Interview by Shilo George
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Salish/Kootenai, French Cree, Shoshone, enrolled member of the Flathead Nation, born 1940 at the St. Ignatius Jesuit Mission on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Reservation in Montana.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s artwork is multi-layered, complex, and deeply personal. The more time I spent looking at her work (which spans forty-years) the more impressed I became with her uncompromising tenacity, humor, quiet outrage, and vocal opinion about topics like identity, cultural preservation, environmental preservation, and war. As the viewer I found myself falling into her compositions and swimming in the rich layers, visual textures, colors, messages, and symbols that permeate her work. I’m particularly drawn to her continued use of dripping paint, her use of bright colors that are often saturated, and her use of Native American cultural icons such as a buckskin dress, petroglyphs, and anthropomorphic animals. It should also be noted that she is extremely skilled at setting up her compositions so that she guides the viewer throughout the work.
If the viewer is to really understand and appreciate the complexity of her work, they must have a good understanding of not only art history but Native American history, cultural icons, and current events. Smith pulls from all of these sources to create layers built in narrative and point-of-view that are incased in each print or painting. Cultural perspective and worldview is important to both recognize the individual elements of her compositions at the same time as viewing the total meaning of the composition as this is imperative to understanding her world vision.
In addition to Smith’s impressive artworks, she also plays an important role in Native American contemporary arts curation, lecturer, teacher, and activist. Smith has created hundreds of prints and paintings, lectured at over 185 colleges and universities, has had over 90 solo exhibits and curated or organized over 30 Native American exhibitions. After reading extensively about her work and accomplishments I kept wondering if she has the same number of hours in the day as the rest of us do. She continues to be a champion for her fellow contemporary Native American artists and has worked tirelessly over her career to create support, appreciation, and validation for the importance of contemporary Native American artwork.
Not only is Smith generous in her approach to working with Native artists, but she also uses her own funds to create exhibits and support other artists. She was equally giving, open, and generous with her time in answering all of my questions and helping me to understand her vision and passion for art and Native American culture.
Ghost Dance Dress, 2001 Lithograph, Missoula Museum of Art
Horse Sense, 1994, Lithograph, Missoula Museum of Art
Indian Heart, 1993, Lithographic/Collage, Missoula Museum of Art
Shilo George: Through this Contemporary North American Indigenous Artist class we have often discussed the issue of Indian identity and the artist. We have looked at the work of a few artists who reject or are uncomfortable with being labeled a Native American artist. Usually it’s because they do not want to be limited to one style, topic, or medium viewed by the larger art world as “Native American Art.” As a Native American artist, have you ever had a family member, community member, fellow artist, art critic, or teacher view your work and comment on your unique mixed media technique or subject matter and questioned if it was really Native American art? If yes, what was the circumstance and how did you address that person’s comment? What would you say to another Native American artist who feels uncomfortable with being labeled a Native American artist?
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: I’ve had comments on my art about it being too Native and also not being Native enough. When Emmi Whitehorse and I were in school at the same time, she was an undergrad and I was a grad student, we both had comments from professors that our work was too Indian in appearance. We both made abstract work that I called “mark making” to deter these professors. Later when I founded the Grey Canyon Artists and sought exhibition venues for the group, I was told that our contemporary work wasn’t “Indian” enough in appearance. This commentary was a disavowal of who we were as a people. It meant that others had the power to decide the merit or value of our artwork based on racial stereotyping. It’s thought that Native Americans made collage before Europeans. Take a look at our antiquities and you will see a variety of materials collaged together. Remember after Bastille Day in France, traders brought silks to trade with the Indians. Ribbon shirts and appliqué used these silks, which is another form of collage. Collage is a fitting material for economically poor and disenfranchised people. Native artists vary in how they want to be viewed either as a mainstream artist or as an American Indian artist. I think that’s a personal choice.
Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People), 1992, Mixed Media
SG: I enjoyed looking at your work in the book titled She Paints The Horse. It is interesting to see how your style and media changes from year to year and sometimes painting to painting, however the stylization and gestures of the horse rarely changes. Was this purposeful when you were creating the art or putting that particular collection together? Or was it just the way it happened when you were in your creating process?
