Thursday, April 12, 2012

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: In the Fog, Near the Cliff (1983)

The temperature in Corrales hovered just under the 100 mark one recent afternoon when we visited Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.  Dressed in jeans, a bright red shirt, and long beaded earrings, the artist was animated as ever, but her menagerie of animals in the yard between the adobe house and studio were paying quiet homage to the heat.  Takota, Jaune’s old Australian shepherd dog with one brown eye and one blue, barely yapped when we opened the gate.  The guinea hens, Chitty-Chitty and Bang-Bang, and the brace of geese, Harold and Maude, lay sensibly motionless under the spreading peach tree, and Cheyenne, Jaune’s beloved palomino-paint, temperamentally more dog than horse, pulled his head from inside the cool studio just long enough to see who was coming before reinserting it.  He stands there as long as Jaune is inside the studio, occasionally interrupting her when he needs a carrot or a kiss from his mistress.   The cats and the Polish hens were nowhere to be seen. 

Neither heat nor being a woman nor an Indian nor a hot woman Indian artist would keep Jaune from her appointed rounds.  Movement seems to be key to her and her work, movement from place to place, person to person, group to group, time to time, painting to painting.  Movement inspires her, and she is peripatetic.  We asked what she’d been up to, and she eased into a monologue:  there was a show, Common Ground, a few months ago in New York at the American Indian Community House, with work by three Indians (Jaune, George Longfish, and Peter Jamison) and work by three Anglos selected by them (Harmony Hammond, Paul Brach, and Allan Gussow); her adventures with Coup Marks, a co-op organization of Flathead Indian craftsman she founded, which she has had shows, this year in Washington, D.C. and New York; the PBS film on her completed last year; fund raising efforts for the Indian Reorganization Act, an upcoming lecture to a group of anthropologists in Seattle; and her painting that, judging from the amount of work in the studio, she’s doing plenty of.

We knew Jaune, a mixture of French-Cree and Shoshone, was raised on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, and that she often travels back to visit and attend powwows.  Coup Marks sounded curious, and we asked her to elaborate: 

“I decided to set it up last fall, and I talked to the people about marketing, and asked them to bring me their work.  They brought it to me in pockets.  Safeway bags, and a lot of it was kitschy.  I had to be diplomatic with them, pick what would go in New York, et cetera.  What I want to do is instill contemporary, marketable ideas on the reservation, get across that idea to them.  I’m a bridge, a connector of people.  The people are so poor, I want to create a cottage industry there.  But it’s important that I eat potluck at home, and the next week have lunch in a fancy restaurant with the director of public relations for Philip Morris.  So many Indian professionals . . . I’m proud of the number of Indian professionals – doctors, lawyers –but many of them these days don’t go home, see the kitsch on the walls, the way they live.”

     Stringing ideas together like beads, Jaune continued: 

“I’ve been talking with Lucy Lippard (a feminist New York art writer and curator) and she’s excited about doing an Indian kitsch show, maybe at P.S.1.  I saw a pickup truck last year at Crow Fair and the whole thing was totally covered with beadwork.  Think of it!

           “My point is I want people to know we’re alive!  Collectors only want the old stuff.  They don’t buy the contemporary stuff, some of which is so beautiful (her voice slipping to a whisper), so well crafted.  They keep talking about the Vanishing Americans, but we’re everywhere, and we find one another.  But we’re low-key, we don’t have a Martin Luther King, and so we get overlooked.

“Some people think I’m wasting my time doing this sort of thing, writing all the letters I write.  But this networking (an example of newspeak, which we’ve been hearing frequently as 1984 approaches) is important.  I hear about their loneliness, their jobs, alienation.  A woman who works on movie lots in L.A., a fisherman who wrote me – they don’t understand that Indians cross all the lines, from the conservative Pueblos to urban Indians.  A lot of professional Indian people I know carry medicine bags.  They still sing.  It isn’t made up, it’s authentic ritual that lives.  Some things change.  You don’t wear kilts or Pilgrim clothes anymore, so don’t expect me to grunt and wear feathers.  There’s body language that has survived, a sense of humor that’s black.  In Denver, New York, I’ll find Indians or they’ll find me.  It’s like a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.  So getting around for me has been very valuable.  I talk at public schools, colleges . . . It sounds like I don’t paint, but that’s what I do all day when I’m here.  I become a hermit.  When I travel, I’m gone no more than four days, and I’m like a whirling dervish while I’m away.  I don’t know if I make any difference, but at one high school I showed films on Oscar Howe (a pioneer  contemporary Indian artist) and me, and slides, and afterwards all the kids ran out of the room except for these five little Indian kids who came up and asked if they could shake my hand.

(Jaune’s eyes quickly filled with tears at the memory, and she went on.)

‘I told them how long it took me to get through college, 22 years, that I mailed a matchbook cover to the Famous Artist School, how hard I had to work to become an artist.  Some bubbles have to be burst.  So many young Indian artists when they get out of I.A.I.A. (Institute of the American Indian Art, in Santa Fe) thing they’ll be famous like Gorman and Scholder . . .”

