Carlis Chee, a distinctive artist with an enthralling narrative, was born in 1969 on the Navajo Nation, a vast indigenous territory nestled about 80 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Today, he resides in Monticello, New Mexico, but the journey from his birthplace to his current abode is nothing short of captivating.
- The Early Years
A Grandmother’s Love and Inspiration
The seventh child and only a toddler when his parents separated, Carlis was sent to live with his Grandmother in Moenave, Arizona. Safe and loved, Carlis learned to herd sheep, feed the horses, plant and harvest crops, pick fruit, and care for the many cats and dogs on his grandmother’s property. It’s also where his artistic talents were nurtured. His grandmother would cut paper bags in squares to serve as art paper, with pencils and charcoal from the fireplace serving as his drawing instruments. Even as a young child, Carlis worked to refine lines and composition, showing his work to his grandmother and receiving positive feedback and encouragement in return. It’s that love and encouragement that fueled his artistic fire, giving him the drive to improve his techniques and results with each drawing.
Heartbreak at Ten
Carlis adored his grandmother and, sadly, was only ten when she passed away. He was both devastated and homeless. Carlis was placed in boarding school in Tuba City where life was much different than his loving grandmother’s home, including sleeping in a room with about a hundred other kids.
Missing his grandmother’s home, the farmland, the sheep and the horses, Carlis would leave school and walk the five miles back to Moenave to reconnect with the home and land he loved. During summers, he bounced around, staying with his older brothers and sisters, babysitting and caring for his nieces and nephews.
Life as a Drifter
Once he completed elementary school, Carlis shifted to life as a drifter. He made his way to Salt Lake City to stay with one of his brothers while attending high school as a freshman. He returned to the boarding school in Tuba City for his sophomore year, living and surviving on his own during the summers.
Tired of drifting, Carlis requested an application from a Navajo boarding school in Richfield, Utah. He convinced his parents to sign the application, which they each did along with giving him a one-way ticket to Richfield. It’s there, as a junior, that he met a great art teacher, Sid Stewart, who introduced Carlis to painting. Having only used pencil and charcoal prior to that, Carlis was intimidated by the concept of painting but soon learned to enjoy the newfound artist freedom that the brush provided.
His restless spirit took him on the move again, heading back to the boarding school in Tuba City for his senior year. Halfway through the year, he was on the move once again, quitting school, working to make some cash, and then making his way to Lexington, Nebraska where one of his brothers lived and where he finished his senior year. It was there that the foundations were laid for his career as an artist.
II. New Beginnings
While completing his senior year in Lexington, Nebraska, Carlis’ art caught the attention of the local newspaper, which published photos of some of his works. Local bank owners, who were also art collectors, encouraged Carlis to attend the university to study art. They helped him get into Kearney State where he was introduced to new styles, including Japanese art. Intrigued by the Japanese use of simple lines and composition, Carlis wondered how he could mix Japanese art with his Navajo background. And having seen the TV series Shogun, he set his heart on marrying a Japanese woman and traveling to Japan.
A New Chapter
After a year of art school, Carlis got restless again. As luck would have it, Carlis had met famed Taos artist R.C. Gorman while hitchhiking at the age of 16. R.C had stayed in touch with him, sending him postcards with messages that encouraged Carlis to pursue his love of art. So when the post-art school wanderlust set in, Carlis headed to Santa Fe and reconnected with R.C.
Carlis applied to the Santa Fe Institute of American Indian Arts and was accepted, thanks to his impressive portfolio. He stayed in the dorm, a lifestyle he was now more accepting of, and studied for the next year at the institute. During that time, he met another famous artist, Amado Peña, who invited Carlis to show his works at Amado’s gallery.
Life as an Artist
Showing his works in Amado Peña’s gallery was a turning point for Carlis. From that point on he knew he would pursue art as a career. He stayed in a small apartment, painted there, and was blessed to have his work shown together with that of Amado Peña, R.C. Gorman and many other notable artists.
Carlis caught the eye of the owners of Rancho de Chimayo, a high-end restaurant, bar and gallery north of Santa Fe in Chimayo, New Mexico, where Carlis showed and sold his work for the next four years. Realizing a significant demand for his art, Carlis decided to open his own gallery, which he did in downtown Santa Fe. And that’s where his life took another turn.
The Japanese Influence
With a love of all things Japanese dating back to seeing Shogun and studying Japanese art in his first year of art school, it’s no wonder that a Japanese woman who visited his gallery became his wife. Together, they moved to Honolulu where Carlis continued to paint, now with some Hawaiian influence taking shape in his paintings. He and his wife traveled to Japan multiple times during their four-year marriage, fulfilling Carlis’ long-awaited dream of visiting Japan.
