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Building bridges across cultures: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.

Looking Carefully: Imagery and Meaning

Many artists look to the arts of multiple cultures as sources of imagery, style and ways to handle materials. They may find inspiration in their own cultural heritage, or in the art of cultures different from their own. Such references in an artist's work can speak to us about the artist's relationship to these art traditions, thus becoming a rich source of meaning.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is inspired by the arts of her own French Cree, Salish and Shoshone Native American heritage, and also by the work of various European modernists. She has referred to herself as "bridging two cultures" in her simultaneous evocation of Native American and European or European American approaches to making art that can be seen in her pastels, paintings and mixed-media works.

The Tree Planter, from Quick-to-See Smith's Chief Seattle series, is a mixed-media collage that derives its imagery, style and approach from the arts of the Northern Plains of the western United States, and from artists such as Kandinsky, Klee and Miro. As women of the Plains applied dyed porcupine quills, and later glass beads, to buffalo hides, deerskin and fabric in abstract, of ten symbolic decoration, Quick-to-See Smith applies fabric, paper and objects to her paper or canvas surfaces. The pictographic style of drawing seen in works such as The Tree Planter is inspired by the figurative painting on hides, and ledger drawings done by men of the Plains as narratives of their exploits and ways of life, and by ancient petroglyphs painted or cut into stone. In a manner similar to Plains artists' method of rubbing earth pigments into carefully prepared animal skins, Quick to See Smith rubs and blends layers of paint and pastels into her surfaces. The colors used are those of the desert and forest, as well as traditional quillwork and beadwork.

A synthesis of cultural traditions based on the similarities and parallels she perceives between historic Native American and modern and contemporary art traditions, Quick-to-See Smith's art speaks the language of both the Indian and mainstream art worlds. She is attracted to the work of artists such as Kandinsky, Klee and Miro because of their approaches to composition, their multiple perspectives and flattened disjunctive space, their combining of figurative and abstract images, and what she has called their intuitive use of symbols. She sees these as similar to the close-up, flattened viewpoint of Plains representational art that depicts the land as though seen from above, and the combined use of figurative imagery, symbolism and abstraction in much Plains art.

The layering of images and media in The Tree Planter is one way that the meaning of this work is conveyed. The abstract areas of rubbed in color that seem to meld with the paper in this image are overlaid with more sharply delineated line drawings, stencilled letters, and collage materials. This layering gives visual depth to the image--it evokes the accumulation of imagery present in the long-standing artistic traditions the artist refers to and positions herself as part of, the overlays of continuous inhabitation of the lands of the West.

The landscape is an ongoing theme in Quick-to-See Smith's work, and a great deal of her work speaks about her concern for the future of the environment. In her Chic[ Seattle series, the artist reminds us that while indigenous peoples have lived for millennia in harmony with the land, and used its resources carefully, the approach of the more recent European and European-American inhabitants has been one of domination and exploitation of the land. The Tree Planter addresses this concern in the layers of imagery that suggest the cumulative effects of such exploitation.

The silhouetted human figure with branch-like antlers, its body filled with collaged floral patterning, evokes the interconnection of humans and other forms of life. This figure, along with the tree-planter figure carrying the shovel and woven basket or bag, may offer an image of hope. Quick-to-See Smith suggests here that the Native American way of relating to the land is a life-sustaining alternative to the current path taken by those who control the land, and the future of all of us. "All living things must coexist together," the artist has stated. "The earth does not belong to humankind; humankind belongs to the earth."

Key Concepts

* Artists can be inspired by the art traditions of their own cultural heritage, and can express their cultural identity through reference to those traditions in their work.

* Artists can be inspired by the art of cultures other than their own.

* Ancient, historic and more recent art can suggest a variety of approaches to style, imagery and media. The way that artists incorporate these approaches to making art into their work add to the work's meaning.

* The meaning of a work of art can be conveyed through the images depicted, and by the style and techniques with which the work is created.

* Through art, artists can speak about issues that concern them.


Jaune Quick to See Smith was born in 1940, in Montana, on the Flathead Reservation of the Salish and Kootenai Confederacy. She has said that she learned about making art as a part of life and as a process from watching and participating in the work of her father, a horse trader whom she accompanied on trading journeys. Together they did work such as splitting shingles, building corrals and handling horses. Convinced that she wanted to be an artist, she used money that she saved working as a farm hand to send for a Famous Artists Course by mail.

