By Norman Kolpas
Hear Gary Ernest Smith lauded as one of today’s leading painters of the American West, and you might imagine canvases depicting authentic scenes of cowboys or Indians. Learn that he focuses largely on western landscapes, and you could reasonably expect stirring images of, well, spacious skies and amber waves of grain.
But when you see a recent Smith oil like URBAN CORNFIELD—waving grain aside—your expectations are instantly turned topsy-turvy. The spacious sky has been compressed to a thin strip of cloud-streaked blue across the top of the canvas. The small-town buildings of Burleigh, ID, where he first came upon this scene, are rendered in hard-edged geometric shapes. Countless tiny brushstrokes soften the field into a hazy, impressionistic pattern. The heightened autumnal colors, Smith explains, “give even greater emphasis to the forms.” Every aspect of the painting works together to focus your attention on “the encroachment of urbanization into agriculture.”
Other artists may choose to portray the West’s unspoiled places or hark back to its romantic past. Smith, by contrast, strives to distill surprisingly poignant images of the modern West, finding a new kind of timeless beauty in the countless ways in which humankind shapes nature.
Smith’s intimate connection to his subject matter came at least partially by birthright. He was born in 1942 on his parents’ farm and cattle ranch 24 miles outside of Baker City, OR, the first of Ernest and Hazel Smith’s three sons. They lived a simple life, drawing water from a kitchen hand pump, cooking in a wood stove, heating the house with fireplaces. And every member of the family worked hard, with Gary milking cows every morning at 5:30 before catching the school bus into town and tending to more chores after school and on weekends.
But the youngster carried a lesser burden of chores than his two brothers—“much to their chagrin”—thanks to the “artistic inclination” his parents recognized in him early on. “They gave me time outside of the regular farm work, provided me with the materials I needed, and stood out of the way,” Smith recalls. By second grade, he could produce figure drawings that outshone the teacher’s. In junior high, he says, he had “quite a successful art business, doing landscapes primarily in tempera and watercolor.” The art teacher at Baker High always called on Gary to demonstrate new techniques for the class.
A Baker City nun who gave private art lessons introduced him to oils in his teens. “My first was a little landscape with a home nestled in it, with a light flickering in the window, like a really glorified Thomas Kinkade painting,” Smith chuckles. The lessons, however, didn’t last long. “I soon found out I was better at oils than my teacher,” he says.
After high school, Smith briefly considered training to become an art teacher. “But I wasn’t really sure I wanted to teach,” he says, explaining that he decided instead to “try to be a practicing artist.” He enrolled in the respected art department at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, immersing himself in its classical atelier-style training while also being exposed to more avant-garde teachers, like the expressionist Alexander Basil Derais. “He was an odd sort of guy who would pay attention to the way raindrops fell in a pool,” Smith says with a note of admiration for the late artist. “He was involved in detail, and taught me how being an artist was a way of looking at things, of seeing art in the objects around you.”
In 1968, newly married to Judy, a clarinetist, and with his bachelor’s degree not yet completed, Smith was drafted into the army. During basic training at Fort Lewis, WA, his artistic talent was noted, and instead of joining the infantry possibly headed for Vietnam, he first became an illustrator. Then, having also demonstrated shooting skills honed throughout his ranching boyhood, he was transferred to the Women’s Army Corps base in Anniston, AL, where he taught instinctive “quick kill” jungle shooting. “I broke the record, hitting a bull’s-eye at 300 yards,” he says.
After 18 months of active duty, Smith returned to BYU. He completed his bachelor’s degree in 1970 and a master’s in 1972, while also teaching on the faculty from 1970 to 1973.
During that time, he began to focus more intently on developing his own particular style. He felt especially drawn to American regionalist painters of the early and mid-20th century. “I loved the design qualities and the starkness of Edward Hopper and the direct approach and abstracted realism of Maynard Dixon,” he says, citing just two of several examples. Smith spent as much time as he could studying BYU’s huge collection of Dixon’s works, paying particular attention to “how he took a subject and made it so simple and powerful.”
