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Lowell Ellsworth Smith: My Theology of Painting

May 27, 2016 - July 9, 2017


On May 27, 2016 the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum opened the exhibition Lowell Ellsworth Smith: My Theology of Painting. This new exhibition is drawn from the Museum's permanent collection featuring 24 watercolor studies by award-winning artist Lowell Ellsworth Smith. Born in Canton, Ohio, in 1924, and educated at the University of Miami-Ohio, Ellsworth worked many years as a commercial illustrator, but was well known as a Western landscape watercolorist. He died in 2008. The exhibition, funded through the A. Keith Brodkin Contemporary Western Artists Project, is on view in the National Cowboy Museum's Atherton Alcove through July 9, 2017. (right: Lowell Ellsworth Smith painting on location in Mexico, ca. 1983. RC2004.205.238. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.)

The exhibition explores the award-winning artist's deeply personal artistic interpretations concerning his varied subject matter, often including town-scapes, churches, and other public spaces where society gathered. The watercolor and pencil studies were a 2004 gift to the Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center at the National Cowboy Museum from the artist. The exhibition includes photographs, quotes, and personal observations made throughout Smith's eminent career.

Highlights from the exhibition include:

24 watercolor portrait and landscape studies inspired by the American West and Mexico.
The 1983 Prix de West Award winning painting: Church Façade, Plaza del Oriente.
An intimate glimpse of Smith's approach to art and life.

During an interview in 1982, Smith said, "I try to be honest in painting the West. I'm painting my emotional response to it. I try to simplify it and get down to the real essence of it." Smith's approach earned him a Prix de West Purchase Award the following year when the Museum purchased Church Façade, Plaza del Oriente, for its permanent collection in 1983. Art collectors, including former Texas governor John Connally and oilman T. Boone Pickens, have also purchased his paintings. 

"He lived for the moment and painted what he saw, and, as importantly, what he felt, leaving something of himself in each of his works," said Kimberly Roblin, Curator of Archival and Photographic Collections and the Smith exhibitions curator at the National Cowboy Museum. "I hope that visitors will learn to recognize this gifted artist."


Wall text from the exhibition

Lowell Ellsworth Smith: My Theology of Painting
Ohio watercolorist and Prix de West winner, Lowell Ellsworth Smith (1924-2008), once referenced his theology of painting during an interview. Short but meaningful, the phrase summarized his relationship with art. It was more than a hobby or even a career. It was the lens through which he saw and experienced the world.
For Smith, it began at birth. His artistic father and musically talented mother encouraged young Lowell and his sister in their creative expression and experimentation. Art was fostered, not fettered in the Smith household and it became a constant in his life. At Ohio's Miami College, he dedicated six days a week to its pursuit. During World War II he sketched fellow soldiers and filled notebooks with pencil and practice. After his return and graduation, he developed commercial art for advertisements and magazines. No matter the setting or the time in his life -- art was present and often a driving force.
Despite establishing a successful watercolor career, he continued his artistic studies. He also taught classes to the inspired and aspiring, imparting his methodology that focused on technique and emotion. Through his sketches and observations, we explore this personal process and approach. He lived for the moment and painted what he saw and as importantly, what he felt, leaving something of himself in each of his works.

Quote from Lowell Ellsworth Smith

Lowell Ellsworth Smith: Light Washed Reflections" by Susan D. Whelan. Southwest Art. February 1983.
"Creating fine art, however, goes beyond the surface qualities of technique. That creative well deep within, where emotion and sensitivity color our daily lives, must be nurtured and encouraged to flow freely. When we can respond with gusto to a moment in time, the potential for producing fine art is at its best. At this point, technique becomes secondary to what we are trying to say as artists."

For more information on the Lowell Ellsworth Smith Collection at the Dickinson Research Center, please visit National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's webpage The Art & Life of Lowell Ellsworth Smith. This page has images of Smith's artwork, plus photos of Smith and his family. Another page, Guide to the Lowell Ellsworth Smith Papers, has a biography of the artist and other information.


(above: Lowell Ellsworth Smith, Adobe Church,watercolor and pencil on paper. RC2004.205.476. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.)


(above: Lowell Ellsworth Smith: My Theology of Painting on exhibit at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 2016.)


About the Dickinson Research Center

The Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center serves as the library and archives of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Through education, exhibition, research and publications, it is dedicated to preserving and exploring both the historic and contemporary facets of the West. The collections span centuries and include over 42,000 books; 700,000 photographs; dime novels, manuscripts, maps, film posters, movies and more. Not limited to the old West, it also covers the modern authors, directors, and artists inspired by it.


About the A. Keith Brodkin Contemporary Western Artists Project

An avid western art collector, Alan Keith Brodkin (1935-1998) was chairman and chief executive of Massachusetts Financial Services Management when he died in February 1998. An endowment was created in his honor by his wife Judith A. Brodkin, Jeffrey L. Shames, John Davenport, and the A. Keith Brodkin Estate.

The Brodkin Project facilitates the collection, preservation, and accessibility of primary resources that reflect an artist's life and career. These include personal papers, drawings, paintings, studio ephemera, photographs, and libraries. In addition, the Dickinson Research Center also acquires oral histories and interviews. Together the resources document and preserve the artist's career for future exhibitions, publications, and educational opportunities.

Supported by the Brodkin Project, the Museum organizes a new exhibition on contemporary western art each year that draws from the Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center collections.

Resource Library editor's note

RL readers may also enjoy:

A two-minute online video titled "Lowel Ellsworth Smith: My Theology of Painting - Explore the West" was posted by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum on June 7, 2016. See <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDo84IO03DE>.

For definitions of wall panels and checklists, please see Definitions in Museums Explained.

All images courtesy of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

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