III. Coming Full Circle
Back Where it All Started
Once divorced, Carlis returned to Santa Fe where he opened and ran a small studio gallery for a couple years. And once again, his restless spirit kicked in. He started doing shows again while also picking and choosing galleries to show and sell his art. Feeling he needed a new place to go, he moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, lived in a log cabin, painted, and continued to show his works in various galleries.
The Journey South
Never one to stay anywhere for a long period of time, Carlis moved to Truth or Consequences where he moved into a small apartment, set up his easel and got to work – but not just on paintings. It was in Truth or Consequences where Carlis finally recognized that he needed to say goodbye to the wild, restless spirit that had dominated his life and face the fact that the only real love he had ever known was the love he cherished, shared and received from his beloved grandmother. In other words, it was time to let go, heal, and learn to love again. And of course, he was painting, partnering with Zia Gallery in Truth or Consequences to show and sell his art.
One Last Move
Now in a self-healing mode, Carlis moved again – this time to Monticello, a remote but beautiful town of just a few dozen residents north of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. It all started when his now best friend – a member of the Tierney family, one he calls “big sister” and one he has come to love along with the entire family – bought a painting from him. They instantly hit it off, resulting in her invitation for him to stay at her home in Santa Fe during the Santa Fe Indian Market. That led to her offering Carlis the opportunity to stay at her other home in Monticello in exchange for serving as caretaker of her property and horses. He feels blessed to have the Tierney family in his life and blessed to be living in Monticello. That’s where he is today, painting in the studio with his other best friend by his side, his dog Abina, which translates to “morning” in Navajo. His works are currently shown in Center Gallery in Truth or Consequences. One of the many pieces he is currently working on is a commissioned painting of Neil Young.
IV. Carlis Chee Today
Traveling, Searching and Learning
While learning to rein in his wild side, Carlis hasn’t lost his love for travel and learning. From Romania to Holland, England, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Mexico, Carlis has immersed himself in traveling to explore art, including hand-painted fabrics, to learn what he can from each country’s traditional styles. And whenever he feels a bit down, he picks up a pen and starts writing poetry and short stories.
Carlis is always learning, always searching, always looking for new techniques, new ways to mix paints, and new ways to apply texture to canvas and paper. And when he paints, it’s always with music in the background – any musician, any genre as there isn’t any type of music he doesn’t enjoy. His painting style has evolved over time and will surely continue to do so.
For nearly 40 years, art collectors have been the backbone in his life, with many of them collecting his works over a number of years. Many of these collectors have become friends and even family – wonderful people who enrich Carlis’ life as much as he enriches theirs.
An Emotional Journey
When Carlis was a young boy making drawings for his beloved grandmother, Anna Jean, he felt alive and free, and all that was heavy melted away. To this day, every painting is dedicated to her, the kind and loving woman who filled the roles of both mother and father for Carlis until her passing at his tender age of ten. With her gentle spirit in his heart and mind, Carlis is focused on staying healthy, letting go of painful memories of parents who abandoned him, healing emotionally, and immersing himself in his art, writings, travel and friends.
For Carlis, painting and writing are meditative, and they have been his teacher. His studio is his sanctuary and Abina, his beloved dog, keeps him grounded. They are soul mates and he freely shares that he has learned a great deal from her.
More to Come
Carlis frequently makes trips back to the area on the Navajo Nation where he lived with his grandmother. He is building a traditional-shaped hogan but with a contemporary flair, including a high ceiling to accommodate a very tall easel. He will eventually move there to continue his work as an artist and writer. Meanwhile, he is exceptionally appreciative of all who have welcomed him into their lives… into their galleries… and into their hearts.
Carlis’ life story is a testament to his resilience.. Despite the challenges he faced, his love for art remained a beacon, guiding him through the roughest storms.
Born on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Carlis Chee has woven a captivating life narrative that is as impressive as his artistic journey. From his early years, marked by the nurturing love of his grandmother, through heartbreak, wanderlust, and eventually, personal and artistic self-discovery and success, Carlis’ story is one of passion and relentless pursuit of dreams.
- Where was Carlis Chee born? Carlis Chee was born in 1969 on the Navajo Nation, about 80 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona.
- How did Carlis Chee develop his artistic talent? Carlis Chee’s artistic talent was nurtured by his grandmother, who provided him with paper bags to draw on with pencils and fireplace charcoal, always praising his work and encouraging him to continue drawing.
- Who introduced Carlis Chee to painting? Carlis was introduced to painting by his art teacher, Sid Stewart, in Richfield, Utah.
- What artistic style influenced Carlis Chee at Kearney State? Carlis was influenced by Japanese art during his time at Kearney State, leading to a fusion of this style with his Navajo background.
- Who is R.C. Gorman in Carlis Chee’s story? R.C. Gorman is a renowned Santa Fe artist whom Carlis met while hitchhiking at the age of 16. Carlis received ongoing encouragement from Gorman to pursue his passion for art.
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