Carlis M. Chee has come back several times, from his parents’ break-up and foster families, from the City and from the Rez, from Hawaii, from Southeast Asia, from the abyss. During our interview, we joked that a good title for this piece might be “Return of the Native,” the title of a Thomas Hardy novel from 1878. Said Chee, “Yeah, how many times have I had to redeem myself?”
Sometimes his artwork, his paintings, were termed “not Native enough”, sometimes he was all-in at Indian Market, sometimes he was on the outside looking in. He now says, “Just leave it up to the judges. They know what they want. It’s no use being belligerent or stand-offish. The work has to speak for itself. Across contemporary Native American art … my work is still distinctive, it stands by itself.” You can say that for sure, his artwork is distinctive, a mix of tradition, the modern, and the diverse fabrics that cultures wrap themselves in.
Carlis Chee’s parents divorced when he was two years old, and he was adopted by his grandmother Anna Jean. He lived with her on the Navajo Reservation and they took care of each other. They spoke Navajo and he tended to their sheep, spending much of his time out on the land and between the sacred mountains. Anna Jean passed away when Carlis was 11 and he bounced around between family members and friends in something like an unofficial foster family program. Chee ended up going to an all-Navajo boarding school in Richfield, Utah; he had an art teacher there named Sid Stewart who would help him through this time and inspire him to take up art. On Stewart’s advice, he took up painting, albeit in fits and starts.
As a young boy he had sketched on brown paper bags with charcoal his grandfather produced from the fire. “My world was kind of black and white then,” Chee said. At age 17 he would see the Barbara Walters interview with Navajo artist RC Gorman, which inspired his decision to become a full time artist, “I never put down the brush after that.” Chee said. He later met Gorman, told him the story and they became friends; the artist Amado Pena was also an influence. In what became a pattern, he would attend schools like IAIA and the University of Nebraska-Kearny, excited about making art — but things would never quite work out for him creatively. But he maintained an appreciation for Japanese art, culture and fashion and hung out with students at Nebraska who felt the same way. He loved the simplicity, the space, the balance, it inspired him to paint. Then he would think, why can’t I paint Navajo women this way, instead of Indians with feathers?
Carlis smiles as he recalls his grandmother taking him to see the Shogun movie at his older brother’s trailer in Tuba City; it took a lot for Anna Jean to do it for him, running several nights on TV as a mini-series. He never felt compelled until then, it came out of the blue. Call it coincidence or fate, but Shogunmade Japanese culture more real for him. Carlis even told Anna Jean, “One day I’m going to marry a Japanese girl, in a kimono!” In 2001 he did marry a Japanese woman, Yumi Fujii, they had a ceremony at The Hogan on the IAIA campus in Santa Fe, and they lived 4 years in Honolulu, Oahu with a studio in Chinatown. He breathed in Asian and Hawaiian culture and it opened up new ideas, culture, fabric, fashion. Yumi was his partner and business manager, they travelled for inspiration, Honolulu, Tokyo, they enjoyed Kyoto, the old Japanese capital and culture. He learned the printing process, wood block printing on paper and fabric, mono-prints, taking in all the fabrics of different cultures.
After five years, he and Yumi divorced. Chee bounced around, couch-surfing across America. He made another trip to Tokyo, and to Cambodia and Thailand, studying printmaking, and felt inspired like the painter Gauguin. Now he’s doing more painting; more originals and less printmaking. At age 46, its all good work, long hours, and good music — it’s not a struggle anymore, he says. Someone told him long ago to pick a style, be unique and stick with it. He once painted Yei-be-chai imagery, but a medicine man advised him that was probably not a good idea, as it could work against you if not done right. He recalls Anna Jean always sitting there as in meditation with her eyes closed, by the fire, looking inward, and most of his women are painted like that now. His art is self-healing. The studio is stable, which is critical since it’s always in his mind how unstable his past was. He does yoga and feels the need the write. The music has been a constant since herding sheep and listening to the battery powered radio outside, and inside as they had no electricity. Waylon, Willie and Merle — their music helped him travel off the Rez.”I been living in the urban world but the Rez kid is still in there, that music meant you could be free, to roam and ramble, to chase gravy trains and city buses,” he recalls. “It gave you a restless heart, made it OK to get on the highway, to travel. The Reservation life was the natural world, good medicine, being humble, deep emotions, deep roots.”
His work has been described as projecting “feminine energy,” in contrast to the preceived “male attributes and energy” of much Indian Market art. It’s his grandmother and the land back on the Rez, the broken families and the forgiveness, and the self-healing therapy of art and studio.
We are at a favorite haunt overlooking the Santa Fe Plaza, and Carlis ends our interview on that note. “Being able to return back to culture, in my mind, back in time, connects everything. Art is definitely healing… it’s an ongoing process, the mind can travel but it’s about growth, new ideas, inspiration, eat, sleep, make art. Embrace any trauma through art…stay in touch with your core…writing can be transformative. I’m always making my own fabric from life, from memory, chopping, mixing, mashing. Eyes closed, everything flows all very naturally.”
Santa Fe NM