Treasures from the Vault: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation.  Her heritage is Cree, Shoshone, and French.  Named by her father, Quick-to-See is taken from her grandmother’s name.  Like many artists, she was always drawing, but when Quick-to-See Smith attended college in 1958, she was directed towards a career in teaching with the explanation that women cannot be artists.  Many women of her generation faced similar attitudes and problems.  In 1976 Quick-to-See Smith received her Bachelor’s degree in Art Education from Framingham State College.  In 1980, she earned a Master’s degree in Art and Indian Studies from the University of New Mexico with the assumption that she would teach on a reservation.  Her career in art, however, began to flourish.  The Minneapolis College of Art and Design and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts bestowed honorary doctorates in subsequent years.  The Women’s Caucus for the Arts presented her with the Lifetime Achievement award in 1997.

As both a woman and a minority, Quick-to-See Smith has worked hard to create opportunities to promote artists who were vastly under-recognized.  She curated numerous exhibitions of Native American artists, often in alternative spaces, and founded artists’ groups such as the COUP MARKS artist coop from the Flathead reservation and Grey Canyon Artists, named for Albuquerque’s canyons of cement.  Quick-to-See Smith has helped raise funds for scholarships and library books for her reservation’s community college founded by her cousin. 

Quick-to-See Smith creates paintings, mixed-media collages, and drawings; but is also a prolific printmaker.  She began working when many expected Native American artists to work in pottery, weaving, beadwork, and silverwork.  Instead, we see the influences of mainstream trends in Abstract Expressionism and Pop art.  Recurring themes in her art focus on self-identification, human resilience, protection of the environment, and preservation of Native American cultures and histories.  Her works are found in major museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.  The Missoula Art Museum has the most comprehensive collection of the artist’s prints, which includes an example from every edition she has created. 

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Native American, b. 1940. Hunter of Hungry Horse. Etching and aquatint, 1979. Gift of the Betty Parsons Foundation, 1985.14. Photo by FWMoA.

The land is continually a subject of Quick-to-See Smith’s work and her approach to it has evolved throughout her career.  Hunter of the Hungry Horse (1979) is among her earliest prints.  It is made-up of simple blocks of color.  Small black marks possibly signify plants or trees and triangular shapes form dwellings.  It reads like an abstracted landscape seen from the air, reminiscent of a map.  

In 1987, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art curated 8 Native American Artists, a group exhibition that featured her pastel drawing, Dream Time.  Quick-to-See Smith exploits the pastel’s ability to create feathery strokes and softly blended stretches of earth tones.  She layers fragments of mountains, pictographs, and horses (her father was a horse trainer and trader). Her drawing style and composition reflect her studies of rock petroglyphs and traditional Native American artifacts.  Quick-to-See Smith generates energy and movement in the landscape by filling the entire sheet with small marks.  In a 1992 interview the artist explained, “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 the grass; ants crawl; a rabbit burrows.  I’ve been working with that idea for probably twenty years now.”(1)

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Native American, b. 1940. Dream Time. Pastel on paper, 1986. Museum Purchase, 1987.06. Photo by FWMoA.

As her works developed through the years, Quick-to-See Smith allowed for more open space in her compositions.  She began juxtaposing disparate images and text, similar to Robert Rauschenberg who began utilizing non-traditional, found objects from pop culture in the 1950s.  The practice of collage can also date back to Native American use of appliqué and ribbon shirts.   Quick-to-See Smith draws from historical and contemporary sources as well as from Native American culture.  At times, they seem jarring and at odds with one another, but co-exist in her works. 

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Native American, b. 1940. Tribe/Community from the Survival Suite. Lithograph, 1996. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2013.27.4. Photo by FWMoA.

The Survival Suite from 1996 is made up of four prints highlighting different skills: Humor, Tribe/Community, Wisdom/Knowledge, and Nature/Medicine.  It is not surprising that humor is key to survival as it is a staple of many of the artist’s works.  She finds irony to be an effective means of communicating her message.  Quick-to-See Smith uses images to reference where we might find Tribe/Community by including what appear to be floor plans of a cathedral, Native American drawings from ledger books, and lost wax casting instructions.  She sketches a multitude of rabbit faces that border a large, centrally placed standing rabbit.  The rabbit appears in the Cree people’s story about the world’s creation and is known as a trickster.  Rabbits appear in petroglyphs in the Americas and are common in pop culture, literature, and movies. 

A Chart of the Human Body (2005) brings to mind a scientifically-based anatomical picture.  The human body’s skin is removed and key organs or different bodily systems are labeled like a map.  Is this all that is required to sustain life?  In Quick-to-See Smith’s version, the human torso is simplified and abstracted down, and we see the grain of the woodblock rather than an interior view.  The background is a radiant orange that the body seems to emit.  Rather than organs, she includes pictures of traditional pottery, modern art in the vein of Picasso, a store bar code, and a bullseye, which is aimed at a key organ.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Native American, b. 1940. A Chart of the Human Body. Woodcut and lithograph, 2005. Museum Purchase, 2015.31. Photo by FWMoA.

Trade has been important in Quick-to-See Smith’s family history dating back to her great-great-grandmother down to her father, whether it was her family trading goods or as an artist trading information and messages in her work.  Quick-to-See Smith’s first major trade canoe work was made in 1992, which marked the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus coming to the Americas entitled Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People).  Since then the artist has continued to use the canoe, but changing out different symbols, to allude to the environment, war, and the refugee crisis.  Trade Canoe: A Western Fantasy (2015) gives us a myriad of images to ponder.  A Native American dressed in buckskin clothing holds an American flag and stands close to the Lone Ranger suggestive of the mythic imagery of the American West.  A bed of cacti, Bison, elk, and an oil barrel possibly point to concerns for wildlife and the environment.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Native American, b. 1940. Trade Canoe: A Western Fantasy. Lithograph, 2015. Museum Purchase, 2015.04. Photo by FWMoA.

Want to decode Quick-to-See Smith’s artwork for yourself? Visit Sachi in the Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm, or by appointment.

(1) Trinkett Clark, Parameters #9: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Norfolk, VA: The Chrysler Museum), 1993.

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