled the vessels with plastic water bottles, Styrofoam and paper coffee cups and take-out containers, wooden crosses, and hypodermic needles. Phipps explains that "these items are by-products of the US government's interference in the lives of Native Americans, the introduction of unhealthy commodity foods when traditional farming and hunting were ruthlessly curtailed". Arts writer Joshua Hunt reports that another planned Trade Canoe will be filled with large plaster pills, to be labelled "Percocet," "OxyContin" and other addictive drugs that are causing significant harm to many indigenous communities around the continent. Curator Anya Montiel suggests, meanwhile, that, in all these works, "The Smiths have responded to the onslaught of colonial violence through disrupting the transmission, loading their canoe with a detrimental trade item". Smith herself put it more succinctly: "I'm using trade canoes to give back stuff that's not good for us".

Wood lath, artificial sinew, fry bread, varnish - Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona

Biography of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Childhood

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a woman of French-Cree, Shoshone, and Salish heritage, was born in St. Ignatius Mission, a small town on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian Reservation, in Montana. While her first name, Jaune (French for "yellow") references her Cree background, her second name, Quick-to-See, was chosen by her Shoshone grandmother who observed the child's keen sense of observation. Smith and her sister were raised solely by their father, Arthur, a horse trader; their mother having abandoned them at a neighbor's house when Smith was just two years old. She recalled in a recent interview, "The languages that my father spoke - Kootenai, as well as Salish, and maybe M├ętis-Cree - were describing our world around us. There was no refrigerator. There was no radio. There was no TV in that language. There was no industrialization in that language. It was about our world. It was about the two parts to our world: the interior part and the exterior part, the world of realism and the world of mystery. Those worlds together composed our language".

As Arthur's work involved constant travel, the sisters moved often, mainly around the Pacific Northwest and California. They also spent time living in welfare homes. Smith and her family experienced a great deal of poverty, and she recalled that at one time they "lived in a cabin with two other families. We rolled up with our blankets against the walls. We didn't have furniture. There was a pump outside that everybody used. There were outhouses. My sister and I dug through garbage piles at the backs of the cabins for food every day. We were hungry all the time. Remember, this was the Second World War. We were at the bottom. We ate dried salmon. That's what we lived on. All I remember is being sick the whole time. I still have physical problems from that childhood".

Between the ages of eight to fifteen, Smith spent summer vacations earning money for the family working with migrant workers in a farming community near Seattle, cutting rhubarb and picking fruits like strawberries and raspberries, and string beans during the fall. Smith often shirked her crop picking duties and climbed into trees to read books she borrowed from a mobile library that sometimes passed through town. She recalled, "the stories in Steinbeck told me what was going to happen to me when I was older. Knowing what I faced in my future, I even thought about suicide in my teens, which is very common for Native people". Arts writer Joshua Hunt comments, "beyond her 'dystopian' childhood, she imagined ending up like the Indians who came to trade horses with her father [...] She felt hopeless".

Smith loved art and always carried drawings her father had made for her of animals on scraps of paper. She drew in the dirt with sticks and made objects out of mud, leaves, and rocks. It was only when she entered primary school (with many Japanese children who had spent their early years in internment camps) that she had access to art supplies like crayons and tempera paints. Recalls Smith, "Once [the materials] became familiar their smell could almost make me swoon [...] I made a painting of children dancing around Mount Rainier. My teacher raved about it. Then with Valentine's Day approaching, I painted red hearts all over the sky. [...] I see it as my first abstract painting". She added that while making art, "I entered another world, one that took me out of the violence and fear that dominated my life".

When she was thirteen, Smith hitched a ride on the back of a pickup truck into town with other farm workers, to view the 1952 John Huston film Moulin Rouge. It was a fictionalized account of the life of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Hunt explains that the film gave Smith "a different kind of hardship to dwell on: the struggles of an artist. She recognized [Toulouse-Lautrec's] determination". Smith said of the experience, "I so desperately wanted to be an artist, that later I took axle grease from my father's truck to make a goatee on my face and made a cardboard palette. I asked a man down the road if he could take my picture. This was my way of entering the skin of an artist, since I had never seen a woman artist. Toulouse was a little person, so I knelt on my knees for the picture, thinking that would make me an authentic artist".

Education and Early Training

While she was a student at Puyallup High School, near Tacoma, Washington, an advisor informed Smith: "Indians don't go to college". She longed to study art or literature, but was only allowed to take vocational courses; a decision Smith likened to "almost getting punched in the stomach". She was determined to pursue the arts, however, and when she was reached the age of fifteen, Smith used money she had saved to study art via a correspondence course which had been advertised on a matchbook cover. Having graduated high school, Smith enrolled in art classes at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington. She was told by her art tutor that, although she drew better than the men in her class, as a woman she would struggle to make a career as a professional artist.

Refusing to give up her dream, Smith earned her Associate of Arts degree in 1960, and went on to study at the University of Washington in Seattle. However, by this time she was a single parent raising two young sons (a situation she described as "similar to other Indian women my age"). She worked several part-time jobs (including waitress, factory worker, domestic worker, librarian, janitor, veterinary assistant, and secretary) which slowed her academic progress. It wasn't until 1976 that she finally earned her bachelor's degree in art education from Framingham State College, Massachusetts. Smith then moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to start graduate school at the University of New Mexico (UNM), where she was interested in joining the school's comprehensive Native American studies program. After being rejected from the program three times, she decided to focus on art, and was accepted onto the school's Department of Fine Arts.

