By Bonnie Gangelhoff
The road to Sallie K. Smith’s home is a scenic drive, full of curvy switchbacks leading higher and higher into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains above Boulder, CO. It’s picture-postcard terrain, complete with wooden fences lining the road and horses grazing in pretty pastures. The setting couldn’t be more perfect inspiration for a landscape painter like Smith. And once inside her residence and studio, panoramic views offer even more artistic food for thought. “Straight ahead is the Continental Divide,” she says, pointing toward the horizon. Off in the distance a spot of sun highlights snowcapped peaks, and in the foreground the Indian Peaks Wilderness stretches as far as the eye can see. Bears and foxes are regular visitors, Smith says.
In this idyllic environment, Smith creates the oils of mountains and forests for which she has recently become known. She took up painting later in life, after her daughter had graduated from college, but as anyone who has followed her career can testify, she has advanced rapidly. It was just six years ago that she signed up for an intense 12-month-long workshop with Colorado landscape painter Jake Gaedtke. Since then she has been juried into some of the state’s top shows, including the annual Governor’s Invitational Art Show and Sale, which she was preparing for as this story was going to press. She is also a signature member of the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters and is a regular participant in their shows.
In 2005, even though Smith had only been painting full time for barely a year, gallery owner Mary Williams knew she wanted to represent her. “I was attracted to Sallie’s use of color, and I felt her paintings would appeal to a young market,” says Williams, who owns Mary William Fine Arts in Boulder. “Sallie’s evolved at warp speed, going from an emerging to an established artist. I consider myself lucky to have her in the gallery.”
While her arrival on the art scene seems faster than most, Smith points out that she has been involved in art to some degree her whole life. Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, OH, she came from an artistic family. Both her mother and her aunt were painters, and their works graced the walls of her home. However, as Smith watched the two sisters struggle to get their works into juried shows, deal with the business side of art careers, and try to make a living, she remembers thinking, “I’m not going to do that with my life.”
Smith knew what she didn’t want to do; she also knew the one thing she truly loved—the West. Family vacations were usually built around visiting her aunt and uncle, who at various times made their home New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado. As a young girl, Smith fell in love with hiking, and she relished the beauty of national treasures like Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons. “The West was rugged and vast and colorful,” she recalls. “The first time I saw the Kawunechee Valley on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park, I thought we had entered the Garden of Eden.”
Upon returning home to Ohio, she remembers the state seemed “gray and plain.” She was so smitten with the West that as a teenager she composed a four-page letter to her parents begging them to move to Colorado. A year later, in 1969, they actually agreed, and the family packed their bags for the Denver area. “I think threatening to eat only rice for the rest of my life put them over the top,” she jokes, adding that her parents’ hearts belonged to the West, too. Since then Smith has always lived close to the Rockies.
Long before she began painting, she was involved in creative pursuits such as jewelry design and silversmithing. Her interest in painting blossomed as she became a regular visitor to museums and galleries. “I always thought I would be a collector,” she says. Today, in fact, she and her husband, Jim, are collectors. Works by Gaedtke, Josh Elliott, John Potter, and other painters of the West hang throughout their home.
Inside her cozy studio, perched on the second floor, one of the first things that catches the eye is a large rack of plein-air studies—many aflame with bright yellow aspen trees. While Smith paints in all seasons, she favors fall and summer because she loves the energy of working with intense color, she says.
On this particular day, her easel holds a painting titled IN SEARCH OF GOLD, a scene of aspen trees inspired by a road leading to the small town of St. Elmo in Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. She points out that in addition to the obvious reference to the color of the leaves, gold also refers to the fact that the road goes to an historic gold mine. The scene also has a sentimental meaning: It’s where she and Jim took their first camping trip—on the July 4th weekend of the country’s bicentennial.
Like many of the places she paints, Smith has hiked there. Talk to her for any length of time, and you soon discover that if not painting, she would, in fact, be hiking. She describes her relationship to nature as “intimate” and has logged thousands of miles forging through forests and over mountaintops. “I’ve been on every trail in Rocky Mountain National Park,” she says. “I love nothing more than spending time in the mountains, looking at things like how light bounces off grass and how clouds form.”
To understand Smith’s work, it’s important to know that this love of the outdoors is a major influence on her artistic vision. When she views a landscape or contemplates a composition, she sees it from her own particular vantage point. “My perspective is rarely a distant or an aerial one. I see everything from a hiker’s perspective,” Smith says. “I can always imagine myself in a scene, wondering what is around the bend.” For her, a painting is successful if it prompts the viewer to think, “Wow. Isn’t that beautiful? I want to be there.” As one collector described the appeal of Smith’s works: “They are an invitation to come and follow the path to see where it goes. The paintings stimulate your curiosity about what lies ahead.”
Interestingly, Smith says, when she first started painting, she envisioned that her style would evolve into a looser, more impressionistic style than what she is known for today. “But that is not what keeps coming out of me,” she says. “I have given up fighting it. After all these years and miles of hiking, I am just too enamored to ignore the details.”
While she talks, she pulls out a photo of a forest, reference for a future painting, and points to a small splotch of red. On closer inspection, one sees they are berries. “I get excited about such things, and I just have to put them in my paintings,” she explains enthusiastically. The viewer of a Smith painting can expect to see some of the smaller traces of nature, such as a cluster of berries or the “eyes” of an aspen tree.
It is precisely such things that appeal to her collectors. Carol and Doug Ford own 10 paintings by Smith, including one titled ASPEN GIANTS. “When I look at the scars on the aspen trees, I think of the scars we get from life. And yet these aspens are also tall, strong, and living proof of hope,” Carol Ford says. Ford explains that she is a caregiver for her husband, who has Parkinson’s disease, and that the couple finds ASPEN GIANTS and other works by Smith to be calming, healing, and renewing. “Her paintings take us to a place outside of our daily struggles,” says Ford.
While Smith’s paintings offer such gifts to these collectors, the artist also notes that art has transformed her own life. “I have always been a bit of an introvert. I am more outgoing now, and I find it easier to engage people,” Smith says. “It’s funny. The more I pour my soul into my paintings, the more comfortable I become in my own skin.”
Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Philinda Gallery, Edwards, CO; Mary Williams Fine Arts, Boulder, CO.
Colors of the Night group show, Saks Galleries, February 5-27.
Governor’s Invitational Art Show and Sale, Loveland Museum/Gallery, Loveland, CO, April 25-May 30.
Featured in February 2010