Oral history interview with Janet Smith

OOHRP, Oklahoma State University
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Little Thunder: My name is Julie Pearson-Little Thunder. Today is Friday, December 1, 2017, and I'm interviewing Cherokee artist Janet Smith at the Art Market in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Janet, you're a Cherokee Medal of Honor winner, a painter. You have an MS in psychology and art therapy and helped with the art therapy program at the Jack Brown Center. You sign many of your paintings, mostly focused on women and children, with your Cherokee name, Nv Tse. I look forward to hearing more about you and your work.

Smith: Thank you, Julie.

Little Thunder: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

Smith: I was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. I was born at the IHS [Indian Health Services] hospital there, but my mother and father lived in Wagoner. My father was in the service, World War II at that time, so my mother and I were living in Wagoner with my grandmother, my grandparents. Of course, when he came home, we continued to live in Wagoner. They have a farm there. My grandfather had a 1:00cotton gin, and my father worked on the farm as well as the cotton gin.

Little Thunder: So you were exposed to farm life. (Laughs)

Smith: Oh, yes, yes, all my life.

Little Thunder: Is the Cherokee both on your mom and dad's side?

Smith: Yes, it is. My mother was full-blood, and my father was just a small amount. I believe he was a sixteenth. I am thirty-three-sixty-fourths is what I am.

Little Thunder: Can you tell me a little more about your grandparents?

Smith: My grandparents on my mother's side, the maternal side, both passed away when she was a small child, so she grew up at Sequoyah. At that time, it was called Sequoyah Training School. Then my grandparents on my father's side, my grandmother is a descendent from Richard Fields, Chief Richard Fields. They were 2:00from Cleveland, Tennessee, originally, before all the Removal and everything. My great-grandfather was in the Civil War, and he came to Indian Territory. He was stationed at Gibson Station during the Civil War. He liked that area of the country. When he went back to Tennessee, there was nothing left of their farm, and so he and a number of his brothers and sisters moved near Wagoner, Oklahoma. We've had the farm for all these many years, ever since the Civil War.

Little Thunder: I think the ancestor, Richard Fields, it's an occasion to talk about that Cherokee, the history with Texas and Mexico a little bit. Can you say something briefly?

Smith: Right, yes, he was chief of the Cherokee that moved to the Texas area. It 3:00was his granddaughter that married into my family. Her name was Martha [Blythe]. His granddaughter Martha married Alexander Clingan, and that's the lineage. I believe that we're also kin to some of the Smiths and even the chief, distantly, distantly. I believe that Richard Fields is buried in Texas, but we've never been able to find a gravesite for him, even though we've looked for him. I think that everything that I've ever read about him has been real fine. He was a fine man.

Little Thunder: Any brothers or sisters?

Smith: Yes, I have two brothers. I had three brothers, and one was killed in 1979 in an automobile accident. The other two brothers, one lives in Coweta and just retired from the gas company here in Tulsa. Then the other brother, John, 4:00has continued to live on the farm and keep that operational. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: Oh, neat, that's really neat. What was the creative environment like in your home?

Smith: I think it was always very creative. My mother--I can remember as a child, I used to sit out on the front porch, and I'd just color and color. I'm sure I colored on the walls and on the cement porch and everywhere, but I can remember my mother and I cutting out paper dolls and cutting out things. We didn't have very much money, so we'd cut out things out of the catalogs, girls or boys or whatever. That was part of our entertainment, and then, too, I had aunts. I had two aunts that taught high school in Wagoner. One of them was very creative. There was a lady that came to Wagoner (her name was Ruth White) during 5:00my elementary years. My grandmother made sure that I took art classes with Mrs. White.

During that period of time, I was a little Camp Fire Girl. Mrs. Nelms, who was our Camp Fire leader, took all ten of her little Camp Fire Girls to see Blue Eagle, Acee Blue Eagle. He used to have a little television show in Muskogee, over on Broadway. We went to see him, and, of course, he was so friendly and so nice to us. I was the only identifiable little Indian person. I'd taken a little drawing, and he just raved about that. It made me feel so good, and I thought I was an artist already. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: Well, yes, that would be a wonderful water bench moment for a child.

Smith: It was.


Little Thunder: How old were you?

Smith: I was probably about ten at that time. I don't think Acee lived too many years after that, but I always heard such nice stories about him. Later on, when I came back to Bacone [College] as a student, and then I was the interim director of the art department for a short period of time, I used to walk around the campus. It's an old, old campus. I'd think, "Acee probably walked on these same sidewalks and in this building." (Laughter) It was a wonderful experience for me.

Little Thunder: Thank you for sharing that. What is your first memory of seeing Native art?

Smith: Probably, with Acee Blue Eagle, probably when I went to visit with him. He was such an influence that day that I wanted to see more American Indian art or Native American art. Other than that, I don't think that we had very much in 7:00our home. The art that I was exposed to was traditional art, still lifes and such as that, or landscapes.

