PHOTO BY CRAIG T. KOJIMA /
ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE SWANN /
American Indian artist Carlis Chee, who recently moved to the islands, says he requires music while painting. "I was raised on rock 'n' roll, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison," he says, "but I will listen to almost anything."
A Navajo artist follows his muse from desert to ocean
Carlis Chee considers himself a wanderer by nature. "I like to move around," he said. "The Navajo are known throughout history to be nomads."
Artwork by Carlis Chee
Place: Native Winds Gift Gallery & Craft Supply, 1152 Koko Head Avenue
Time: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 30
The artist has traveled across the United States with art in tow, mounting shows at all of the major cities. "I would drive my truck and haul all of my stuff," he said.
"I've paid my dues. I spent a lot of time in hotels and small cafes throughout the Midwest. I look back at all of the connections I made, and it has really paid off."
His latest journey: from the Southwest to the mid-Pacific.
Chee recently closed his gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., and moved to the islands. His works will be on display at Native Winds in November, and
from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday he will discuss the American Indian and Japanese aesthetic of his images.
Studying art at Kearney State College in Nebraska, Chee became intrigued by Japanese art and began incorporating it into his own paintings. "I was attracted to the simple lines and brush strokes, so I began combining Japanese art with my native background."
Chee was raised on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. He names his grandmother, Anna Jean, as his inspiration, teaching him the traditional ways of his people and the native language. "All of the women in my paintings represent my grandmother, who raised me," he said.
"The eyes are always closed. I always use the same face, but the blankets are totally different. It depends on how I'm feeling at the moment. When I'm missing the desert, I use lots of reds and browns. When I'm around the ocean, I tend to use more blues."
He paints in acrylics but his works include mixed media. "I put a little sand in the paint to add texture," he said. "I tried oils when I was younger, but they gave me a headache."
Chee has spent a lot of time in boarding schools and was influenced by other artists. "I spent a lot of time sketching when I should have been studying," he said. "I still sketch, and the ones I really like, I'll put on the canvas."
It wasn't until he viewed a documentary on American Indian artist R.C. Gorman that Chee chose art as a career goal. "It was the first time that I realized I could make a living at painting."
Chee's new gallery and studio is scheduled to open by the end of the year, above Indigo on Nuuanu Street.
"I don't like to show my art in someone else's gallery. I'm stubborn and want my own business," he said, although he did have to show his pieces in other galleries for more than a decade before he ventured off on his own.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
"Grandmother Anna," by Carlis Chee. The artist says the women in his work represent his grandmother.
Collectors across the country and in Japan maintain his pieces. "Some of the collectors become really good friends and are my best supporters."
Wendy Schofield-Ching, owner of Native Winds, said Chee's work will be a revelation to new viewers. "Local audiences will be surprised by these pieces, which defy stereotypic notions of Southwestern art yet are quintessentially Navajo. We believe the art will resonate with our diverse and multicultural communities on Oahu and throughout the Pacific Islands."
Jayne Hirata-Epstein, an Academy of Arts docent, compared Chee's work to that of Japanese art Hisashi Otsuka. "When Otsuka would come out with something new, people would line up at the door," she said. "The imagery is different, but it has the same feel -- very serene and not at all jarring. It's something you could hang in your living room, and it would fit right in."
A fan of Asian art, Hirata-Epstein appreciates the use of lines, colors and composition of Chee's work. "It almost feels like you are looking at a Japanese print."
Chee's Nuuanu studio will have plenty of wall space for large canvases. "It's upstairs and out of the way. I can lock myself up in that room all day and just paint."
He's looking forward to the solitude. "In Santa Fe, I painted in public. Its nice that people check out your work, but it really disrupts the flow. Good friends would take me away from the easel, and I would end up having long lunches."
Once his studio is ready, he hopes to start on some bronze sculptures. And he hopes to be involved in First Friday festivities by early next year.
Chee has seven siblings, all living in different places, including a brother who paints in Nebraska. While most of them like to stay put, he continually dreams of traveling abroad.
The next time Chee's urge to wander kicks in, he expects it will take him to Thailand.
"I would like to rent a place and just eat Thai food for a couple months. I have a passion for traveling ... I love people and culture. And I have an unlimited fascination with other people's cuisine," he said.
"When I get off the plane in a strange place, it is so exciting. It does something for my artwork. Something snaps."