Oil Painters of America | Carrying on a Legacy

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Traditional painter Shirl Smithson was a true believer. She believed that the public needed to know more about—and to better appreciate—the modern-day masters of representational oil painting. So when she started the Oil Painters of America (OPA) in 1991, it was the realization of a dream. “She founded it all by herself. She contacted artists she felt were masters—artists like Howard Terpning, Clyde Aspevig, and Harley Brown—and asked them to add their names to the organization,” says Neil Patterson, the president of OPA. Patterson calls Smithson, who died in 1999, a “real firecracker. You couldn’t discourage her,” he explains. “She was so dedicated to this mission that nothing would stop her.”

Patterson was among the 200 artists who participated in the first OPA show, which was held in April 1992 at Prince Gallery in Chicago. Smithson’s mission to focus attention on the lasting value of traditional representational oil painting lives on as the organization continues to grow in reputation and respect. Today, it boasts 3,200 artists in a three-tiered membership structure: master signature members, signature members, and associate members.

Nearly 20 years ago when Smithson founded OPA, she was concerned that American colleges and universities were rarely including courses in representational oil painting in their curricula. It was a period when avant-garde artists ruled the day. She also felt that many museums were excluding representational oil painters from exhibitions, instead favoring more abstract works. “I don’t think she had any idea that Oil Painters of America would become such a national force,” says Kathryn Beligratis, OPA’s executive director.

This year the prestigious organization presents its 19th annual National Juried Exhibition of Traditional Oils at Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ. Two hundred paintings are on view (juried down from 2,500 submissions). A particularly strong contingent of master signature members is represented, including three new ones: Kenn Backhaus, Warren Chang, and Michael Mao.

A stimulating array of events leads up to the show’s opening night, which takes place on Friday, April 30, with an artists’ reception, the sale, and the awards ceremony. From April 21 to 28, for example, the Scottsdale Artists’ School and Legacy Gallery team up to host a week-long plein-air painting event featuring OPA artists that culminates in a show and sale of the landscapes. On Friday morning, figurative painter Nancy Seamons Crookston offers a three-hour painting demonstration. Crookston, this year’s juror of awards, is known for scenes that evoke the warmth of family and the peacefulness of an earlier era.

Also on the schedule that day is a panel discussion for artists titled How to Prepare a Winning Portfolio, with speakers Scott Jones of Legacy Gallery, Beth Lauterbach of Scottsdale Fine Art, and Scott Eubanks of Gallery Russia. Attendees are also invited to an interview with this year’s “distinguished artist,” master signature member Harley Brown, who discusses his legendary career in fine art.

On Saturday there are yet more events. Artists Jeffrey Watts, Carol Swinney, Michael Mao (at right), and Doug Higgins give painting demonstrations. Kristen Thies, author of Wisdom and the Dreamer: Achieving Fulfillment in the Arts, presents a talk addressing two questions that often plague artists—how to make a living and how to make a life.

According to OPA president Patterson, this year’s national show (there are also two regional juried exhibitions each year) will award more than $100,000 in prizes. Among the many changes the organization has seen since its founding, he notes, is the fact that museums are far more open to hosting exhibitions with OPA artists. “They are now recognizing OPA. People are becoming educated about representational art, and we have a great following,” Patterson says. “Galleries are clamoring to host our shows. They’re coming to us while it used to be we had to talk them into having shows.” Next year the organization celebrates its 20th anniversary, and Devon Galleries in Coeur d’Alene, ID, is already scheduled to host the national exhibition.

The show at Legacy Gallery remains on view through May 30. For more information: contact OPA at 815.356.5987 or www.oilpaintersofamerica.com, or Legacy Gallery at 480.945.1113 or www.legacygallery.com.

Featured in May 2010