“My art, my life experience, and my tribal ties are totally enmeshed. I go from one community with messages to the other, and I try to enlighten people.”
Even in her earliest memories, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith wanted to be an artist. Her father, an amateur artist, drew pictures of animals for his daughter to entertain her. She grew up on the Flathead Reservation in southwestern Montana, and developed an affinity for animals and nature that has informed her work throughout her life. Yet she was told as a teenager that women could not be artists, that it was a man’s pursuit – but she has proved the naysayers wrong by earning her MA from the University of New Mexico and becoming a successful artist who has exhibited since the 1970s. She, like other Native American artists of her generation, has produced politically and environmentally conscious art throughout her career.
“Once my paintings get started and they start rolling they take on a life of their own, and often that’s the way things take place. They come from some mysterious place within.”
Although they address large-scale issues, Smith’s paintings are deeply personal. For example, Indian, Indio, Indigenous, a work Smith calls one of her “narrative landscapes,” is a protest against destruction of the environment and poor treatment of Native Americans. She draws a visual and thematic correlation between the two with use of a unifying color palette and symbols of Native American life, such as use of her reservation’s newspaper, Char-Koosta. Stark line-drawings mingle with text, including the words “It takes hard work to keep racism alive.” Despite containing numerous symbols, the meaning of the work is clear, and comes from her own identity as Native American.
“I think of my work as an inhabited landscape, never static or empty. Euro-Americans see broad expanses of land as vast, empty spaces. Indian people see all land as a living entity. The wind ruffles; ants crawl; a rabbit burrows. I’ve been working with that idea for probably twenty years now.”
Smith’s work comes alive, and her influences are far reaching. She was trained as an abstract expressionist, and often employs similar color palettes and collage techniques. Her view of landscape is quite different from a conventional one, offering viewers a fresh outlook on nature and life as an American. Despite her often sobering message, Smith seems to prefer humor in her work: “I think people often can hear a message with humor much easier than with bitterness.”