C J Wells

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"Fools Crow" by C.J. Wells (American, born 1952). Oil on canvas. Depicting Native American in traditional dress. Signed lower right.
Detail from "Fools Crow" by C.J. Wells (American, born 1952). Oil on canvas. Depicting Native American in traditional dress. Signed lower right.
Native American Artist C.J. Wells (American, born 1952).

Official Bio

CJ Wells is a Santa Fe artist and poet of Native Amer­i­can and His­panic Amer­i­can descent. Her paint­ings often reflect her Span­ish and Amer­i­can Indian her­itage. Her por­traits of Amer­i­can Indian war­riors and childern often depict her sub­jects with glow­ing “yel­low eyes” sig­ni­fy­ing tra­di­tional respect for the “holi­ness of the Earth and animals.”

As TAOS Mag­a­zine states, “Well’s paint­ings present a fas­ci­nat­ing con­trast between the solemn faces of her sub­jects and the lush color and detail that sur­round them. Her images have an abstract, time­less qual­ity. The war­riors are set against dark back­grounds or cloudy skies, and their yel­low eyes seem to gaze out beyond the viewer. They appear to be lis­ten­ing to an inner voice or con­tem­plat­ing the past. Each one is an ele­gant, aris­to­cratic pres­ence sur­rounded by mys­tery and drama.”

CJ also cre­ates poetry that relates to her works and is inspired by them. “The poems come from deep within me,” she says. “They give voice to the pen­sive fig­ures of the paint­ings in haunt­ing, oth­er­wordly verse.”

Her stu­dio can be found these days in Santa Fe, but Wells spent four­teen years in Scotts­dale before return­ing to Santa Fe in 2001 at the time of her father’s death. She says she has come to stay. Cur­rently sin­gle, the mother of two grown chil­dren (a daugh­ter and a son) and with four grand­chil­dren, she finds her­self in a posi­tion to pur­sue her art with­out restriction.

CJ Wells lives in her great grandmothers house near the banks of the Santa Fe River in downtown Santa Fe. Her earliest European ancestors were Spaniards, men who arrived in northern New Mexico and settle down with indigenous wives. They learned from the local Indians how to build pueblo style adobe homes and how to live on the land.

Wells refers to her self as a “collective Indian“ because of the different tribes of her foremothers. She carries strains of Cochiti Pueblo, Picuris Pueblo, Cherokee and many others. She comes from a creative line: her Uncle’s paintings hang on the Santa Fe Plaza, and another uncle was a published Poet. Today, Wells works in both mediums.

As a young woman and fledgling artist she returned from college and live with her grandmother in the Adobe house she occupies today. She got a job waiting tables so that she could paint at night. She befriended several of the soon to be famous first generation graduates of the Institute of American Indian arts. Under their influence she began working with Native imagery in her own distinctive style. While buying art supplies one day she was advised by a local artist to get into some galleries and soon as she was having shows.

Wells writes thought-provoking poetry that gets inside the wild heart of Native American before there was an America, when it was just a native land, pristine and elemental. Her portraits of Indian chiefs retain that spirit, but her skill with color, composition, pattern, and detail add a rich, civilized quality.

Well has enjoyed great success with her hallmark imagery, but she has not allowed it to stifle her growth. Her current direction is ever more nonfigurative; she has steadily produced abstract painting alongside her better known work ever since her college days in Los Angeles. The abstract pieces are as bold and intense as the representational ones, simply taking her ideas out of their familiar context and onto another plane or she can incorporate more wisdom about the larger world.

Wells is an avant-garde artist who works in multiple disciplines and genres, and you consequently never get stuck in one place she steps fearlessly into the next image, the next concept, the next chapter because that is what she has always done, and her creative life has only gotten better each year

Fools Crow

Fools Crow is a 1986 novel written by Native American author James Welch. Set in Montana shortly after the Civil War, this novel tells of White Man's Dog (later known as Fools Crow), a young Blackfeet Indian on the verge of manhood, and his band, known as the Lone Eaters. The invasion of white society threatens to change their traditional way of life, and they must choose to fight or assimilate. The story is a portrait of a culture under pressure from colonization. The story culminates with the historic Marias Massacre of 1870, in which the U.S. Cavalry killed a friendly band of Blackfeet, consisting mostly of non-combatants.

Like Larry McMurtry with Lonesome Dove, Welch has gone back into history to suggest the foundations of his previous fiction (The Death of Jim Loney, Winter in the Blood) and its world of the modern deracinated American Indian. He focuses here on a tribe of Blackfeet Indians in Montana after the Civil War--the Lone Eaters--and how misunderstanding, venality, internal dissension, and, ultimately, physical plague wipe them out utterly. The central character is a young, at first hardly-brave brave named White Man's Dog--who, after taking part in a daring horse-robbery raid against a rival tribe, is given the honor of a new, stronger name: Fools Crow. And with the name come the rights and responsibilities of an important member of the tribe. He marries into a family whose patriarch, Yellow Kidney, has survived a terrible ordeal at the instigating hands of a few rogue Napikwans--whites; and it is to revenge this that some of the Lone Eaters (not Fools Crow) turn rogue themselves. This unsanctioned violence quickly, of course, becomes a complete war between the whites and the Lone Eaters--certainly an unwilling one on the part of the Indians. Yet it isn't bloodshed that seems the ultimate act of fate in Welch's reading of this baleful scenario but disease: the ""white-scab"" plague that finally decimates the tribe. The powerlessness against the plague but also the successes and poetries of Indian spirit medicine play as a subtext here--allowing Welch to write not only a depressing destiny-chronicle but also to embody how natural and fluid the Indian was with the supernatural, the visionary, the shaman-power; scene after scene finds the Lone Eaters in more command of the world than would be expected (though, of course, also less). Rich and dense--very sad yet without stock villainy or orthodox pleading: a satisfying historical novel by a writer who, if anything, now goes beyond the portraits of desolation he's been so good at before, into the larger picture.

