Dubuque Museum of Art
8/26/04 RL note: At the time of publishing of this article the Museum had a previous URL which was misused by a third party and caused the Museum to obtain the present Web address. We have substituted the current URL at the Museum's request.
"Fields", by Utah artist Gary Ernest Smith will be exhibited at the Dubuque Museum of Art through October 20, 2001.
Gary Ernest Smith creates large-scale mural type paintings that reflect the patterns and textures of agricultural environments. Smith is an artist that interprets characteristics of Regionalism.
The Museum will also provide a short eleven minute film that illustrates the artists' techniques of painting and shows him while working in his studio.
The opening reception will be Friday, September 7, from 5:30 - 7:30 at the Museum. Gary Ernest Smith will be attending and speaking informally to guests. He will be giving a formal gallery talk on Saturday, September 8 at 10:30 a.m. with a book signing to follow.
The "Fields" exhibit at the Dubuque Museum of Art is organized by the Overland Gallery of Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ, Ray Johnson, owner.
For the benefit of our readers, following is the second chapter from the 1999 book by Donald J. Hagerty titled "Holding Ground: the Art of Gary Ernest Smith," (164 pages, ISBN 0-87358-745-6, published by Northland Publishing, Flagstaff, AZ). The chapter is titled "Foundations of Art and Life," and is excerpted with permission of the copyright holder, Overland Gallery of Fine Art, Bloomington, MN. The images are from the book and are also included in the "Fields" exhibit at the Dubuque Museum of Art.
Foundations of Art and Life
Donald J. Hagerty
Smith's home lies at the base of the Wasatch Range in the community of Highland, Utah. The Bull River, which tumbles out of the nearby mountains, flows past his house, then meanders southwest to empty into Utah Lake. To the southeast a few miles looms 12,000 foot-high Mount Timpanogos, graced with sheer cliffs and jagged edges. A highway nearby leads into American Fork Canyon and the narrow, twisting mountain road to Robert Redford's Sundance resort.
Nestled on two acres astride the lush riparian habitat of the Bull River, Smith and his family have called this place home since 1978. Box elder, chokecherry, Gambol oak, wild plum, and hawthorn crowd around the house with chaotic growth. Songbirds chat among the trees while quail strut along the driveway. Four levels, starting with Smith's studio, then bedrooms, an office, a music room, and finally, the kitchen, dining room, and family room, descend down a hillside from the street. Where the house ends, carefully tended flower and vegetable gardens march toward the river. Various rooms throughout the house offer glimpses of Smith's paintings, along with works by other artists such as Maynard Dixon. One room is crammed with an impressive collection of early cartoon art: Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Prince Valiant, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Red Ryder, and others. Often, the sound of classical music fills the house, when Smith's wife, Judy, first clarinetist with the Utah Valley Symphony, practices in the music room. (left: Harvested, 1996, 72 x 96 inches)
On the uppermost level is Smith's large light-drenched studio, stripped-down, clean, functional, and orderly. "The Thinking Place," he calls it. With white walls and maple floor, the studio has both north- and west-facing light from windows and three skylights. Two leather sofas face each other in a nook. In the opposite corner is Smith's easel and painting materials. Perhaps as many as a dozen paintings -- mostly landscapes -- some finished, others in various stages of work, are hung on the walls. Stacked against one wall are several of his large paintings of agricultural fields. A painted bronze of Superman, the model for a large sculpture commissioned by Metropolis, Illinois, sits on a table, ready, it seems, to leap into the air.
Although in his mid-fifties, Smith appears youthful and vigorous as he works on a painting. Dressed in jeans, a loose, short-sleeved shirt, and loafers, Smith is not quite six feet tall, has a slender build, salt-and-pepper hair, a well-trimmed mustache, and eyes the color of blue denim. There is an air of immediate friendliness and calm reasonableness about him as he talks about the image in front of him. Sometimes the serious face breaks into a quiet smile as he gazes out of a studio window as if to reaffirm the rural landscape around his home.