Little Thunder: You mentioned some of your first memories, but I'm wondering if you have one real clear memory of making, the first time you made art.

Smith: Probably when I was about four, maybe five, I remember sitting on the front porch with Crayolas, and I was drawing. Of course, I really wasn't drawing. I was probably just scribbling, but I was able to think I was drawing. I was having the most wonderful time out on the front porch. That was just an experience for me.

Little Thunder: On the wood, you were drawing?

Smith: Probably on the wood. I may have had some paper. I really don't remember. I just remember sitting out there. It was a great experience to interact with 8:00all the different--. Well, I probably had a box of eight crayons. (Laughter) I don't think that the big boxes had come along when I was that age.

Little Thunder: That's neat. You mentioned Ruth White as being the art teacher that you were hooked up with through the aunt. She was in Wagoner in the schools. Did you have any other highlight art experiences in either elementary or junior high?

Smith: There was also a lady that came into the school system, probably when I was in about the sixth grade. Her name was [Mona Vee Keso], and she was an American Indian lady. I think that I remember that because she had such a variety of different things for us to work with. With Ms. White, we started out with pastels, and then we moved on to oils. With Mona Vee, she had all kinds of 9:00papers for us to work with, construction paper. She had different art materials, and she would always name the topic or the colors that we were to work with. I think it really stirred my imagination of what you could do with primary colors on construction paper, how you could move those shapes and designs around to look like something. That was fun.

Little Thunder: Was one of the topics that she offered Native subject matter?

Smith: I don't recall. Wagoner is not--the percentage of American Indians, I think, is maybe not as great. I think that we were exposed to traditional art things.

Little Thunder: What happened for high school? Where did you go to high school?

Smith: I went to high school in Wagoner, however I transferred to a small school. I had an aunt that passed away in 1959, and after she passed away, then 10:00I transferred to go to school in Okay [Oklahoma], a small school. There were twelve in my graduating class, but it was always kind of fun. I don't think we had art classes. We had a few exposures to music, but I continued to draw a little bit, not too much, but a little bit.

Little Thunder: Were you entering any art competitions?

Smith: Not at that time.

Little Thunder: Okay. How did you end up at Bacone?

Smith: After I graduated from high school, I went to Northeastern for two years. Of course, my whole curriculum for me was art. I had to take other classes, too, but I took art classes as much as possible. I studied with George Calvert at 11:00that time. He was the primary art person there, or instructor, and I loved him. I couldn't have enough art. I wanted to take all art classes; just forget the other things. It was fun. The only thing that I didn't care for at that time was the sculpture class. Of course, that was part of your degree program. You had to do clay and all of that, and I thought, "Oh, I don't like this." I think that's because my mother had been offered, at Sequoyah when she was a young person, she had been offered clay, and she says, "I don't like to get my hands dirty." (Laughter) I must have heard that--

Little Thunder: You remembered that story. (Laughter)

Smith: --and I thought, "I don't like to get my hands dirty, either." I couldn't manipulate the clay like I wanted to. I just like to draw, and I like to paint and do those kind of things.

Little Thunder: You stuck with the two-dimensional media at Northeastern during 12:00that time.

Smith: Right.

Little Thunder: Now, I understand you met Cecil Dick at some point. I'm wondering when that happened.

Smith: I did. I was at Bacone as a student. I got acquainted with Indian art, and I thought, "This is what I want to do." I think part of that experience was here at the Art Market. I came to shows, and I'd see all the art. I'd see the artists and different people, and so that's how I became familiar. Then I got a catalog, and it said, "Indian Art." Well, I wanted to study Indian art. This was in the ʼ80s, long after I was married and had worked at the telephone company and different places, and had my children. I was, oh, probably in my thirties. I was not a traditional student, but I went back to Bacone with a purpose. I met 13:00Dick West, and I met Ruthe Blalock Jones. I studied with both of them, and they became mentors. I met Cecil Dick while I was at Bacone, and I just loved Cecil.

I thought he was the grandest person, and, of course, he became one of my mentors, also. He had gone to school at Sequoyah at the same time my mother did, and they were friends. He remembered my mother, and, of course, my mother just thought he was a grand person. He's an artist, a real live artist! (Laughter) I knew that my mother thought that was a grand idea, for me to visit with Cecil and to talk to him, and so I got acquainted with him. He and I were good friends. We were really good friends. I loved Cecil, and I'd go by and visit with him sometimes in Tahlequah. He got to know me, and he got to know my 14:00husband and got to know the children. I think I have the last little painting that he did before he passed away. It's a little small five-by-seven, but I cherish that.

Little Thunder: What kinds of things do you think you got specifically from interacting with him?

