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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

As one of the top artists working in America, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is a visual artist and curator, an enrolled citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, and also of Métis and Shoshone descent.

Acclaimed artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is a citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and also of Métis and Shoshone descent, and is the mother of artist Neal Ambrose Smith. (Photo courtesy of Garth Greenan Gallery)

An arts educator, art advocate and political activist, she has been prolific since the 1970s, drawing themes of Native identity, histories of oppression and environmental issues. She exhibits with the Garth Greenan Gallery in New York City, is included in collections in virtually every major museum in the United States — an unprecedented honor. 

She is also the mother of Neal Ambrose Smith, who has grown up to be a painter, sculptor, printmaker and professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He developed an app called Artist Ideas with 100 ideas for making art, and his work is included in the collections of many national and international museums and institutions.

The mother-son duo is an unusual one, as they help and advise each other in a symbiotic way. Growing up, raising a family, and trying to be a serious artist in a time when it was even more difficult than it is today, Quick-to-See Smith, now 81, still has conflicted feelings about her work and success.

“Being a painter or a printmaker or any kind of artist is a hard job and not one that society deems is necessary,” she said in an email to Indian Country Today. “Society treats artists like parasites on society, like we just sit around and play and don't really do any work. When I've hired someone to come and do electrical work at my studio or fix the roof and they ask what I do, I lie and say I'm a teacher and if they ask what I teach, I say cultural history or social studies.

“Because if I say I am a painter, they tell me about their grandmother or their aunt who paints landscapes or pictures of their dog,” she said. “Then I know I'm sunk, (that) anything I say after that is going to be quicksand.”

Neal Smith said he watched his mother create and struggle.

“It's hard not to be influenced by it,” he said in a phone interview. “Every art family's different in many ways, but it's not that common that the kids are getting involved with the art world in the same way, because there's a lot of solo expectation. In the studio, it's not a collaborative space, most painters start out and learn how to function autonomously, basically alone in their space. And then family learns to leave them alone.”

Artist Neal Ambrose Smith speaks in October 2021 at the Missoula Art Museum in Montana, where his work will be exhibited through February 2022. Smith is a painter, sculptor, printmaker and professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the son of acclaimed artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. (Photo courtesy of the Missoula Art Museum)

His mother, however, got family support.

“My mother had raised two kids, and then had to find herself,” he said. “When my dad came into the scene, he helped pave the way for us. He later said to her, ‘You can go to art school, and I'll take care of the kids.’”

Neal Smith says he ended up going to art school and learned art with her even when it was uncomfortable, like “when my mom was drawing my dad naked on the couch when I was a kid.”

“I was raised in an artistic family,” he said. “I didn't know anything else, and as it turns out, I do have the gene, or the disease for that matter.”

As he grew, he became more important to his mother’s life and career, and vice-versa.

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“You would have to ask Neal what he thinks my influence might be,” Quick-to-See Smith said. “I could guess at what I think, but always a teacher or a mentor or a parent tries to give a student a lot of information and support. We never know what sticks. I've played all three roles. He has had to pick and choose what he needed. In the end, his life experience will complete him just as mine has done for me.”

At this point in their lives, their roles are now sometimes reversed, with him giving her support and advice about career choices, she said.

“We are more like peers and friends," she said. "I solicit Neal's opinions about such things as editing essays I write or whether a painting or a print is working, or please, can he teach me how to do something on the computer. The list goes on, but he is now my mentor and gives me guidance, thus he has become my teacher part of the time.”

Neal Smith said his mother pushed him through music, design and drama classes to help him find himself.

“Whether she recognizes it or not, it's her fearlessness and her drive," he said. "I'm sure a lot of that comes out of being a woman and being a minority and growing up with extreme poverty and being on the edge of survival consistently until she was 30. When she was in school, they were telling her you can take art classes, but you can't be an artist. You can be a teacher, but there's no such thing as women artists.”

When she attended graduate school, people told her, “I don’t understand this world you are painting — it doesn’t look Native,” he said.

But his mother had an incredible drive and insatiable appetite for art, he said.

“She's fearless to this day,” he said.

Neal Smith thinks that nobody in their right mind today would choose to be a painter, that one should clock out at the end of the day and go home and spend time with family.

“As an artist, nothing turns off,” he said. “It's 24/7, everything goes into your work, your entire being is a sensitive receptor for influence, ideas and creating the next thing. There's a scene in the Picasso biopic where the Germans are invading and he's trying to get his paintings secured and they're like, ‘What about your family?’ And he says, “There's this painting. And then there's the next painting and there's nothing else.’”

Quick-to-See Smith understands.

“What makes us do this is a good question,” she said. “We can't help ourselves. We have to do this. Coyote makes us do it.”

See for yourself
Neal Ambrose Smith: Where Are You Going?
Missoula Art Museum, Montana, through February 2022
Jaune Quick-toSee Smith: Woman in Landscape
Garth Greenan Gallery, New York City, through Dec. 18, 2021

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