JQTSS: The catalog She Paints the Horse covers perhaps 30 years or more of my painting and drawing horses. I rode my horse Cheyenne for about 20 years while I used him for my model. I chose two pieces of work to represent a whole series of the many series that I did all those years. Several of those series contained 100 to 200 pieces of work. So what you see in this catalog is a tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount of pieces of work that exist. There is a jump from page to page, which means those two works might represent a year to two years of work. During that same time I was also working on other artwork that did not have a horse image. Some of the horse images were made just for my own pleasure, not particularly for sale purposes.
SG: Looking at the painting War Horse, 2005, I was drawn to the painting’s pastel colors that run throughout the composition. As my eyes continued to move around the painting I was struck by the juxtaposition of skulls littering the ground and I can’t help but see them as happy. The horse in the center is shown as grounded, strong, and solid. This conflicts with what I see as bullet wounds or scars depicted in the paint splatters and running paint on the body of the horse. As I look closer at the horse I see that his hair is covering his eyes. Is he blind to the death around him or could he be innocent? Who is the horned, serpent character in front of the horse that seems happy and like he stepped out of a children’s cartoon? I also noticed another references to cartoon animation with the hand dropping the birds into the composition at the top right. After examining the composition I finally noticed the smiling cartoon-the figure of the little girl peaking at me from the left side of the canvas. I had the feeling that she had been watching me the whole time I studied the painting and was laughing at me. What was the message you were trying to convey with this painting?
War Horse, 2002, Painting
JQTSS: I am a post modernist messenger as one curator labeled me and I think that label fits. It means that I take images from any historical period and from anywhere including color books, advertising, wallpaper etc. The horned serpent is the devil from a Jose Guadalupe Posada print. He was a Mexican printmaker who lived in the late 1800’s. He made his political prints criticizing the Mexican government and sold them on the street corners hoping to enlighten people. The skulls are also taken from his prints and yes, he often drew them in a cartoonish way perhaps thinking they might have more appeal to people, encouraging them to purchase his prints. There is also a Mickey Mouse hand in the upper right hand corner which reminds us of the culture vulture Walt Disney, and the attempt to spread American corporate culture throughout the world. This painting entitled War Horse is about the American invasion of Iraq, which will go down in history as a despicable act of war, which has killed, perhaps 100,000 people or more, both Americans and Iraqis. This is an anti-war painting. Note the guy floating in the sky he represents “Star Wars” weapons that Reagan was so enthusiastic about spending exorbitant amounts of money on. Also note that he carries a spear, my commentary on the effectiveness of our high tech equipment fighting people who are barefoot and on donkeys. With all our pricey high tech gear, we still can’t locate Osama Bin Laden. The horned figure (the devil) holds a mask which is the piece of sculpture that was stolen from the Iraqi museum during the invasion, in fact, millions of dollars of irreplaceable artworks were stolen from there. When told that this was happening, Rumsfeld made a comment in retort something like “who cares about a bunch of old dusty pots.” These guys are the representatives of Columbus of our time; they are corporate and have no morals or scruples. Few galleries and museums are interested in political art today. I felt very lucky that the Nicolaysen Museum allowed me to display this painting. Wyoming is a very conservative state. Showing it there was like being in the Lion’s den.
SG: Since the 1970’s you have played many roles in gaining the notice of the larger art world to the importance, brilliance, and variety of Native American contemporary art. I’m interested in how you define your role as a curator of Native American contemporary art and how does your definition conflict and/or go together with the contemporary European idea of art curation? Why is/was the role of curator important for you to take on?