Smith: Tradition and culture. He says, "You got to paint what you know, and you've got to paint your own tribe. Don't be painting somebody out in the Southwest. Don't do all of that. Read your stories." Dick West had always said that, also. He says, "You need to read your stories. You need to know who you are as an Indian person." I think that's part of the problem with children nowadays. They don't know who they are, some of the gangs and things. I think Indian people, young people especially, get involved in gangs because they don't 15:00know who they are as Indian people.

Little Thunder: When you were studying at Bacone, were your first explorations with that flat style work?

Smith: Yes, absolutely. We were taught to paint in that flat, two-dimensional style. It's called the Baconian style. Even today, I still paint a great many of my paintings in that flat, two-dimensional style. I think maybe my experience was so grand at Bacone and I enjoyed it so much that I've just continued that.

Little Thunder: It's not an easy style.

Smith: No, it's very flat.

Little Thunder: I wonder if you could talk about it.

Smith: Sometimes my paintings vary, but for the most part, it's flat. You paint all the figure. You don't show that roundness. You don't show that 16:00three-dimensional look at all. It's very flat.

Little Thunder: You have some landscape elements, however, maybe a little bit more than you sometimes see in the flat stuff.

Smith: I do. I do. I think that I have varied from that, but for the most part, things are pretty flat. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: That's still your approach. You also studied under Ruthe Blalock Jones. What did she bring to the table in terms of things or skillsets that you feel you learned?

Smith: I think that Ruthe was such an encouraging person. She was always saying, "Now, Janet, we need to get you into the Art Market, and we need to get you into different shows." At that time when I was at Bacone, there was a student show at the Heard Museum. She sent my work to the Heard, and I think once upon a time I won a ribbon there.

Little Thunder: That's wonderful.

Smith: It was. I was very excited. Then later on, we continued with that, and 17:00her mother became sick. I had just finished my program at Northeastern, and she said, "Would you think about coming over here and being the interim person for me for a year while I take care of my mother?" Well, it turned into two years, and it was the best experience you can imagine. I was in the art department every day. I had students. I was still learning just as much as my students were. I met people, other artists. I really became acquainted. Sharron Harjo in Oklahoma City took me under her wing. At that time, there were shows in Oklahoma City, and she'd say, "Now, Janet, you need to put something in this show." I'd rush around and get something over there. We had the student shows at Bacone for the students, and it was a real learning experience. I just had a wonderful time.


Little Thunder: It really--although there were some difficulties in balancing your time, it reinforced your commitment to being an artist?

Smith: Oh, yes, it did. While I was at Bacone and while I was a student there, one Sunday, on the back side of the classified section of the Tulsa World, there was a big full-page article about art therapy and the work that they were doing in Dade County, Florida, and I carried that paper around with me. I think I'm like many people. Sometimes you can't decide what you want to be when you grow up. I'd had two years at Northeastern. Then I come to Bacone, and all I did was take art classes. While I was there during that time, this article was in the Tulsa World. I carried that article around with me. I read it every day, and I said, "This is what I want to do." This was before my tenure at Bacone in the 19:00art department. I was just a student. I went back to Northeastern, and I had a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and what grade point I had to have to get into graduate school.

I had all these goals, and I met all these goals. I graduated with a fine arts degree, and that was an exciting time. One of my instructors, her name was Dr. Kathleen Schmidt, I told her from the very beginning. She was my advisor, and I said, "I'm going to be an art therapist. I need to find a school that I can get into," and she helped me do that. We looked at schools. We looked at the University of New Mexico. They had a program. Houston had a program. Emporia, Kansas, had a program. Emporia was four hours from my front door to their 20:00campus, so I said, "That's where I need to go." She invited the director of the art therapy program to come to Northeastern and do a little workshop, and I got to meet him before I ever went. I've had mentors and helpers all the way through.

Little Thunder: Really! (Laughs) She really arranged that nicely.

Smith: She did, yeah.

Little Thunder: At this point, are you in your mid-thirties?

Smith: I wish I were. You need to double that, Julie. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: No, but when you're at Northeastern, when you're deciding to go back.

Smith: At Northeastern, yes, I was in my mid-thirties at that point in time.

Little Thunder: You have the family, and you've gone back and finished the first degree, and then on to Emporia?

Smith: Right, after I finished my degree is when I went to Bacone for Ruthe. I was there for two years, and then I left in 1987. I had already made all my 21:00arrangements to go to Emporia State University, so I was ready to go and do my graduate degree.

Little Thunder: What did you get from that particular degree that impacted your artwork, working on this art therapy degree?

Smith: I think that the art therapy was a whole different world. I thought, "If art can help children, if it can help adults, that's what I want to do." There's such a need for that, especially among Indian people. I think that there's so many things. That was my whole purpose in going back to complete the art therapy degree is to go to work for my tribe and see what I can do to help them, and I was able to do that.

Little Thunder: That degree hadn't been around all that long, had it?


