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SHIP OF FOOLS: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s Trade Canoe Series

Writers and artists have used boats as a symbol for humankind’s journey through life since ancient times.  In the Bible, Noah, his family, and all of earth’s creatures are saved from the waters of the Flood by taking refuge in the ark.  The

concept of the ship of fools originates from Book VI of Plato’s Republic and became a metaphor for humanity with all its vices and foibles.  This idea became the foundation for Sebastian Brant’s 1494 book Ship of Fools, which inspired Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Ship of Fools (circa 1490 – 1500).  In the Bosch work a small ship filled with representatives of the human race sail through an imaginary sea.  As seen through Bosch’s eyes, everyone on the boat is a fool.  The characters are eating, drinking and singing; no one is steering the boat as it drifts aimlessly on.

 

Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch, oil on wood, 23” x 13” (c. 1490-1500)  Musee du Louvre, Paris.

 

Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch (detail)

 

In more recent times, this allegorical concept was the framework for Katherine Anne Porter’s 1962 novel Ship of Fools, which chronicles the voyage of a large and diverse cast of characters – Germans, Swiss, Spaniards, Cubans, Americans and a Swede; Christians and Jews; rich and poor – who reveal all manner of human villainy and corruption as they sail from Mexico to Europe on a German passenger ship in 1931.  The book was made into a film with a star-studded cast in 1965.

In the 1960s the idea that the earth was a craft that carried all earthy life through time and space, though with limited supplies, was popularized with the term Spaceship Earth.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s Trade Canoe Series extends the metaphor of a ship representing the human voyage by filling her vessels with all manner of symbols.  Boats have always transported people and goods, and with them their concepts and beliefs.  Like them, Ms. Smith’s trade canoes bear precious cargo – ideas.

I first encountered one of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s trade canoes in 2015 at the Denver Art Museum.  The piece, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, had been given a place of preeminence in the Native American galleries and rightly so. “My best hope is that a viewer sees something about the human condition . . . .” the artist stated about the work.

 

          Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, 2004. Mixed media on canvas, including acrylic, pencil, charcoal and oil; 60 x 200 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2005.62A-D. © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Photography courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

 

            Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, 2004 (detail). Mixed media on canvas, including acrylic, pencil, charcoal and oil; 60 x 200 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2005.62A-D. © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Photography courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

 

Trade Canoe for Don Quixote is a massive work consisting of four canvases.  One of the best aspects of the work’s presentation at DAM is that in front of it there is a large four panel touchscreen, which allows visitors to interact with the painting.  By touching the screen, the viewer is presented with animated versions of the images in the piece as well as statements by the artist explaining their meaning and their connection to Native American and European art.

 

Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, 2004 (detail). Mixed media on canvas, including acrylic, pencil, charcoal and oil; 60 x 200 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2005.62A-D. © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Photography courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

 

                  

La Calavera de Don Quijote y Sancho Panza (The Skeleton of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) by José Guadalupe Posada, satirical broadside for the Day of the Dead with letterpress text, 11”h x 10”w (c 1910 – 1913).  The British Museum, London.

 

Trade Canoe for Don Quixote is filled with images of war – humanity’s greatest folly.  It is a cargo that has been transported around the world throughout history.  Viewing the painting from right to left, the viewer sees images that are symbolic of war, a number of which are allusions to the work of other artists.  The skeleton throwing itself out of the canoe and behind it the skeleton wearing a hat and riding a skeleton horse are very similar to Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada’s skeletons in his broadside La Calavera de Don Quijote y Sancho PanzaThe title of Smith’s work is not only a reference to Posada’s print ,but also to The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, the classic Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes.  Like Don Quixote, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith seeks to right wrongs and fight injustices.

 

   

 

        Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, 2004 (detail). Mixed media on canvas, including acrylic, pencil, charcoal and oil; 60 x 200 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2005.62A-D. © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Photography courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

 

Near the skeleton riding a skeleton horse is a human heart and two Pepsi Cola cans.  This is another of the artist’s political commentaries and alludes to a Pepsi factory that was built in Iraq as part of the policies of the Bush administration to help with the country’s economic recover.  It is a strategy that the artist believes had advantages as well as disadvantages.

Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, 2004 (detail). Mixed media on canvas, including acrylic, pencil, charcoal and oil; 60 x 200 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2005.62A-D. © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Photography courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

The center of the painting contains the image of a lizard.  The artist was inspired to incorporate this creature into her work by the depictions of dragons in European religious paintings of the Middle Ages where the beast symbolized Satan and evil.  In Smith’s painting, she has replaced the dragon with a type of lizard found in the Iraqi desert.  It is another reference to the War in Iraq.

          Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, 2004 (detail). Mixed media on canvas, including acrylic, pencil, charcoal and oil; 60 x 200 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2005.62A-D. © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Photography courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

 

 

              Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, 2004 (detail). Mixed media on canvas, including acrylic, pencil, charcoal and oil; 60 x 200 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2005.62A-D. © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Photography courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

To the right and left of the lizard are heads that are drawn directly from Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, one of the most powerful works of art depicting the horrors of war.  Guernica is a Basque town in northern Spain.  On Monday, April 26, 1937, at approximately 4:30PM, warplanes from the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe and Italy’s Aviazione Legionaria bombed Guernica for more than three hours.  Most of Guernica’s men were away, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, but it was market day and the women and children were gathered in the town’s center.  Those who sought to hide from the bombing in nearby fields were machine-gunned to death.  According the official Basque figures of the time, 1,654 innocent civilians were massacred.

Like Picasso’s painting, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote is a mural-sized condemnation of war.  According to the text on the touchscreen panel in front of the work, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith has stated, “I think that Picasso’s Guernica is one of the greatest pictures of war showing the suffering of humans and animals.”

Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, 2004 (detail). Mixed media on canvas, including acrylic, pencil, charcoal and oil; 60 x 200 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2005.62A-D. © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Photography courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

 

In the left section of the painting the artist has painted a cross and a pitchfork wielding devil to symbolize the idea that throughout history a majority of wars have been incited by religious ideologies.

 

Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, 2004 (detail). Mixed media on canvas, including acrylic, pencil, charcoal and oil; 60 x 200 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2005.62A-D. © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Photography courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

Beyond the cross and devil, there is a Mickey Mouse hand above a skull.  It represents the superficiality of American consumerism, which is imposed on other countries through occupation or influence.   To the left of the hand, at the canoe’s far left, is the image of a beetle, suggesting the destruction and disintegration of societies caused by war.

Although Jaune Quick-to-See Smith employs the metaphor of a boat in Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, rather than using colors suggesting water she utilizes pink, orange, green, and brown to suggest that the canoe might, in fact, be a mirage of the desert.

Trade Canoe for Don Quixote asks the viewer to ponder all the things that might be traded for war.  The artist has created a work filled with powerful and disturbing images.  The various symbols seem to have been thrown randomly into the canoe, reinforcing the idea of the chaotic nature of war.   In an Email to me the artist stated, “Nearly everything in the canoe is taken from art history or pop  culture but nearly all is associated in some way with war.”

 

Trade Canoe: A Western Fantasy by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, lithograph, 18/40; printed by Landfall Press, Santa Fe, NM; published by The Metropolitan  Museum of Art in conjunction with the exhibition The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, 21” x 30” (2015.).  Photo courtesy of the artist.  Collection of E. J. Guarino

Trade Canoe for Don Quixote became lodged in my mind.  It was a fascination bordering on obsession.  I knew that I wanted Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s work in my collection so I started researching what was available via the Internet.  I couldn’t afford a painting, nor could my apartment accommodate one, so I looked at works on paper.  In early 2016, I discovered that Trade Canoe: A Western Fantasy, a print by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith was available at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It took me a while to get the necessary funds together to acquire this work, but as soon as I had them I took the subway up to the Met and purchased the print.  I have never regretted doing so.

Like Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, Trade Canoe: A Western Fantasy is filled with symbols that appear to have been arbitrarily tossed into the boat, adding to the idea that our knowledge of the American West is confused at best and often obscured by myth and misinformation.  Ideas about the West have been formed mostly through paintings, literature, movies, and TV.  According to Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, the print “. . . has a ‘boatload’ or I should say a canoe load of information about the settling of the west.”

About a year after acquiring Trade Canoe: A Western Fantasy, I had the honor of meeting Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and shortly after that we began an ongoing Email correspondence.  “Everything to do with the Western U.S.,” Smith wrote, “was about commerce and pillaging the natural resources. The roustabout men who led the way were not acceptable in polite society, they were seen as ruffians, dirty, not trustworthy and having bad manners. Still, the photographers presented pictures of wide open spaces empty of all Native people and no ruffians while the painters created idyllic scenes filled with happy people, neither truthful nor accurate.  George Caleb Bingham sought to dress up the image of the frontiersmen in his paintings . . . . He painted them as brave and heroic figures. The government was supportive of fantasy paintings and photographs too.  It helped sell the western lands with its lucrative fur harvest, mining and timber.”