JQTSS: In the mid 1970’s when I began curating or organizing exhibitions for Native artists, it was about having contemporary Native art seen. There were pots, blankets, jewelry, and IAIA painting and sculpture being shown in Santa Fe at that time, but those of us who were educated in mainstream universities were being ignored and we still are nearly 40 years later. The emphasis for collectors and museums is still on crafts. Yes, there is a difference between my curation and Euro-American curation. A curator who acts as judge and jury emphasizes that their knowledge or years of training is on a much higher plane than an artist with years of training and experience. I don’t want Native artists to feel discounted or demeaned about their work so I plan in advance who will be invited to an exhibition. I have much respect for our Native artists who often have tight budgets. I don’t want to stress their time and money. It’s more than belittling to receive a notice that you’ve been dumped; it’s also the cost of photography and preparing their materials that is problematic for them. We get that in the mainstream so I’m not willing to do that to my tribal kin. I’m not infallible. Sure my years of experience offer some educated judgment but it’s enough for me that they’ve earned a certain position of respect. I’m likely to get beat up over this commentary but since I’ve spent nearly 40 years doing my curatorial work this way I have a long-term commitment to this method of curating.
The Sacred, 1996, Lithograph, Missoula Museum of Art
SG: In an article by Native American artist, Gail Tremblay, written for the Missoula Art Museum, Tremblay notes that the Missoula Art Museum has the largest collection of your prints than any other art museum in the country. That you donate one print from every edition you make. Are you still donating prints to them? Why did you make the decision to donate your work instead of asking for compensation?
JQTSS: If I had asked for compensation, I doubt that this amount of my work would be in the MAM collection. The big leap here was attaining permission from the board to do this. Museums generally will accept one or two pieces but unless you are a blue chip artist such as Pat Steir or Chuck Close, you aren’t likely to have a museum accept this amount of work. So you can look at this in two ways. I want to look at it in a positive light and with pride, especially since this is in a 60 miles proximity to my reservation (the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation.)
War is Heck, 2002, Lithograph/Chine Colle, Missoula Museum of Art
SG: In a lecture that you gave at the Eitelijorg Fellowship in 2007 you talked about going to college for art and that at the end of the year your professor told you that women could not be artists. That you should find another field to go into. Were there other instances during your career where you were discouraged by others to pursue art or other goals due to being a woman? If yes, what was the circumstance and how did you address that person? Looking at the present, where do you see that Native women artists need to make their mark or areas we need to explore? What advice would you give to upcoming Native woman who are entering the art world for the first time?
JQtSS: The year that professor told me that I could not be an artist was 1958. My art classes were all men receiving the GI Bill from the Korean War and the instructor told me that I could draw better than the men, but that women could not be artists. He said I could be a teacher. So eventually I did earn an art education degree. But through hard work I began showing and selling my work while in grad school. I didn’t look back at what that male instructor said, I just kept working. If you read Wilma Mankiller or Faith Ringgold’s biography you will find similar stories. We can’t predict where we’re going in life, but we can have goals and stay focused. So you have to do what you believe in. Do what makes you feel whole and happy. Do what keeps your life in balance.
A Map of Heaven, 2002, Lithograph/Chine Colle, Missoula Museum of Art
SG: The lithograph, “A Map to Heaven,” 2001 seems different from much of your other work in terms of the color palette and the simplicity of the composition. I like the subdued color palette and there’s something comforting about the combination of cream, light green hues, and brown hues. Can you explain your composition choices, the meaning behind it, and some of the images in the background?
JQtSS: I zeroxed a photo of a warshirt to use for my drawing and liked it so much I decided to keep the grey color. Often that’s how I “discover” something. Behind the warshirt is a map I found in a shoebox wrapper (an image of a WWII map of Europe). I created a road to heaven with dollar signs, barbies, falling angels—and since no one has gone there and come back to tell us about it—I put an elder up there with a straight up bonnet (from an old scalp dance photo).
SG: I noted that in many of your prints you worked collaboratively with another artist or printer. In the lithograph, “A Map of Heaven,” can you talk about working collaboratively with chine colle and specifically about your roles in the process of creating the idea for the composition and the printing?
JQtSS: All lithographs are done with a printer in a shop, some monoprints, ImagOn are done in my studio or with my son, the professor, artist and printmaker Neal Ambrose Smith. Chine Colle, means collage pasted using the press.
SG: In an article for Maverick Arts Magazine in 2005 or 2006, the writer reported that when he came to visit you and your husband in New Mexico you were going to start cataloging and organizing your slides and information you had collected over the years about your shows. Where are you in that cataloging process? What will you do with all of the cataloged information? Publishing a book? Will you be creating your own website?