He also continued to pursue a childhood passion for America’s great cartoonists and comic book artists, starting a sizable collection of original artworks that stretches from around 1900 to works by current greats like Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) and Patrick McDonnell (Mutts), a personal friend. “These guys are artists in their own right,” says Smith. “They’re dealing with composition, story, all the principles of art, and their work is about paring things down to their essence.”
After leaving BYU and settling in the area, Smith set out to forge his own career. “I invented ideas for art projects and brought them to potential clients, saying things like, ‘Okay, you’ve got a new bank. How would you like me to paint a mural?’” Soon he was making a decent living as a professional artist.
As a sense of his own artistic style began to emerge, however, Smith found himself yearning more and more to paint not on walls but on canvases. Around 1980, he says, he gave up $60,000 worth of mural commissions to focus on studio works.
But what to paint? On a trip home to eastern Oregon around that time, he took a stroll through the ranchlands he knew so well. “I began to see the imagery of my boyhood, the sagebrush hills, the simple lifestyle,” he says. And he gained a strong sense of “the hardworking people who had to subdue their surroundings to make a living, not the conquest-of-the-West period or the cowboys-and-Indians period but the next historical stage, the people who cultivated America.”
Rather than portraying specific westerners, though, Smith abstracted their images within his austere farmland settings. These proud-yet-anonymous figures “paid homage to the faceless people who worked the land,” he says. The images struck a chord with viewers, his first 35 works pretty much selling out in Smith’s premiere show in 1982 at BYU. Two years later, he was contacted by Raymond Johnson, who was in the process of buying Scottsdale’s Overland Gallery of Fine Art, which has represented Smith ever since.
Since then, Smith’s subjects have gradually evolved. “I found that the people were becoming smaller and smaller in the landscape,” the artist says. “All of a sudden, around 1994 or 1995, they disappeared, and the images underwent a transition from depicting a historic period to the present day—paintings of cultivated fields where you could see the hand of people on the landscape, but not the people themselves. Those fields and barns make a contemporary statement about the way we farm, how the urban lifestyle encroaches on rural America, as if to say, well, this is where we came from and this is where we’re going.”
Smith’s recent WHEAT AND BALES, almost abstract in its depiction of a solitary farm at harvest time, provides a perfect example of that approach. He saw the scene on a visit home to the Baker City area. “The placement of those bales in the field spoke to me about that kind of lifestyle. It’s labor-intensive work. I used those colors to emphasize the heat of the day, to help recreate a sense of what working in that field is like.”
He started the canvas on the scene as a plein-air work. Doing so, he says, “really sharpens your eye, with the light and shadow and colors changing so quickly, so drastically.” Having captured the essence of the scene, he then finished the painting back in his studio. It’s a 1,400-square-foot space that he built in the mid-1990s adjoining the home that he and Judy—now parents of four grown children and grandparents five times over—share in the little town of Highland, thirty miles south of Salt Lake City.
No longer needing to find his style or prove his talent, Smith has earned numerous accolades for his work, but he feels uncomfortable discussing them. “I appreciate the fact that people give you awards,” he says, “but for my milestones I prefer to look at where my work is collected.” By that measure he is also unquestionably successful, with a list that includes the Phoenix Art Museum, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, and “probably every museum in Utah.” Solo exhibitions have appeared at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center, the San Jose Museum of Art, and the Palm Springs Desert Museum.
Now, at the age of 68, says Smith, “I still feel like I’m 40.” And, indeed, he works like a man far younger than his years, painting almost every day from 8 a.m. until around 5 p.m. “My job is to try to create a good painting every time and to let it melt into a body of work, to say something about who I am and my time, and try to put it down in an iconic way. I would like to leave an icon that might be remembered for its historic and social importance.”
Smith pauses, acknowledging what a tall order producing an icon can be. “You can only do your best work,” he says, “try to do a masterpiece every time, and hope in your career that you get one or two.”
Overland Gallery of Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ; Medicine Man Gallery, Tucson, AZ, and Santa Fe, NM; Trailside Galleries, Jackson Hole, WY; Williams Fine Art, Salt Lake City, UT; Hayden Hays Galleries, Colorado Springs, CO; Authentique Gallery, St. George, UT.
Featured in March 2011.