Review of Fools Crow

‘Fools Crow’ by James Welch (Viking: $18.95; 316 pp.)

By Louis Owens

DEC. 14, 1986 12 AM PT

When James Welch published his first novel, “Winter in the Blood,” in 1974, he joined N. Scott Momaday as only the second American Indian novelist at that time to have produced a truly outstanding work of fiction. Since the appearances of Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” (1960) and Welch’s “Winter in the Blood,” however, a significant escalation has taken place in the publication of important novels by American Indian writers, with Leslie Silko’s “Ceremony” coming out in 1977 followed by Welch’s second novel, “The Death of Jim Loney,” and other impressive novels by such Indian writers as Janet Campbell Hale, Paula Gunn Allen, Gerald Vizenor and Louise Erdrich. Although novels by American Indian writers have been appearing in a steady, though slim, stream since Simon Pokagon’s “Queen of the Woods” in 1899, only since 1969 has the Indian novel begun to come of age. Welch’s third novel, “Fools Crow,” marks an important step in that movement toward a maturation of both style and vision.

Welch is a Blackfoot-Gros Ventre Indian, a graduate of the University of Montana. Drawing upon his Blackfoot heritage, and, more critically, upon his own sense of what it means to be “Indian” in late 20th-Century America, in “Fools Crow,” Welch has written an extraordinary novel.

“Fools Crow” is set in the final crisis years of the American Indian High Plains culture--around 1870, when the buffalo herds are falling before the marvelous efficiency of repeating rifles and the Indians are being decimated by the less-efficient but still deadly assault of smallpox and the U.S. military. Although the narrative point of view shifts at times to create a finely layered complexity, the novel focuses primarily upon the consciousness of a member of an isolated band of Blackfeet, a young man called White Man’s Dog, who, in the course of the novel, grows into the hunter, warrior and healer named Fools Crow. Fools Crow’s coming of age parallels the final brief period of traditional life for the Blackfeet, once the most powerful tribe on their part of the continent. As the power of Fools Crow grows, that of his people declines. It becomes the responsibility of Fools Crow to foresee and bear witness to the extermination of the traditional way of life for his people.

Welch’s first published volume, a collection of poems entitled “Riding the Earthboy 40" (1971), introduced the reservation world of the contemporary Montana Indian as seen through the flint-sharp eyes of a tricksterish surrealism.

Both of Welch’s first two novels were experiments, impressively successful attempts to merge American Indian history and mythology with absurdism, surrealism, and black humor in a torturous quest for the protagonists’ identity as Indians in contemporary America. In interesting ways, however, “Fools Crow” is a more dangerous book for Welch than these first two and, perhaps, his most radical experiment yet. In this work, Welch has taken the risk of writing in high seriousness, abandoning the black humor, absurdism and structural high jinks of his earlier fiction. The result is a novel that plunges the reader with startling abruptness wholly into an Indian world, a world in which reality is idyllic and bitter, hard-edged and magical.

In this novel, Welch is re-membering the world of his ancestors, putting that world together again in a way that will tell both author and reader what has been lost and what saved. In the Indian world of this novel, Raven flutters down to give advice in his wise-old-man, tough-guy trickster voice, and Welch offers no apology or explanation for this bit of magic--this is simply the way it is, or was. Similarly, when Fools Crow, in a dream-vision, is summoned three days’ ride northward to meet with a figure from Blackfoot mythology and to be shown a stark outline of his people’s future, the reader must accept the spiritual encounter on Indian terms. Welch’s Blackfeet in “Fools Crow,” like many Indian people today, live in a world that acknowledges no separation between man and the natural or supernatural worlds.

“Fools Crow” is a painful, stunning act of recovery, the completion of an identity quest that began for Welch in his first poems and novels. In this novel, Welch takes a major gamble, for at times, the carefully articulated speech of the author’s Blackfeet is inevitably reminiscent of the stilted Oxfordian verbiage found in romantic treatments of Indians from James Fenimore Cooper to the Hollywood Western. Rescuing this novel from such guilt by association, however, is a hardness and precision of language lacking in nearly every other fictional attempt to render Indian speech in English, an absolute certainty of voice. More important, perhaps, is the fact that no appropriation of Indian culture is going on here; the author writes from within this imagined world rather than from without. In “Fools Crow,” the non-Indian is the outsider who must recognize a new world and adapt.

The fundamentally mimetic realism of “Fools Crow” may well meet with its detractors. Even more surely, it will provide critics with another opportunity to write nostalgically about what American Indian culture was like. What Welch has accomplished, however, has been to remind us, as well as himself, of what is still there. Perhaps the most profound implication of this novel is that the culture, the world-view brought so completely to life in “Fools Crow,” is alive and accessible in the self-imagining of contemporary Blackfeet and other American Indians. In recovering the world found in this novel, Welch serves as storyteller, bearer of oral tradition and definer of what it means to be Indian today.


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