Smith: No, in the late ʼ60s, several people began to think about using art as a therapy. I believe the American Art Therapy Association was founded by about five people in the mid-ʼ60s. This would have been in the ʼ70s or the ʼ80s, so it had not been around very long. I think they started out with about five people in the ʼ60s, and by the ʼ80s, there were probably about five thousand. It had grown considerably during that length of time.

Little Thunder: You must have been one of the early Native American art therapists.

Smith: I was. I was. When I became accredited, (that means that you're art-therapy registered, that you're registered with the American Art Therapy Association) I believe either I was the thirteenth--. I was told that there were thirteen American Indian art therapists at that time, and so I felt very 23:00pleased. I felt that I really needed to share my information, and I did that. It was really kind of funny. I went back to work for Bacone College in a different capacity other than the art. I was doing counseling and different things. I really wasn't using the therapy as much, and I really thought, "Gosh, I've been to Emporia. I've got all this degree and everything. Why am I not doing art therapy? Why isn't somebody knocking on my door?" (Laughter) Somebody did. One day I was in my office, and somebody called.

They said, "We're with Cherokee Nation, and we'd like to visit with you. We understand you're an art therapist." I said, "Yes, yes, I am!" It was--. I'll 24:00have to think a minute. I can't think of her name. Anyhow, she was the director of the health department. She asked me if I'd like to think about doing some work with Jack Brown. I didn't want to jump up and down and act like a silly person. (Laughs) I said, "Yes, I think I'd like to do that," and so I did. At first, I was just working two days a week and still working at Bacone. Little by little, she could see that it was something that was beneficial to the clients, and so she hired me full-time. I did that for several years, and then they asked me if I'd like to work in Claremore in Behavioral Health. I did family therapy with that.

Little Thunder: Using your art therapy degree?

Smith: Yes.

Little Thunder: Interesting. What kinds of--when you come into an institution and they have this program but, of course, you're building the program at the 25:00same time, or adapting or improving it as you can, what kinds of things do you feel you accomplished there at Jack Brown?

Smith: One of the things, I said, I built my program on building cultural--. I'd say, even today, that Indian people don't always know what their culture is. I said they need to know who they are as Indian people. I had the experience of working with so many tribes at Bacone that I really worked well with clients that came into Jack Brown because we took them from all over the United States and from many, many different tribes. I knew a little bit about a lot of different tribes, so we could talk about those things. I had another young man, James Williams, David Williams' son, and he would take the clients to the 26:00library for me. They would look up information about their tribes, so we began to work with cultural knowledge.

We did that, as well as the therapeutic things that we did, assessments and such as that, and looking at issues. We'd try to do that with clients. We had medicine people that came in and did sweat lodges. We built that program so that we were doing all of the things to help them spiritually and emotionally. We talked about the medicine wheel a lot. It was just a fun kind of time because I got to build my own program, and I got to do the things that I wanted to do. They gave me the freedom to do that. It was a wonderful experience, just good. I've always had good experiences.

Little Thunder: Without really naming any names, I wonder what do you think was 27:00one of your, a nice success story, a person who came out of that program?

Smith: I had a young lady, and she was a very young person. She adapted to the art therapy, the techniques, very easily, and she could see right away. She was a very bright young woman. She could see things in those drawings. She'd say, "Look at this. Look at that," and she'd say, "I didn't realize that." She picked up those things herself, without my ever saying anything because as an art therapist, whatever you say about that drawing is the way it is. I may have my own thoughts or maybe a little different interpretation or something, but whatever you say is the way it is. She could see things in her drawings, and she could make conclusions. Later on, she went on to Northeastern and graduated out 28:00of the social work department, and then went to work for Cherokee Nation in the social work program. She was certainly a success story.

Little Thunder: That's wonderful. Now, you go to work at Claremore Indian Hospital in Behavioral Health. Then are you entering any art shows yet or not yet?

Smith: Probably, I'm not doing very much art of my own at this time. I've always drawn, and I will continue to forever as long as I can hold that pencil. One of the things that I learned in Emporia is everybody is creative. Everybody can draw. Even though when you're about nine or ten, sometimes you'll say, "I can't draw," because you recognize that maybe another student does have ability and 29:00does have talent. You'll say, "I can't do that," and you'll stop. Everybody has ability. Even if you scribble, just scribble. It gets those emotions out of your body when things are going on. I always did scribble drawings. I still do them. After I look at that scribble drawing, sometimes things will appear. "That looks like--." It's like looking at the clouds. You'll see things in the clouds. It's the same way with scribble drawings, so that's fun to do. It gets those emotions out and that creativeness within you because you're seeing things.

Little Thunder: When did you actually start getting active in the Native art markets? You mentioned coming to these shows at the Art Market being, I think, one inspiration.