While at UNM, Smith learned about the dominant styles and movements of Western art. She began creating abstracted landscapes, which she called "maps", using pastels, charcoal, or paint. Smith's "maps" drew on the formal qualities of Expressionism and 19th-century American landscape painting, but she made them her own by adding marks that invoked the movement of animals and humans, and referenced the ancient petroglyphs, glyphs, and pictographs of Native tribes.

Mature Period

In 1979 (the year before graduating with her master's degree) Smith brought together other Native American artists at UNM, including Emmi Whitehorse, Conrad House, Larry Emerson, Paul Little, Felice Lucero, Ed Singer, and Paul Willeto, to form the Grey Canyon Group (named after Albuquerque's canyons of cement). The Group aimed to showcase the work of contemporary Native artists and secured exhibition space in venues like New York's American Indian Community House, and Santa Fe's Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Audiences would find (often to their surprise) similarities between the Grey Canyon Group works and those of mainstream contemporary artists (like the Abstract Expressionists). The works on display jarred with the traditional expectations about Native arts and handicrafts that was associated chiefly with traditional beadwork and pottery.

For her part, Smith started to gain increased national recognition after she joined New York's Kornblee Gallery. Her first solo exhibition at Kornblee (in 1980) was a great success and featured in influential publications such as Art in America and the Village Voice. In 1982 she founded the COUP MARKS artists' coop with members of the Flathead reservation. Over the coming years, Smith would organize/feature in over thirty Native exhibitions across the United States. She recalled, "One of my most memorable [exhibitions] was the first touring Native women's exhibit 'Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar and Sage' [launched at the American Indian Community House in 1985]. After receiving the catalog, one woman wrote me that she laid the catalog against her cheek and cried, she had no idea there were so many Native women artists out there and she no longer felt alone".

Late Period

Preceding her clutch of honorary doctorates, Smith started to garner notable awards (including the Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award, NY l987; the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters Grant 1996; and the Women's Caucus for the Arts Lifetime Achievement 1997). She participated in the Venice Biennale in 1999. In 2011 she was inducted into the National Academy of Design and, in 2014, the New Mexico Women's Hall of Fame.

In 2020, the National Gallery Art (NGA) in Washington D.C. purchased her 11-foot-tall mixed media multi-panel painting, I See Red: Target (1992), making her the first Native American artist to have a worked acquired by the institution. Christies auction house writes that the work "began in response to the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas in 1992. The color red is symbolic in Smith's practice. She uses red to contrast the symbolism of white as innocence within Native American history. Similarly, the color red not only refers to the anger caused by the quotidian indignity facing many Indigenous populations but also a derogatory label for Native Americans. Alternatively, red is also a significant color in the dances and ceremonies of Indigenous cultures across the world, used to mark and protect bodies and objects of importance".

In 2023 Smith became the first Native American artist to have a solo retrospective at the Whitney Museum, and the first artist to curate an exhibition at the National Gallery ("The Land Carries Our Ancestors: Contemporary Art by Native Americans"). In an interview to help publicize the Whitney exhibition, she laid out her future goals: "I want to do another large exhibition that includes two hundred Native American artists. I want to show people that we are alive, we're here, and we're not dead; we're not vanishing. For fifty years I've been traveling and lecturing to audiences, and people raise their hand and go, 'I've never met an Indian.' I'll ask an audience, 'Do you know how many tribes there are in the United States?' and they'll raise their hands and say, 'Two? Six?' We have 574 that are federally recognized; and then we have several hundred waiting for that recognition; and then state-recognized there are a couple hundred. We don't know that because it's not taught in school. So, I really want to ramp up education in public schools. To do that, I've started a small, private foundation. I'm hoping it will turn into a 501(c)(3) [a tax-exempt organization that meets the IRS requirements for charitable purposes]. I want to publish books on Native children's stories, and I want to start that this coming year".

The Legacy of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Cultural critic Jennifer Krasinski writes, "Breaking the path to an American art we've long needed to see, Smith is both a force for reckoning and a force to be reckoned with. A citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the eighty-three-year-old activist and artist has devoted herself to righting the story of the Native experience, foregrounding the genocide and ecological decimation that malformed the roots of our nation. [...] Her sculptures, paintings, and works on paper deliver doses of rage and wit in equal measure". Smith's work, as an artist, educator, activist, and promotor of fellow Native American artists, has had a profound influence on many younger Native artists, including American Mississippi Choctaw/Cherokee painter and sculptor Jeffrey Gibson, who spoke of how she "kind of shifted everything" and how "her generosity [...] provided a path that [he] hadn't known about, that was real".

Arts writer Joshua Hunt comments that Smith's art "has helped to prove that modernism and indigeneity can coexist across a range of mediums and materials, including the hybrid of collage and abstract painting that has become a signature style", while critic Jillian Steinhauer admires "the tension [her art] carries between her embrace of more Eurocentric, modernist methods and her pro-Indigenous, environmentalist, anticapitalist messages". Curator Laura Phipps concludes, "[Smith's] drawings, prints, paintings, and sculptures exist in conversation not only with the art and artists she has encountered but with her own memory and, most importantly, with the legacies and life of the land. [...] These works engage Indigenous epistemologies of mapping as storytelling, rather than as geopolitical divisions".

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