She mentioned several other ambitious projects – to instigate the first major Indian Institute and Exhibition Hall in Washington, and curate a show of Native American photographers (scheduled to be shown at the Southern Plains Museum in Andarko, Oklahoma, in December), a fascinating project which, in light of the Indian prejudice against the “Shadow Catcher,” will undoubtedly be controversial.  But underneath all her projects is her fervent belief that Indian culture is alive and well and living all over the place, and the idea that her personal and public power originates in her work, her painting.

“I talk to a lot of anthropologists, and I can’t make them understand that I’m as authentic as those living at the Pueblos.  Because I live off the reservation and went to a university (she has a M.A. from the University of New Mexico), doesn’t mean I’m vanishing!  I’m here, and I’m giving back!” she said with quiet fierceness.  “Where my power comes from is my work.  If I could hook up with a major publisher, I could generate money . . . the college at home (on the Flathead reservation in Montana) needs so much money.  But I haven’t been able to bastardize what I believe about my work to generate money.  I’m mostly interested in originals, and my work has changed a lot, which many dealers don’t like.  I think it’s research and development. “

Jaune’s work has been evolving steadily in recent years.  During her student days of the ‘60s and ‘70s, her painting and sculpture contained decidedly Indian subjects but they were executed, though skillfully, in a mainstream mode of contemporary realism.  There are several examples of work from this period in her home, including a Larry Riverish portrait of four Indians, one of whom is only roughly sketched on raw canvas, and a life-sized sculpture of an Indian Madonna with American Flag skirt, bird feather hands, and antique gold framed portrait for a face.

In the late ‘70s, however, Jaune began to find her singular voice.  She simplified her drawing and began to develop a vocabulary of a child-like pictographic symbols  which she incorporated into abstract swatches of color suggesting landscape.  In her series of drawings and paintings such as Wallowa Waterhole, Porcupine Ridge, and Kalispell, the subjects of which are related thematically and emotionally with places she was intimately associated with, often from childhood experiences, she managed to fuse contemporary and ancient painting styles.  The synthesis she has achieved in her style yields work that is rife with associations.  Past and future vision combine to make a statement about the present; urban Indian alienation, rural Indian poverty, and ancient Indian ritual work side by side in her work to belie the notion of the vanishing Americans.  Ledger book symbols become Cy Twombley, a Blackfeet robe could well have been designed by Agnes Martin, the color fields on a Hunkpapa drum are pure Rothko.  Jaune’s work is shaped by such ideas, and the result is art that speaks richly of the artist’s vision of the world and her place in it.  As she has said, “It’s like being able to speak two languages and not finding the right word that is common to both to express myself.”

Her most recent series of paintings, Sites, which are on view this month at the Marilyn Butler Gallery in Santa Fe, uses real and imagined archaeological sites as the starting point for her work.  They are more abstract than most of her earlier paintings, and in the laying of color and obscuring form, they are deeper.  She set the series about the studio, offered us soda and water, and talked:  “These aren’t realistic paintings of sites, but the essence of my feeling about the site.  I do love the land, and these are landscapes.  Usually they are inhabited.  They are not dead places.  The wind is moving, trees are moving, anthills . . . there’s movement from present to past present to future.  I compress time, but the work is about the present.  It’s like . . . Most Indian people relate to the land, and they often talk about going home.  That’s the deep attachment to where you’re from.  I think of the land as being alive.  It’s now, it’s my environment.  I live in it. 

“And somehow my knowledge of art history adds to my sense of place.  Going through Leonardo’s notebooks is like sitting in Chaco Canyon.  Each contributes to a heightened sense of how things relate.  We reach out behind and ahead, and find our place in the midst of things.”

One of the paintings, Mesa Verde, features fields of white and green, and pictographic forms resembling shells, corn, and a man dancing.  “There’s a back and forward sense of time,” she commented about the painting.  “You find shells around here, shell fossils up in the Sandias.  I put a dancer in the corn on one side, and these fossils from millions of years before on the other.  So the dancer is young, very young by comparison.  I like that idea.  It’s like a dry ocean here.  It even smells like the ocean sometimes.

“This one is the garbage dump,” she said of another, Pecos Ruin, “but it’s a site, too.  It has all the relics of society.  Here’s the brass bed, an old rubber tire.  It’s a romanticized garbage dump, but that’s how it felt.  Painting is an adventure for me.  It’s what I uncover in the studio.  By the time the gallery opening comes, I’m already thinking about the next series, the next adventure.”

Jaune’s horse Cheyenne had been standing patiently at the studio door for half an hour with his head in the room.  A two-by-four across the door frame keeps him from walking in.  He clomped his right front hoof in an attempt to get his share of his mistress’s attention.  She patted his head, kissed his nose, and fed him some broccoli.  We asked if the horse in the dump painting was Cheyenne:

“That’s him.  He’s in a lot of my paintings.  He makes them alive, present.”  We noted that it was true;  Mesa Verde, the one in the Site Series without a horse, had an eerie floating quality peculiar to the series.