Smith: Yes, I did that all during the time--and I was still doing some of that as a student at Emporia. I was still doing some art shows and things, and painting. However, I became so involved in the art therapy, and at Jack Brown, I 30:00wasn't really able to paint as much. When I had been there, probably about in the mid-ʼ90s, I was asked to come back to Emporia as an interim instructor. They had hired a lady to come in and do the art therapy. Mr. Ault was there. Robert Ault was one of the founding members of the Art Therapy Association, and he was my mentor. They had hired another person in the art therapy program, and then they hired another one. It had grown that much. Something happened with her father. She was unable to come in, so at the very last minute, they needed somebody to come. They called and asked me if I would think about coming to Emporia, just for a year.

I said, "If it's just for a year, I'll come." I left Jack Brown. I left the 31:00Behavioral Health unit and went to Emporia and taught school there at the university for a year. Then I came back. Pam Irons is the name I was trying to think of a few minutes ago. They had a position open for the director at Jack Brown, so I was sure it was Pam. Pam had somebody call me and ask me if I might be interested in coming back to Oklahoma. I said, "Yes, I guess I could do that," (Laughter) so I did. I put my name in the pot for the director position, and I was accepted. She asked me if I could come in and make that transition little by little, and so I did. I was still at Emporia in the spring, and then I'd come in on days off from Emporia. On Friday, I didn't teach, didn't have any classes, so on Fridays, I'd come back to Jack Brown. We did that for several 32:00weeks. Then in June I became the director.

Little Thunder: Grueling schedule. (Laughter)

Smith: That kind of ended my art career because, gosh, when you're director of a program, that's your whole focus.

Little Thunder: Right, so you then had moved into administrative work, and you weren't doing the art therapy directly with the--.

Smith: Right, but I hired somebody else. I was the first art therapist at Cherokee Nation, and then I brought in an art therapist. We had several interns from Southwestern College in Santa Fe. We had interns from Emporia State. We always had interns. At the time I was there, we had--I was still considered an art therapist. I still did art therapy with some of the clients. We had a full-time art therapist there. We had a full-time art therapist in Behavioral Health, and I believe we had two. We had one other girl that went to Emporia, 33:00and then I believe she went to OSU and got her doctoral degree. I believe she's in Lawton now.

Little Thunder: That sounds like a great program.

Smith: Art's important. Art is so important. I think it's one of the common denominators among all people, all people. You can understand drawings, and you can recognize what people are trying to say in that drawing. There was a show at Gilcrease (I believe it was last year) by an artist that passed away. I can't recall his name right now. It was a wonderful show. As an art therapist, I just marveled. I marveled at all the things that he was saying in his artwork. It was 34:00very emotional. In Santa Fe, there's an artist, (I'll think of her name in just a minute) and they did a retrospect. She died of cancer.

Little Thunder: It wasn't Margarete Bagshaw, was it?

Smith: It was her mother, Helen Hardin. They did a retrospect show, and I could see things in her work. I used to do a workshop over that exhibit. I knew almost, going through that, when she really got sick. You could tell by the colors, the different things, techniques. Towards the end, her work just changed completely in those last few months, after I went through and looked at that. You might not want to say Helen Hardin in there. Some people might not want to know those things.


Little Thunder: We can take it out if you want.

Smith: You can edit it out, okay. The artist--after I looked at the retrospect show, I had to go sit down. It was so emotionally moving to be able to see her work from the time she was a child, all the way through at her height, and then to see that decline due to the illness.

Little Thunder: When did you go to that retrospective?

Smith: I want to say mid-ʼ90s. I can't remember exactly when she passed, but she had been gone for a while. It was at Santa Fe in the IAIA [Institute of American Indian Arts] Museum there.

Little Thunder: Were you exploring any other media during this time at all?

Smith: Clay, especially clay with the clients.

Little Thunder: You got back to the sculpture a little bit.

Smith: Right, I said it's so good for the clients. They can pound on that clay, 36:00as well as myself, to relieve tension and different things. I said, "We need somebody to work with clay." About that time, Mike Daniels in Tahlequah retired from his teaching position, so I said, "Mike, would you think about coming out to Jack Brown on a contract, maybe once a week?" He did. He worked with those clients, and he taught them lots of things. It was a really good experience for them. Of course, I always picked up some of that clay, and I'd pound on it and turn it this way and that way. (Laughter) It wondered, I'm sure, what I was going to do to it.

Little Thunder: What is your favorite subject to paint?

Smith: Nowadays, I paint nearly--I do turtles, and that brings us to another 37:00area. About ten years ago, I had breast cancer. I said, "We need to be like the turtles and slow down, get in that shell and take care of ourselves." I began to--that became my mantra at that point in time. For several years, that's all I did is turtles. I'd decorate them in all different fashions. Then I decided, "I don't just have to do turtles." I guess that was part of my healing, and so I began to do other things. Nearly everything I do is Cherokee, and it's all cultural. Has been, nearly, since I went to school at Bacone, but every once in a while, I do something different. For the most part, 90 percent of my work is Cherokee, and it's all cultural.

