Neal Ambrose-Smith: An Artist

In Prose by nativesinamericaLeave a Comment


By A.J. Leonard

Whilst walking on the Denver International Airport main terminal terrazzo floor, commuters might initially confuse the massive terrazzo design in blue, green, and orange as an enormous Southwestern Navajo rug. These travelers would be wrong, however, because the installation is not a rug, nor even a textile, but is instead made of ceramic tiling. Its contemporary design was created between Neal Ambrose-Smith and his mother, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, two Native American artists, and is made of terrazzo, a kind of ceramic. From interviewing Neal Ambrose-Smith, it became clear that an important aspect of Neal’s art was interactivity – in fact, it was the very motivation behind the terrazzo floor’s creation in the first place.

The Denver International Airport handles a considerable portion of the traffic in the Southwestern United States. Thus, there is an enormous influx of people, many of whom have never been to the Southwest. In the center of all this traffic lies the terrazzo floor, an abstract Native American design, the only Southwestern Native American art many visitors may ever see. The floor is public art and is highly accessible rather than being hidden away from the public eye, but, more importantly, it does not intrude upon commuters as they make their way to their terminals. It exists, allowing those who are interested to do their own research, but also allowing those who are too busy the choice to continue with no falter in their step. It is in harmony both with its subdued palette as well as its interaction with other people; it manages to be both mindful and unobtrusive, all while still being Native.

Neal Ambrose-Smith, a descendant of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation of Montana, was born in 1966. Currently, Neal is a Pop Artist who works as a painter, sculptor, printmaker, and professor at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His work has received numerous honors and has been featured in collections around the world from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to the Hongik University in Seoul, South Korea.


The Pop Art Movement originated in the Post-War Period of the late 1940’s and found an international spotlight during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Pop Art was influenced by popular consumer culture including advertisements, celebrities, and the emerging eminence of superhero comic books, material which, in contemporary culture, was often considered below fine art’s standards. Artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein became sensations for their portrayal of popular images: like Marilyn Monroe, a famous actress and sex symbol in the Marilyn Diptych by Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein’s Popeye, which depicts the popular cartoon character.

Like the revered Pop Art Masters, Neal Ambrose-Smith’s art features pop cultural references from his own adolescence. Neal’s work is instantly entertaining, interactive and mesmerizing, truly showing the spirit behind a creator who sets out to make his audience laugh. Evidence of interactivity and humor soar across the canvas of many of his paintings in the USS Enterprise, 50’s era comic book characters, cartoon rabbits, beautiful blonde women in headdresses and bold text. Neal grew up in the 70’s and takes inspiration from what was commonly available at the time: episodes of Star Trek, Star Wars, and comic books full of superheroes. These influences provide a conduit to other generations who have also grown up with these same franchises and images, thus facilitating interaction between his generation and the next.

Regardless of the bold and playful imagery, it would be a great injustice to cast Neal’s art aside as a mere knick-knack, for Neal’s art also has a soul. Being Native is important to Neal, not just in being true to himself, but in expressing those views in his prints, paintings, sculptures, and installations – many of which feature Native American symbols, styles and iconography –  all in the context of contemporary art. Neal Ambrose-Smith is both a contemporary pop artist and a Native American artist, an association which often appears as a contradiction in terms to a miseducated audience. For instance, the label “Native American” is commonly placed on artists who are Native American, encompassing any and every movement and media they work in. However, many people in the United States and around the globe associate this label strictly with traditional Native American art – art which, to their knowledge, stagnated many centuries ago rather than transforming on to this day. Although this association between Native American art and traditionalism may seem harmless, it is indicative of the focal lens too much of the public views contemporary Native American art and subsequently the people behind it: as traditional.


Despite this, Neal Ambrose-Smith and the Native American art community have not given up their pursuit and many well-established art communities and museums already have contemporary Native American art from contemporary Native Americans. Neal earnestly works to achieve widespread globalization of Native American art as something not entirely belonging to the past, but something necessary to the present and the future.

Grammar and Technical Notes: This version is intended to simulate the actual presentation, grammar/mechanics may be updated in technical script.

Images in order of how they are displayed; I have permission from the artist, Neal Ambrose-Smith, to use all his images (Image 1,2,4,5,6). I do not have permission for Image 3 (Marilyn Diptych) but found the image via Wikipedia. I believe it is under fair use, but I need to check.

Image 1: Denver International Airport main terminal terrazzo floor (2012)

http://indianspacepainters.com/wp-content/gallery/sculptureinstallation-2007-14/3D-DSC02628.jpg

Image 2: The Albissola Years (2017)

http://indianspacepainters.com/wp-content/gallery/drawingsprints-2012-14/NS17PR078.jpg

Image 3: Marilyn Diptych (1962)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/87/Marilyndiptych.jpg

Image 4: Strange Planets (2012)

http://indianspacepainters.com/wp-content/gallery/paintings/strange-planets.jpg

Image 5: James Paints-Too-Soon (2013)

http://indianspacepainters.com/wp-content/gallery/paintings/NS13PG012-1.jpg

Image 6: Abstract in your home (2009)

http://indianspacepainters.com/wp-content/gallery/sculptureinstallation-2007-14/NDN_7647.jpg
http://indianspacepainters.com/wp-content/gallery/sculptureinstallation-2007-14/3D-DSC02628.jpg

Image 2: The Albissola Years (2017)

http://indianspacepainters.com/wp-content/gallery/drawingsprints-2012-14/NS17PR078.jpg

Image 3: Marilyn Diptych (1962)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/87/Marilyndiptych.jpg

Image 4: Strange Planets (2012)

http://indianspacepainters.com/wp-content/gallery/paintings/strange-planets.jpg

Image 5: James Paints-Too-Soon (2013)

http://indianspacepainters.com/wp-content/gallery/paintings/NS13PG012-1.jpg

Image 6: Abstract in your home (2009)

http://indianspacepainters.com/wp-content/gallery/sculptureinstallation-2007-14/NDN_7647.jpg

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