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Indiana University Art Museum

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Sage and Sweetgrass

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Sage and Sweetgrass (1989)

In recent decades, First Nations or Native American artists, many of them female, have become powerful voices in American culture. Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (born 1940) of the Flathead-Cree-Shoshone Nations, is among the most famous and respected of this group of recent artists, lecturing on her work throughout the United States and abroad. Born on the Flathead Reservation in St. Ignatius, Montana, Smith overcame racism and sexism in the academic world to earn her BA and MA degrees. Although trained in a European painting tradition, Smith developed a unique Abstract Expressionist style that weaves together Native and American cultures in challenging, humorous, and deeply personal ways.

Smith identifies numerous influences upon her art, ranging from her father's construction of cabins and weaving of lariats to major Modernists and Western art movements. The art of Kandinsky, Klee, Miró, Dubuffet, and several Surrealist artists served to inspire the young artist with their reliance on inner, psychological investigations. The art movements of Cubism and Constructivism influenced Smith's structural, geometric compositions. Smith comments, "My work comes right from a visceral place—deep, deep—as though my roots extend beyond the soles of my feet into sacred soils. Can I take these feelings and attach them to the passerby? To my dying breath, and my last tube of burnt sienna, I will try." Smith expresses her feelings about race, sex, government, colonialism, tribal politics, and the environment in her landscapes.  Her paintings are filled with plants, animals, and complex symbols such as Native petroglyphs.

Smith's earlier works are similar to traditional Flathead art, with large, primarily abstract forms, surrounded by thin borders of signs and symbols. Later, Smith moved towards collage, layering various printed media in surprising and subtle ways. Most recently, Smith's style has become more symbolically accessible to non-Native audiences. She continues to reverse her audience's expectations, using clever turns of irony to expose inconsistency and injustice. She challenges people to recognize the differences and respond to the past in ways that are both constructive and honest.

Smith painted Sage and Sweetgrass during a period of formal experimentation. Although Smith employs familiar pictographic symbols of Native experience, such as a trading canoe, a Ghost Dance shirt, a series of medicine jars, a shell, and a fish, her  background descends into an abstract field of rectangular forms and painterly lines of colors. Large areas of black disrupt the field of jarring contrasts of pink, turquoise, grey, blood-red, cerulean, and evergreen. It is tempting to read these geometric areas of the painting as the artificial divisions that compress Native peoples onto government-sanctioned reservations and into designated roles of culture and society. The pictographs seem to float and cross over this abstract field, their outlined forms suggesting transparency, and their dripping implying bleeding.