Little Thunder: The presence of women is a very strong theme in your work, women and children.

Smith: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. Women have always--I've had strong women in my 38:00family. My grandmother was very strong, and I lived with her a good portion of the time when I was young. I had two aunts that taught school in Wagoner. They were a strong presence, and I was the only niece. I had two other cousins. One lived in California, and one in Kansas City, and they were so much older. Attention was focused on me and my brothers, too. Women, my mother, my mother was a particular little lady. She wasn't overly excited to have me in her kitchen, moving things around and doing things, but my grandmother was always, "We can do this, and we can do that." I was always rolling that dough, and helping her make biscuits, and doing this. They'd say, "Look in the cookbook and 39:00see what you want to make," and I'd find cookie recipes. They didn't mind. I probably got everything in the whole house dirty, but it was all right. That was a learning experience, and they let me play. That's another art experience, almost. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: It is. It is. Did you have any gathering experiences with them?

Smith: Always, always. My grandmother had four daughters, and she had three sons. They always talked about--they were always together. They came home as often as they could, and it was just a wonderful experience. With my mother's family, we went to decoration always. Once a year, we went to decoration, and her family is all buried over at Green Cemetery, close to Westville. We always had big dinners on the grounds. One of her brothers had a great-big iron kettle, 40:00and he made the coffee, poured that coffee in there and stirred it and stirred it. Dinners on the grounds, and, of course, we always went to church. We had to behave. We didn't go in that church and cut up. My mother made sure that we behaved in that church. No telling what would have happened. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: How about wild foods? Did you go out a little bit with your--.

Smith: My mother always had kanuchi. Lots of times when we went to decoration, that was all we served, and greens. We always went out in the springtime and picked greens and different things. Blackberries, we always had to pick blackberries. We carried that little ol' tin bucket, syrup bucket, around, picking those blackberries and putting them in there. We had fish. We weren't great fishermen, but we always had fish and pecans. We always had pecan trees on 41:00our farm. Little ol' tiny things, no bigger than your little finger, but we had to go pick pecans. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: Essentially, was it when you retired that you were able to get in some shows?

Smith: Yes, when I retired, I said, "Now I can do as I chose to do," even though I love the art therapy. I still do some of that in my home, and I still work with a few children. Just recently, I've talked to Jack Brown and Behavioral Health, and I may go back and do some of that, not on a regular basis but some of that. I thought, "I can paint, and I can do things that I want to do now," so I feel as if--. Way back in the ʼ80s when I was in graduate school, I worked for Linda one summer, and now here I am, back again. Things go around and around.


Little Thunder: That's an interesting circle, isn't it? (Laughs)

Smith: It does, in more than one way. I'm still--not long ago, I received an appointment on the Board of Trustees at Southwestern College in Santa Fe. One of my commitments is to bring in art therapy interns, and I'm so disappointed. I felt like as long as I was an art therapist, I really took this out. I did workshops. Anybody that called me, I did a workshop for them. Indian Health Service, I was all over the United States doing things for people, Indian people. Then when I got sick, I stopped all that and really got like the turtle, got in my shell and tried to take care of myself. Now I feel like I'm healthy and I can do things, so I joined the board. I hope to bring in art therapists at 43:00Cherokee Nation again. I've thought about--I did work for Choctaw Nation at one time. I did some work for Osage Nation--but I don't want to get too carried away. I've got to learn to balance that out. I'm not thirty-five. I'm not forty anymore. I have to balance that out, and that's not easy for me. I want to do everything.

Little Thunder: What was an honor or award that you've had for your art that stands out for you?

Smith: I think--I can't remember exactly. It was in the ʼ90s. I believe it was along about--or maybe 2003 or ʼ4. I received the Cherokee Medal of Honor, and I was just overwhelmed with that. I thought that was--.

Little Thunder: Can you explain the significance of that award?


Smith: There were so few given out. Sequoyah had a Cherokee Medal of Honor. He was the first one, and then there were none. Anna Gritts Kilpatrick received one, she and her husband, Jack, for all of the work that they did for the Cherokee Nation. Then they began to give them out again, probably in the ʼ80s, ʼ90s, and I felt to be in that group of people is over the top for me. Cecil Dick got one, and, of course, Cecil Dick's my hero.

Little Thunder: Right, congratulations on that.

Smith: Then another award that I received that was very significant for me was I was selected at Emporia State University as not the most valuable alumni but one 45:00of the most valuable recent graduates. Right after I graduated, the next year after I graduated, there was an article in the paper about me. I sent it back to Emporia so that they would see that I was making a contribution, that I was taking what I had learned and applying it. I got a letter not too long after that that I had been nominated. Then I received the award, and for me, that was just wonderful. On my mother's side of the family, I was the first in her family to graduate from high school, and then I was--. Well, I wasn't the first. My two brothers graduated before I did because I dropped out for a long time, but then I went back. Of course, I was the first on her side of the family to have a 46:00master's degree. Education is very, it's a necessary thing. People need to go to school. They really do.