East of Oregon's Cascade Mountains, the land empties out: towns are compact, the intervals between them long, and the landscape is marked by far-flung distance. In the Snake River-Columbia Plateau of northeastern Oregon's high desert country, enclosed valleys burrow here and there. Baker City lies in one of them. Named in 1863 for Edward D. Baker, a friend of Abraham Lincoln who was killed in one of the Civil War's early battles, the town arose when gold was discovered in the vicinity. The gold never amounted to much, but when the Oregon Short Line Railroad came through in the early 1880s, Baker City became the center of flourishing ranch, farm, and lumber enterprises.
Here Garold Ernest Smith was born June 29, 1942, the first son of Ernest and Hazel Smith, who came to Baker County in 1937. Two other sons, Dallas and Larry, followed at three-year intervals. The family home was a large ranch some twenty-five miles northeast of Baker City. Located in Big Creek Valley, tucked in the foothills of the Wallowa Mountains, the ranch was bought by Smith's grandfather in 1916 when he came from the Willamette Valley, one of several in the vicinity he eventually obtained for his five daughters and their husbands. To the east rise the Wallowa Mountains, spiritual homeland of the Nez Perce. Westward lay the pine-covered outlines of the Blue Mountains. Rolling sagebrush-covered hills stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see. Adjacent to the ranch was Pondosa, a lumber town that began in 1927 and closed in 1957, the name adapted from the Ponderosa pine that flourishes in the high mountains.
During World War II, Smith's father worked at the lumber mill making ammunition boxes for the army. At the war's conclusion he and his wife assumed the responsibility for the family ranch. The property sprawled over 6,000 acres with another 100,000 acres, known as the Big Creek allotment, leased from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Smith still remembers the work -- stacking hay; growing wheat, alfalfa, and barley; milking cows; irrigating; feeding chickens -- hard, full days. Over five hundred head of cattle roamed over the ranch, and Smith spent countless hours in the saddle, becoming an accomplished horseman. During early winters, tracks had to be pushed through the snow in the mountains for the cattle to move down into the valleys, an effort which often entailed long days in northeastern Oregon's sub-zero temperatures. These impressions of a limitless landscape, the work ethic of family and neighbors, and the closeness of people to the earth had a profound impact on young Smith, memories he still retains.
Early in life, Smith knew he wanted to become an artist, and he began to express himself with visual art at a young age. His parents still retain drawings done when he was three years old. Whenever time from ranch chores allowed, he drew animals, farm scenes, and the landscape. His first introduction to art was cartoons in the local newspaper, such as Alley Oop, Red Ryder, and Freckles and His Friends. Sunday mornings brought a section of comics that he would peruse for hours. "I liked the concept of sequential art and telling a story:' Smith recalls. Eventually he started to design his own comic books and to draw Western scenes.
Smith's parents realized he possessed a special gift and whenever possible encouraged his artistic efforts. His mother enrolled him in a private art school in Baker City before high school, hut her son's talent had already surpassed the instructor's. By the time he began high school, Smith had earned a local reputation as an artist, particularly with watercolor, securing commissions for paintings of landscapes and portraits. In Baker High School, his self-taught ability furthered the notoriety and added to his confidence. While still a teenager, Smith discovered an advertisement from the Famous Artists correspondence art course in an issue of The Saturday Evening Post, the head of a girl with the caption, "Draw Me." He did, then submitted the image for consideration. Shortly thereafter a representative from the correspondence school drove out to the ranch and enrolled him. Driven by his passionate interest in art, Smith completed a cartoon course in one year, and credits this experience with furthering his interest in pursuing an art career.
In 1957, and again in 1958, Smith spent the summers with his great-aunt in Lincoln City on the Oregon coast. She taught art courses and managed a gallery that exhibited the work of local and regional artists, and often invited them to present lectures. One artist was Robert Banister, head of the public school art programs in Riverside, California. A noted watercolorist, at one time head of the U.S. Army arts and crafts program, Banister helped mentor Smith. Eventually, Banister told Smith that he would hire Smith to teach in California if he would attend college and obtain an art degree.
Smith worked on the family ranch for two years after graduating from Baker High School in 1960. Through an agreement with his father, he spent a half-day on chores, then the other half drawing and painting. In 1963 he entered Eastern Oregon College, located fifty miles north in LaGrande. While Smith attended classes, he lived in Baker City, commuting the hundred-mile round-trip each day with his close friend, David Hunt. Most evenings he worked in a Baker City Chevrolet garage.