 

Maquette for the lithograph Trade Canoe: A Western Fantasy by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, charcoal, pencil, collage, conte 30x 40” (2015).  Photo by Neal Ambrose-Smith, used by courtesy of the artist.

According to Smith, her father had told her about the trade canoes that the U. S. Government sent up river to their reservation bearing goods such a whiskey, blankets infected with small pox, moldy flour, and beef crawling with maggots.  The artist never forgot what she heard and came to realize that the trade canoes were part of the government’s planned genocide of her people.

In Trade Canoe: A Western Fantasy, the artist said that in addition to the paintings of George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt she “roamed through . . . Buffalo Bill posters and his Wild West Show, Hollywood movies, literature, Davy Crockett Almanacs, comic books, especially Tonto and the Lone Ranger.  I had a plethora of images with which to load my Trade Canoe. I added some images and issues that concern me such as oil barrels (before Standing Rock) and a cactus bed to signify climate change with an elk and bison to represent endangered wild life.”

Central to Trade Canoe: A Western Fantasy is an image of a coyote, that was inspired by a 5,000 year old small bone sculpture.  Coyote is a trickster who plays an important role in Smith’s work.  In an Email correspondence, Smith went on to explain more aspects of Trade Canoe: A Western Fantasy: “Rain clouds and rough waters completely encircle the canoe laden with passengers, animals and cargo. I mimicked the swirling waters and storm ridden skies in Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware. In my lithograph, the clusters of lines become a frame for my curious western fantasy, which of course never happened, but then neither did most written histories nor the historical painted images either. I even added an alien, since our congress makes laws about “aliens” that are really Indigenous peoples of the Americas. This proves they don’t know their history either. So perhaps my version might have more truth.”

The trade canoe is clearly an important metaphor for Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.  Over the years, the artist has frequently employed the image of the trade canoe in works such as Trade Canoe: Gifts for Trading Land with White People (1992), Tongass Trade Canoe (1996),Trade Canoe: Don Quixote in Sumeria (2005), Trade Canoe: Forty Days and Forty Nights (2015), Trade Canoe: False Gods (2015), Trade Canoe: Adrift (2015), Trade Canoe: Starry Starry Night (2016), Trade Canoe: The Garden (2016), Trade Canoe for the North Pole (2017), Ghost Trade Canoe (2017).  Recently Smith wrote to me saying, “I’ve been drawing and painting trade canoes lately because there’s much to say about the times we are living in along with our government’s sleight of hand regarding our schools, infrastructure, budgets and the war machine.”

The image of a trade canoe allows Jaune Quick-to-See Smith to explore and express her feelings and thoughts on myriad subjects.  The Trade Canoe Series is an ongoing investigation of social, historical, and moral themes that are important to the artist.   “. . . in the studio . . . I have 3 Trade Canoes here right now,” wrote to me.  “Ghost Canoe is finished but no photos yet. I started it about 8 years ago, worked on it from time to time and then finally finished it in August.  A second is not finished, Trade Canoe: the Dark Side has Custer’s giant head (no body) in the canoe on the left and a Native man’s head on the right in the canoe (big heads like [Phillip] Guston or Robert Crumb which is where Guston got his big head idea.) Custer will be in dark colors and a light will shine from the eclipse onto the Indian.  The third is drawn up in charcoal and is a canoe full of bones with a fluorocarbon sky. Lastly, I’m working on figuring out how to build a paper and cardboard canoe in 3-D and filling it with fry bread–this one is still in my head as to how to build it–but the end product is clear.”

The influences on Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s art are rich and diverse: Salish and Kootenai symbolism and stylistic elements, the work of George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Emanuel Leutze, Phillip Guston, Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Miró, Dubuffet, as well as art movements such as Surrealism, Cubism and Constructivism.  Smith’s artistic output contains elements of abstraction and representation.  She has produced paintings, mixed-media works, drawings, and prints, exploring a wide range of themes.  However, the Trade Canoe Series is unique in the American art cannon.  Jaune Quick-to-See Smith uses compelling imagery to transform the  trade canoes into vessels that carry ideas.   As a collector, I am intrigued by this rich vein Smith is exploring and I will continue to follow the various ways she will mine it.

The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to Jaune Quick-to-See Smith for generously providing information about her art and to John P. Lukavic, Ph.D., Curator, Native Arts and Julia Strunk, Curatorial Assistant, Native Arts, Denver Art Museum, for providing images of Trade Canoe for Don Quixote.

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