JQtSS: Yes, I’m working on a website now. I want it to be more than a feature for my work, I hope to add educational material to it. The Joan Mitchell Foundation in NY has given me a grant to do this archiving project. They’ve asked me to help write a workbook about the process so they can pass this out to other artists. I’m also beta testing software they are developing just for artists. It will all be given for free, with no fees attached.
Coyote Made Me Do It!, 1993
SG: Irony and humor seems to be a common theme for you through out your work. Can you explain why this is and its connection to Native American culture?
JQtSS: Irony and humor are an important part of Native culture and you readily find it throughout Indian Country and imposed on Indian art. That’s what gets us through the hard times.
Indian Survival Suite: Humor, 1996, Lithograph, Missoula Museum of Art
SG: During my research I’ve read that you have taught art at AIAI, that you continue to give lectures and participate in artist-in-residence both in the US and internationally, and that you particularly like supporting young Native artists. Can you share your teaching philosophy? In your opinion, what are the most important elements, practices, or skills to teach young Native artists?
JQtSS: I encourage students to learn the fundamentals of art, then not be afraid to look everywhere and at everything for their creative impulses. I discourage them from trying to follow a style or to copy from a book, because they think that will generate sales. That only serves to make stale art. They should keep at their art making, get into their own zone and allow that mystery to take over their creativity.
Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, 2005, Painting/Mixed Media, Denver Art Museum
SG: During my continued research about your work and your process, I found that the Denver Art Museum has an educational lesson plan for K-5th grade students. The lesson plan revolves around your work, “Trade Canoe for Don Quixote.” Have you seen any of the K-5th grade students work based on your piece?
Denver Art Museum’s educational lesson plan based on Smith’s work, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote:http://creativity.denverartmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Smith_Elem.pdf
JQtSS: No, I haven’t been to the DAM museum. (No pun intended.)
Rancher, 2002, Acrylic on Canvas, Hood Museum of Art, Purchased through the William S. Rubin Fund
SG: In many of your works you use appropriated images from many different media sources as symbols to create a comment on a larger theme. I’ve seen commercial ads to historical photos, to newspaper articles and headlines. Are there any sources that are untouchable to you?
JQtSS: I haven’t used porn.
Flight, date unknown, Acrylic, Missoula Museum of Art
SG: In much of your work you use images of petroglyphs and other cultural symbols, many from your tribe. Do you ever use images from other tribes and if so do you research that symbolism to see how that tribe uses them? How do you feel about Native American artists using and appropriating images or symbols from tribes other than their own? Do you think that an artist has a duty to research the cultural symbol and use it the way it was intended?
JQtSS: I always try to be respectful by not pointedly using other tribes symbols. I also am nervous about that, especially knowing that many images are used in ceremonies. However, there are times, I’ve used ancient symbols especially petroglyphs and altered them. Sometimes I’ve found they resemble petroglyphs found in China or Africa. That gives me a freedom knowing they are universal. It’s like knowing the copyright has expired.
SG: What projects are you working on right now and what sources are you drawing from to create that work?
JQtSS: I’m redesigning a section of the Denver Airport terrazzo floor in the Great Hall where they recently pulled the fountain out and asked me and my partner from the floor design twenty years ago to create a jazzy design to replace the fountain 60 feet long and 30 feet wide. I’ve included this design in a group of images I’m sending you soon. The design was just out of my head. Amazing what floats around in there sometimes, but not all of the time.
Images of the Denver Airport terrazzo floor will be included at a later date.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith Resources:
Missoula Museum of Art: Smith’s collection as well as several educational lesson plans based on her work.
Illustrated essay about Smith’s work by Gail Tremblay:
Flomenhaft Gallery: A collection of her work and information about the artist:
Smith’s impressive curriculum vitae and resume:
Beyond Sweetgrass: The Life and Art of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith by Joni L. Murphy, Murphy’s dissertation an Smith’s work for University of Kansas:
A Complete Lesson Plan on creating mixed media collage based on Smith’s work:
Denver Art Museum’s educational lesson plan based on Smith’s work, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote: