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Sunday, July 15, 2012


This is the story of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, the internationally renowned Native American artist and activist.
The chilly January winds blew across Montana, heralding the coming Second World War, when this little girl was born at the Jesuit Mission on the Salish Flathead Reservation. She was not pure Flathead but Cree, Shoshone, and French as well. When Jaune was two years old, she and her sister were abandoned by their mother. The girls lived with their father, an illiterate horse trader, who moved the little family around the northwest U.S. Visits to relatives on the Montana reservation were rare because their father didn’t have the money to take them. They lived from time to time in foster homes.
Her name, Jaune, is pronounced like “john;” and she adopted her family’s surname “Ouick-to-See.” At eight years old, she toiled in the fields with other migrant workers, harvesting crops belonging to Japanese farmers recently released from government internment. There were no toys, so Jaune and her sister would draw pictures in the dirt with a stick.
She was 36 by the time she completed her B.A. in Art, and 40 when receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree. It’s funny because Jaune had been earning a living as an artist for several years. She hoped to teach art on a reservation but there were few opportunities. She continued to be a mentor to young native artists, especially to the girls who had always been told that art was something beyond their ability.
Jaune describes her own style as “abstract expressionism,” being both symbolic and emotional. It is sometimes representational, sometimes abstract; her inspirations were Picasso, Klee, Warhol, and Rauschenberg as well as traditional Native American art. She frequently incorporates images taken from ancient native petroglyphs (stone carvings) into her paintings. Her choice of mediums is not limited either. Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is at home with drawings, oil paintings, decoupage, or lithographs.
Her art is a fusion of her own cultural experiences and values, and contemporary Euro-American tradition. It is filled with political subject matter. There is sarcasm, even rage, in her work but it is tempered by popular imagery, parody, and humor. It can be thought provoking and raises questions to dispel the myths about Native Americans.
She began to establish herself as an artist in the mid-1970’s with some successes in the business of art. Now Jaune Quick-to-See Smith was able to put together her talent (art) and her passion (activism).
She had always been inspired by the words of Chief Seattle, a prominent mid-nineteenth century Suquamish leader, who urged environmental responsibility and warned of the exploitation of the natural world. He also pushed for respect for Native American land rights. Jaune occasionally paints his words directly onto her artwork.
She has continually spoken against what she calls “trading post crafts,” artwork produced that just continues the stereotype of Native Americans. She believes that it is demeaning to her people. “Contemporary Native American art continues to be ignored by the mainstream of the art world. There are a number of shows travelling but they all focus on pots, blankets, and jewelry. That’s what sells. We are suspect aesthetically if we are not making traditional work,” she claims.
In 1985, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith gathered together thirty Native American female artists and travelled with them across the country exhibiting their work. The mediums included painting, sculpture, photographs, as well as bead work and weaving.
With international fame came the means to help others. Jaune followed the “pay it forward” philosophy by providing art scholarships, invitations to exhibit alongside of her, and training for young artists on how to organize themselves for participation in the art business.
Today she lives in Corrales, New Mexico, but is far from retirement. Jaune has had more than 90 solo exhibitions and lectured at 185 museums and schools (including five in China). Her art can be found in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, both in New York, The Museum of Mankind in Vienna, The Smithsonian, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, and The Museum of Modern Art in Ecuador.
When asked to describe herself, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith replied, “harbinger, mediator, bridge builder.” That sums it up pretty well.
You can link to see some of her paintings at this address (courtesy of Bluffton College):

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