An internationally renowned painter and printmaker of Salish, French-Cree, and Shoshone heritage, Smith was born in 1940 in St. Ignatius, Montana, and raised on the Flathead Reservation. She earned a BA in Art Education from Framingham State College, Massachusetts, and an MFA from the University of New Mexico. Smith has been awarded three Honorary Doctorates from Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts and Massachusetts College of Art.
Smith has been creating complicated abstract paintings and lithographs since the 1970s. She employs a wide variety of media, working in painting, printmaking and richly textured mixed media pieces. Such images and collage elements as commercial slogans, sign-like petroglyphs, rough drawing, and the inclusion and layering of text are unusually intersected into a complex vision created out of the artist’s personal experience. Her works contain strong, insistent sociopolitical commentary that speaks to past and present cultural appropriation and abuse, while identifying the continued significance of the Native American peoples. Inspired by the formal innovations of such artists as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as traditional American Indian art, Smith sees herself as "a harbinger, a mediator and a bridge builder. My art, my life experience, and my tribal ties are totally enmeshed. I go from one community with messages to the other, and I try to enlighten people."
In addition to lecturing at over 185 universities, museums and conferences around the world, Smith has also shown her work in more than 90 solo exhibitions. Her work has been reviewed by The New York Times, ArtNews, Art in America, Art Forum, The New Art Examiner, among many other notable publications. She has curated numerous Native American exhibitions and serves as an activist and spokesperson for contemporary Native art. She is in many private and public international collections, most notably: The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; The Museum of Mankind, Vienna, Austria; The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; The Museum of Modern Art, Quito, Ecuador; and The Museum of Modern Art, NY.
Perhaps the most acclaimed Native American female artist of the late twentieth century, Smith has received the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters Grant, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for the Arts, the College Art Association’s Committee on Women in the Arts Award, the 2005 New Mexico Governor’s Outstanding New Mexico Woman’s Award, and the 2005 New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (Allan Houser Award). In 2012, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum will present a retrospective of Smith’s paintings and works on paper to be exhibited as part of the museum’s internationally recognized “Living Artists of Distinction” series.