Little Thunder: You're also a member of the Spider Art Gallery and on the board?

Smith: I am, and that's always nice. They call me periodically, and we look at other artists. I think that's a way to encourage them to bring their art in. It's a wonderful opportunity for so many artists because there are artists that have their own studio within that environment. I'm trying to think. Lisa Rutherford, the basket maker. Andrew does lots of clay work. Jane Osti comes in; she does clay work. Just this summer, they've asked me to come in and work with 47:00a few clients through the art therapy, and I've done that. I've been able to do that, so I'm continuing to work. Other people are working and bringing their art, and they sell that art. That's always good.

Little Thunder: Always good, and that gallery, Spider Gallery, has now been there for--

Smith: I think about--

Little Thunder: --ten, twelve years?

Smith: --at least ten years, at least ten years.

Little Thunder: Run by Cherokee Nation. It's really been a neat, innovative thing. Let's talk about your artistic approach and techniques a bit more, and then we're going to look at your work. In terms of painting, your primary materials are....

Smith: Sometimes I still paint on mat board, like I did in the Bacone days and like many artists before me, with a little bit of tempera and watercolor mixed 48:00together. That's the old traditional style. Once in a while, I still do that. Primarily, I use acrylic now, and canvas. Those are my primary mediums.

Little Thunder: Your format, medium-sized as opposed to not necessarily miniatures or really big paintings.

Smith: Right, once in a while I do a large painting, but very seldom. I do maybe sixteen-by-twenty or smaller than that.

Little Thunder: How would you describe your palette?

Smith: In terms of color, my favorite color to work with is blue, and, of course, that goes back, I think, to that medicine wheel and the four colors of the Cherokee people. I would like to think I'm still in my fall. If I was going 49:00to live to about 120, probably, I would still be in the fall of my life. (Laughter) I believe I have moved into the elder area. Of course, that color is blue, and I'm just attracted to blue.

Little Thunder: In fact, you've got a really neat piece we're going to look at that has a lot of blue in it, here in a minute. How has your painting changed over the years? You don't work exclusively in that flat style. You do do other things--

Smith: Right, I do.

Little Thunder: --and some ceramic work, too.

Smith: Right, I think that as an artist, I'm not stagnant. I think that I'm very eclectic. I think as an art therapist, whatever is going on with me is going to come out on that canvas or on that mat board. I see that, and sometimes I can go back and look at that and say, "Hmm, just like my grandmother of the north." I 50:00think that's where I am right now, and I think that's what--. People say, "That's you." People that knew my mother will say, "That's your mother." I think that we--what's going on here comes right out on that canvas, and I see that in artists. One of the things I will tell you is when you see rainbows in drawings, that means that it's a time of transition, when you see that rainbow. If you think about children, when they're about five, six years old, they draw lots of rainbows. They're transitioning. They're not that little, little child. They're moving into the school age child, so that's a natural thing for them to draw.

Little Thunder: That's a neat observation to share. Do you do a lot of 51:00preliminary sketching for a painting?

Smith: No, very little. I paint directly on that canvas. I was taught at Bacone to always do a sketch, and then we put down that tracing paper. We traced, and we turned it over to make sure that everything wasn't whomperjawed, but no, I don't do that any longer. I might need to sometimes. (Laughter) My fingers might be--. Who knows?

Little Thunder: What is your research process? You have a research process?

Smith: I've always had a research process since I was at Bacone. I go back, I look at things, and I read. Sometimes I look at other artists' work to see maybe 52:00what they've done with certain subject matter. Then I draw my own conclusion, and then I do it my way. Hey, that's like Frank Sinatra, isn't it? I do it my way. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: How about your creative process, starting with the time that you get an idea?

Smith: Sometimes things have to float around in my head for a little while before I can actually put them on a piece of paper. Sometimes I can see something, and I think, "That would be really interesting." Sometimes I go right home and begin to work on something, and sometimes I don't. It has to float around for a while.

Little Thunder: You're not necessarily--your creative routine isn't necessarily paint during the day, paint at night?

Smith: I used to always paint at night. Dick West told me when I was his student, he says, "You paint at night, or you paint by yourself because if other 53:00people come through, they'll make suggestions. They'll say, 'That needs to be like that. Change this.' It turns into somebody else's work of art." He says, "You paint by yourself, and you paint at night." I used to stay up way late at night, and I'd paint. That didn't always work out too well. (Laughter) No, I've always painted by myself. I have a studio. I go to my studio, and that's where I paint.

Little Thunder: You have your own separate space there?

Smith: Right, I do. I no longer have to paint at the kitchen table or pull out a drawer to put my canvas on. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: Looking back on your career so far, what was a fork in the road for you art-wise, where you could have gone one way and you went this other way?

