By Brian D’Ambrosio
Carlis Chee was born on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, where his parents abandoned him, and he was shuttled between unstable living situations and austere boarding schools. He describes his upbringing as broken, full of strife, and marked by food stamps, welfare checks, and low-grade commodity food. His early childhood defined by pain, Chee has for decades worked to transmute his traumas by painting art that is at once bright and colorful as well as deeply soulful.
“Darkness is where my art comes from,” said Chee, a painter increasingly noted for his detailed Navajo faces, symbols, and imagery.
“My whole life I’ve been living in that darkness, cloudiness, and grayness, deep down in my soul and my core, and I’ve been trying to pull out these beautiful things, colors, and messages,” he said. “The older I get, the more I realize that I’m this person who grew up this bad way and who (through art) is trying to heal himself, and to accept himself, and to accept the world.”
For years, Chee said, he felt as if he had had a cold in his soul but for one positive influence: his grandmother Anna Jean and her farm. Through her, he found affection topped off with an agricultural bounty that included apples, apricots, pears, and grapes; wild asparagus abundant in the ditches of the canals; and bleating flocks of sheep.
“Anna Jean would drag me to peyote meetings and traditional dances and even some churches,” Chee said. “She was trying all of these beliefs to heal herself. She taught me my Navajo language. She didn’t speak English. … Without her, I wouldn’t be here.”
Chee was born in 1969 to parents who gave him up when he was a pre-teen for adoption by his grandmother. She died of diabetes complications in 1980. Chee then lived in boarding houses at times, as a nomad at others, always emotionally insecure.
There did come a guiding light, however, when a junior high school teacher introduced him to esteemed Navajo painter R.C. Gorman. The two became friends and Gorman’s work has influenced Chee ever since. Gorman died in 2005.
Handling a paint brush for the first time Chee said, he liked the feel of it, the magical fluidity of scraping coats, and the freedom of touch and expression that it represented. He was determined never to be spiritually homeless again.
“Painting heals me in the right way,” Chee said. “There can be self-abuse and reminiscing about the past too much. But the most beautiful canvas can come out, too. … I’m content as an artist and still learning as a man.”
Chee’s portraits blaze yellow, red, and orange like a sunset, their mastery reflecting about 35 years of both study and experimentation with painting in places as diverse as Santa Fe; Lincoln, Neb.; Honolulu; and Tokyo. Chee now works out of his home in Monticello, N.M., ensconced in cottonwood canyons, about 20 miles northwest of Truth or Consequences.
Depicting Navajo people with dignified faces, eyes closed, he said he pays homage to Anna Jean, who meditated and prayed habitually. Chee also explained that painting the eyes closed implies searching, struggling to find light or the right passageway out of sightlessness and gloom.
When he closes his own eyes, Chee is frequently entangled in the thorny memories of childhood. Since then, Chee has used his art as a comfort, a session of spiritual guidance, a boost of confidence that gives hope to both himself and others. However, Chee isn’t “in it” solely for pleasure or for its mood-elevating effects. Art is vital for his existence, he said.
“All of my life is dedicated to my art,” Chee said. “In Monticello, I am in a quiet, beautiful place with mountains all around and I can be away out here and think about painting.”
At 54, Chee, who has grappled with substance abuse and legal troubles, is still trying to find calm and strength, as well as more healthful channels for his lingering trauma.
“Art has been my teacher, and art has been the parents that I never had,” Chee said. “It’s the backbone of my entire life. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to look at art that way. It makes me grow every day.”