Although told that she was not "college material" in high school, Quick-to-See Smith spent twenty-two years completing her education while raising a family and working at a variety of jobs at the same time. She received her Master's degree in art from the University of New Mexico in 1980. Trained in abstract expressionism, but finding such abstraction to be frustratingly inaccessible, she turned to her Native American heritage as a source of imagery. While she was in school, Quick-to See Smith was among the founders of the Grey Canyon artists group, formed by Native American students at the University of New Mexico as a support group that, later exhibited together regionally and nationally.

As a university trained artist, Quick-to-See Smith has been exposed to art traditions from around the world and to current developments in contemporary art. She explains that her knowledge of such various approaches to art is part of who she is, and inevitably must inform and affect her exploration of the art traditions of her own heritage. "There is a particular richness in speaking two languages and finding a vision that's common to both," the artist has said.

Quick to-See Smith has achieved national recognition as a contemporary Native American artist. In her role as bridge maker between two cultures, she lectures and participates in arts organizations throughout the country, and shows her work in both Native American and contemporary art galleries and exhibitions. She is committed as well to helping less known artists gain visibility for their work, and has curated a number of group exhibitions of the work of Native American artists.

Suggested Activities


* Discuss ways many modern and contemporary artists represent figures and objects in ways that do not always look real, and why they might choose such styles of representation. Examples might be: as a means of asserting a relationship to an earlier art tradition, breaking with academic approaches to art, placing their images in the realm of symbols rather than naturalistic or realistic representation, or becoming more playful and spontaneous in their image making.

* Many artists use color to suggest a type of landscape and their feelings about a particular place. Though often abstract in their representation of a landscape, Jaunt Quick-to-See Smith's paintings, drawings and mixed media works evoke the desert and forests of the western United States through the use of abstract areas of color, as well as the forms she depicts. Have students use pastels or paint to create a drawing or painting using colors and shapes that suggest a landscape familiar to them and their feelings about this area.

* Jaune Quick-to-See Smith uses paint, pastels and collage to create layers of abstract and representational images. Using examples of work by Quick-to-See Smith and other artists, discuss ways of arranging forms in a composition. What kinds of effects can be achieved by layering pastels, paint or mixed media? Encourage students to experiment with materials, and discuss how layering and blending changes their images.


* The depiction of the landscape has a long tradition in many cultures. Students research the history of how the land is depicted in cultures that are of interest to them, or are relevant to their studies. How is the relationship of human beings to the land depicted? Are people included in these landscapes? Are we offered an up-close and intimate view of the land, or is the landscape portrayed as if seen from afar? What do these traditions suggest about how these artists and their cultures understand their relationship to the land?

* The use of imagery, styles and media from one's cultural heritage can be a way for an artist to assert his or her cultural identity, and their connection to an ongoing or past tradition. Ask students to consider how reference to one's own cultural heritage in an artwork might convey a different meaning than reference to art traditions different from one's own. Have students explore ancient or recent artistic traditions from their own cultural backgrounds, with particular attention to styles, imagery and medium. Students can create a finished work utilizing aspects of the traditions they have researched. Have them discuss the similarities and the differences in the approaches to art that they encountered in their research, and used in their own work.

* Many artists use their artistic voices to speak about issues that concern them. Show students the work of Jaune Quick to See Smith and other socially committed artists, and ask them to consider what types of images and symbols these artists use to convey their messages. Have students create drawings, paintings or mixed media works that convey their feelings about issues of importance to them. Have the class consider what types of images convey these messages most effectively as they discuss the finished works as a group.


Broder, Patricia Janis. The American West --The Modern Vision. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1985.

Hammond, Harmony, and Quick-to See Smith, Jaune. Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar and Sage. New York: Gallery of the American Indian Community House, 1985.

Highwater, Jamake. The Sweet Grass Lives On. New York: Lippincott and Crowell, 1980.

Lippard, Lucy R. Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.

Wade, Edwin L., ed. The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1986.

Melanie Herzog is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Davis Publications, Inc.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Herzog, Melanie
Publication:School Arts
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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