Smith: I think when I read the article in the Tulsa World and I decided to 54:00become an art therapist, I think that I put my own art on the back burner at that point in time. I could have continued. My life might have been very different, but I chose to go a different way. Now I've been able to pick it back up.

Little Thunder: Yes, and made so many important--such an impact on a lot of lives.

Smith: I hope so. I hope so.

Little Thunder: How about one of your career high points so far?

Smith: Probably the grandest thing I ever did was when I went to work for Jack Brown and introduced art therapy into that program. I'm very pleased that I was able to do that. I was able to teach an introduction to art therapy at Northeastern. I did that for twenty years out of the social work program, even though I am a psychologist, or I have a psychology background.


Little Thunder: Right, your degree. How about one of the low points in your career so far?

Smith: I think when I got sick. That was not a wonderful thing, but even that was a growth experience. I think you have to look at things, and even bad experiences are growth experiences.

Little Thunder: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about before we look at your artwork?

Smith: I can't think of anything. I think I've shared and shared and shared with you. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: All right, we'll pause it for a minute and go take a look at this work. -- You did eventually pick up clay again, and this is one of your--.

Smith: I did, and I had a little bit more control over it than I used to. This piece is called Turtle Chase, and, of course, the turtle has become my mantra in 56:00the last few years. Each one of the turtles has Cherokee designs on it. I said, "Even though turtles get in that shell and take care of themselves, sometimes they get pretty busy, and they're chasing around." (Laughter)

Little Thunder: It has a really neat feeling of movement to it and some neat textures, too.

Smith: Thank you.

Little Thunder: Here we have a reproduction of a turtle painting.

Smith: Yes, this is called Race for the Cure. I did this, probably, about ten years ago after I had breast cancer. For me, it was therapeutic in the fact that cancer affects everyone. It doesn't discriminate. There's no racial discrimination whatsoever. Whether you're red, or you're yellow, or you're black, or you're white, we all go through those same things and those same 57:00feelings. I said, "They've got those little pink ribbons representing the race for the cure." On the bottom, there are flowers, little daisies, and I said, "This is a growth experience, regardless of where we are." It's a growth experience, but at the same time, you see these little dragonflies chasing the turtles. Sometimes you have these little thoughts. Even though you know you're doing well and you feel better, sometimes those little thoughts will creep in. If you have a little ache or pain, those little thoughts just creep in.

Little Thunder: I see.

Smith: The very gold on the bottom and on the shells, the gold and silver, we're valuable people. All of us are valuable people, and sometimes we don't realize how valuable we are.

Little Thunder: That's a lot of neat messages. This was not done for a 58:00fundraiser of any kind. It was done as your self-expression.

Smith: No, no.

Little Thunder: How about this piece?

Smith: As you can see, I'm very eclectic. I don't stay with anything too long. I work on the turtles for a while, and then I'm off to something else. This is called Midnight Dancers. A long, long time ago, there--booger masks is what the gentlemen have on. A long time ago, maybe in the 1700s, 1800s, when the dominant culture began to come into the southeast part of the country, the people, Cherokees, even Creeks, I think, and maybe other tribes thought, "If we can carve some really scary, frightening masks, we can scare those people away." The dominant culture even brought in diseases and different things. They would put on those masks, and they would use them for medicinal purposes. They thought, 59:00"We can scare these things away," but obviously, it did not work.

Little Thunder: And this is a reproduction of an acrylic painting?

Smith: Watercolor and tempera, I believe.

Little Thunder: Watercolor and tempera, okay.

Smith: This is part of the Four Seasons, Four Directions [series]. As Julie said, this is a print, and this is called The Spring. There's little stories on the backside of each one of these little prints. In nearly all Indian homes, there's at least three generations. There's Granny or Aunty; there's the daughter; and the grandchildren. As you can see, they're out picking or digging wild onions. In the spring, that's one of our big foods. We always have wild onion dinners. These little ladies are out there doing that. There are three 60:00more of this series. The second one, the ladies are out picking blackberries, and in the fall, they're out picking pecans. Then in the winter, they're out picking up wood. That's part of that circle, that four directions.

Little Thunder: Right, that's really a nice little painting. Okay, and now we're looking at--.

Smith: This is called Grandmother of the North. People who know me sometimes think this is a self-portrait. I don't think so, necessarily. The color for the north is blue. I think when you reach this age, or at this time in your life when you're the grandmother, it's about giving back. If you can see her hands, she's got a basket. It probably has something that she's giving away. She's the 61:00grandmother. As the grandmother, you're constantly giving to your grandchildren; you're giving to your children; you're giving to others. (Laughter) That's part of the life. That's part of that circle of life when you go around. As a child, people give to you. As an adult, people are still sometimes giving to you, but as the grandmother, it's your turn to give back.

Little Thunder: Thank you so much for your time today, Janet.

Smith: This has been my pleasure. I've enjoyed it very much.

------- End of interview -------