Digressing from the subject of her work, we asked about the Charles Bronson poster hanging prominently in the studio.  Bronson does not appear in the paintings.  “He’s a Mongolian, a Pole from Pittsburgh.  I love him.  In the movies he’s always on the side of the minority.  I like him for that reason, and in his films there’s a tinge of violence , he’s that silent hero, invincible but offbeat.”

Cowboys, Indians, and horses, three triggers to the imaginations of many American kids, were the reality of Jaune’s childhood.  She told us that her father had no formal education and therefore couldn’t hold a regular job, but he bought, sold, and traded horses – an old Indian way of life – and rodeoed when he was a young man.  At times, the family had as many as 40 head of horses, and it’s not surprising that they appear so frequently in her work.  “Leonardo said that next to man, the horse was the noblest creature,” she explained, “and they are wonderful to draw.”

“Here’s Cheyenne again,” she said, indicating another painting, Cottonwood Canyon, with rich and heavy cream and burgundy paint.  “This one is really Baroque, the density and the royal colors.  It’s strange . . . See the vertical pole with the four black dots?  Many societies put up poles to mark their clan, where they live.  The circle is for the site, the kiva, for what was.”  Approaching the painting for a closer inspection, we noticed that Jaune had collaged various materials onto the surface.  “I use muslin or calico, things that ribbon shirts are made of, or rice paper, things I like.  Occasionally, I throw a paper towel in, though don’t tell museum curators that.  I leave the structure underneath – drips from the early washes.  It tells you what’s inside, how it was constructed.  And it reminds me, too, of the texture of the rock walls around here, how strafed they are by the wind and the sand.  I get that tactile feeling of landscape while I’m painting.  It’s rough, scarred.”

“These are all landscapes,” we commented, “but you don’t put horizons in them.”

“I’ve never painted them.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s psychological.  I’m tied to the earth, and not as concerned with the sky.  As (painter) Charles Garabedian said, ‘The fun is wandering around in the fog with the cliff nearby.’  I get so carried away with painting and constructing paintings, and if I didn’t put the pictograph figures in, they’d be totally abstract paintings.  I don’t attach rational meanings to the figures, and yet they’re universal ways of talking with people.  Wherever you are, whoever you are, X marks the spot.  Often I’ll make a shape, a tool shape for example, and later I’ll find out what it is in a book or something.  They are common bonds.”

Jaune had spoken earlier about her social and political role as being a connector, and it occurred to us that her paintings served as a bridge of sorts themselves.  Much of what she paints is Indian in origin, but she is always trying to connect the ancient Indian forms and meanings with the contemporary forms and meanings of cultures which, ostensibly, are very different.  We would venture to say her purpose , in the current Site paintings in particular, is to present views of the continuum of time and space of which we are all a part, drops of water in a long river.

           Often, however, her own people do not appreciate, much less understand, what she’s doing.  Not long ago, Jaune showed one of her works to an old woman on the Flathead Reservation.  “What’s it good for?” the puzzled woman asked.  “That made me laugh,” Jaune said, recalling the incident, and it’s not surprising, given her response, that she does not consider herself to be an Indian painter.  The analogy she drew was with James Joyce, who, though an Irish writer, was not fully understood or appreciated by his own people.

Nevertheless, she is fiercely proud of her heritage and the aesthetic contributions that her people have made to art. Jaune glories in making comparisons between Paul Klee and an old Naskapi bag, for example.  “The Indian has no word for art, and that’s an important distinction,” she said.  “Your shoes, leggings . . . something was added to them to make them beautiful.  Art was on everything.  They would make beautiful little cases to hold their ration cards which they used to buy their wormy beef!”

Jaune knew at the age of six that she wanted to be an artist.  What she loved about art then, some 38 years ago, is what inspires her to work today.  “It’s the feelings, the pleasure of drawing or painting, that going into your own world, closing out the outside.  When I’m working, I’m literally out to lunch, I don’t know what day it is.  There are classical and Romantic artists, and this may be simplistic, but there are those who know exactly what they’re doing and those like me, who don’t.  Not everything comes out right, it’s not all art, but I’m pleased and I know it’s good when the work talks back.  That makes the outside, the other reality, more intense, too.”

Whether inside or out, she relishes intensity.  Another aspect of outside reality with which Jaune has a passionate connection is feminism.  She first felt prejudice toward her as a woman artist when she was a teenager in art school, and a teacher told her that, although she could draw better than the men in the school, she could never become a painter.  “That was hard,” she said in a soft quivering voice.  “But times have changed.  Women have pushed.  If it weren’t for Lita Albuquerque, Judy Chicago, Lucy Lippard, Jennifer Bartlett, Joan Mitchell, and others, I’d still be making things and giving them away.  I know these people, and I feel close to them.  I wasn’t in the feminist movement, I guess because I was fighting my own battle of survival at the time.  But I understood it and what they’ve done for women artists.  Where I was, there was no movement.  I was raised by my father as a person, not a woman.  I helped him put in fence posts!  Most Indian women are raised to be independent for economic reasons.  The conflicts I found were later, as an adult, and that was their problem, though I had to deal with the consequences.  So you can’t really call me a feminist.  I don’t know what you would call me.  How about humanist?”

Stephen Parks, August, 1983

No comments:

Post a Comment