By Lynn Pyne
Golden, oil, 72 x 96.
The field lies still, a blanket of moist mulch baking in the sun like a giant slab of chocolate brownies. Painter Gary Ernest Smith crouches in the furrows with a camera slung over his shoulder and a sketchbook in his hand, his eyes fixed on clods of dirt and clumps of grass.
It’s the end of the day, and the farm workers have swatted the dirt from their overalls and headed home. With the rumble of heavy machinery gone, only the field remains—serene, silent, and vast.
Smith is completely at home in this barren landscape. “I spent the first 18 years of my life working in the fields,” he says, “plowing, planting, cultivating, and harvesting all kinds of crops—hay, wheat, alfalfa, rye, and potatoes.” Growing up on his family’s cattle ranch and farm in eastern Oregon, Smith dreamed of escaping the severity of rural life and becoming an artist. In retrospect, though, farm life seems idyllic. “Ever since I left home, I’ve lived in the country surrounded by fields because of the sense of peace and order they give me.”
Winter, oil, 72 x 96.
All his life, Smith has carried those images of farm fields in his mind. Now 55 and living in rural Highland, UT, he says, “The images are so ingrained in me that it was only a matter of time before they appeared in my work.” Fields, a new series of 16 large-scale paintings, is scheduled to
tour museums across the country after debuting at the Springville Museum of Art in Springville, UT, and the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo, UT.
Smith’s newest paintings depict barren fields at various times of the year, usually between plantings, without any humans in sight. The landscapes are not romanticized but instead take an intimate look at the cultivated soil. Skies are mere slivers above flat horizons.
Harvested, oil, 72 x 96
“I’ve included fields in my previous paintings of rural America, but I was using them as a backdrop and focusing on the people,” Smith says. “I had been thinking for a long time about taking a different approach, but it wasn’t until three years ago that I began to get the vision of what I wanted from the Fields series: to re-create on canvas the feelings I have when I stand in an open field—the peace, serenity, and palpable vastness of nature—by focusing on the earth itself.
“The only way to do it was to create something so large that it commands your attention and forces you to come to grips with the image,” he explains. The centerpiece of the exhibit, Stubble, measures 6 by 16 feet; the other paintings are 6 by 8 feet each. Their monumental size demanded that Smith alter his painting methods. As in previous works, he used only a palette knife, but he built up the paint on the surface in a more textural manner than usual to create a sense of depth and detail. About 60 large tubes of paint were needed to cover the surface of the 16-foot painting. “I felt almost like I was sculpting those fields, like the paint was part of the earth itself,” Smith says.
Turned, oil, 72 x 96.
“However, the biggest problem I faced was how to take something so simple, so vast—just earth—and use it to create something compelling and interesting. I figured out that I had to work from the feelings I had about fields rather than the reality of them.”
Smith sought inspiration by photographing and sketching fields in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. Ironically, the rich farm lands near Smith’s home in Highland were starting to be gobbled up by development, which weighed on his mind and further convinced him to do the series. He reinvented the photographed scenes on canvas in his studio, making sure the images had such universality that they could exist amost anywhere in the world. “My emphasis was not on the particular locations but on the earth itself, the source of life for all living things,” he says.
Burnt, oil, 72 x 96.
Smith found himself inspired by the intricate details and subtle designs and colors he saw in the fields. Hay bales placed in arbitrary patterns or clumps of grass and earth, mangled into masses of clods and furrows, have inspired him. “Within what seemed to be a simple subject I saw great complexity,” he says. “To paint that, to give a sense of distance and space and feelings, was a real challenge.”
The subtle, almost monochromatic colors in the broad expanses of the fields are a marked departure from the warm, sunlit colors of Smith’s more familiar paintings, which have earned him a reputation as a skilled and bold colorist [swa mar 91].
When viewed at close range, small areas of the paintings are totally abstract with a lively array of colors. Seen from a distance, the paintings are fairly monochromatic, and the patterns in the vast fields of color make them appear minimalistic.
“I guess I do consider myself to be a minimalist painter of sorts,” Smith says. “I try to reduce things to their essence. I’ve done that even with the people I paint—I try to portray them as simple and straightforward as possible.”
Smith plans to continue painting scenes of rural American life, although he believes the new directions he has explored in the Fields series have given him a fresh way of approaching those subjects. He is also experimenting with ideas for new field paintings. “They may even have a few people in them here and there,” he says.
Yet Smith explains that the Fields paintings do show the presence of man and society—but without using figures. “Often, in the process of cultivating or planting, man inflicts his own design upon the land,” says Smith. “It may be subtle, like the simple lines and patterns that a plow creates as it tills a field. Or it might be the contrast in texture and color between a dry, stubbled field and wet earth exposed by the plow. I want to draw attention to the way man works the land so that others can see the inherent beauty of the process.”
Photos courtesy the artist and Overland Gallery of Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ.
Featured in February 1998