After Hunt transferred to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, he urged Smith to follow. In 1964 Smith enrolled in the College of Fine Arts at the university as an art major, his goal a BFA. His art abilities, particularly drawing, well above average for an undergraduate, prompted several instructors to select him as an assistant in their classes. After six months, Smith started to teach his own classes through a teaching assistantship.
Although this was the first time he encountered competition, Smith found Brigham Young University's environment supportive of his interests. While he considered himself technically proficient, he knew he needed to address the historical foundations of art. Consequently, Smith immersed himself in the study of various art movements, from symbolism and abstract expressionism to impressionism, and of how artists conceived their work. "I went through every style and trend because I wanted to understand and incorporate certain aspects into my own work," he says. Through his years at Brigham Young University, he ate, slept, and dreamed art, and still retains the passion. The Fauve painters, especially Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, were strong influences. Smith, first working in acrylic, then oil, progressed through a series of styles in his painting, from realism to abstraction, then back to realism.
These attempts helped establish the roots of Smith's current art and his beginnings as a colorist. "I did them all, and experienced them as a part of my growing phase: he says. "I also realized," he continues, "the greatest advantage an artist has is not in school or in the system of teaching, but in his colleagues." This belief was inspired by rigorous critiques from his fellow students, many of whom became close friends as well as noted artists in their own right.
In December 1967, Smith married Judy Asay, a music student and clarinetist in the University Symphony. Six months later, on the verge of graduation, he found himself drafted at the height of the Vietnam War and sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, for basic training. Afterwards, he received orders to report to Fort McClellan, Alabama. For over a year, Smith taught noncommissioned officers English and training management. Another course he led was Quick Kill, an instinctive shooting program that teaches one to shoot when there is no time to aim. Smith became so proficient that he could knock an aspirin out of the air with a BB gun.
With six months left on his tour of duty, Smith received orders for Vietnam, but they were changed the next day, and he found himself fin Korea, assigned to the Eighth Army Support Depot. While there, he produced a large quantity of art, including studies of military life such as fellow soldiers and posts, some of it part of the Army's illustration program.
Smith learned an important lesson while in Korea that he feels has helped his technical skills. He fashioned his own sketchbooks from surplus military paper, and started drawing with a ball-point pen. Smith believed that learning to draw with a ball-point and not relying on the crutch of an eraser to make changes would better train his eye. He carried the sketchbooks everywhere and filled them with candid, on-the-spot portraits of military places and people. Now, whenever Smith searches for inspiration in the field, a sketchbook is close at hand.
When Smith received his discharge from the Army in 1970, he returned to Brigham Young University to complete his degree. Judy was pregnant when he left for Korea, and their first child, Andrea, was born in 1969. Three other children followed: Christopher in 1972, Nathan in 1975, and Julia in 1979. Smith quickly completed the remaining requirements for the BFA in late 1970, then decided to pursue graduate work, his goal a teaching career at a college or university. Besides teaching several undergraduate courses in the early 1970s, he was appointed director of the university's art gallery.
By 1971, Smith's art embraced not only landscapes and figurative work, including a series of anxious-looking self-portraits, but also metaphysical, introverted images, as he continued to explore his personal style. That year he began showing some of this work at the Weixler Gallery in Salt Lake City. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Smith explored the art forms of ancient Egypt, which led him to an increased use of dynamic symmetry -- a mathematical system of composition based on the relationship of the diagonal to the side of a rectangle -- and symbol in his paintings. At one point, he even used a coded symbolic alphabet on his canvases as an explanation of the image's enigmatic meanings.
Smith's intense fascination with art history led him further into studies on impressionism, expressionism, the Fauvists, color symbolists, even surrealism. Artists like Piero della Francesca, Emil Nolde, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, Stanley Spencer, Paul Gauguin, and above all, Maynard Dixon, helped influence the gradual evolution of simple, direct statements in his paintings. When he saw an exhibition of Dixon's work at Brigham Young University, Smith was intrigued with how this artist captured the essence of an image in a simplified, reductive manner. The use of bold color and minimal shapes by Dixon and these other artists intrigued him and his work moved further toward a more concrete use of form and color, anchored by an abstract realism.
In 1972, the New York artist Joseph Hirsch, invited to Brigham Young University for a series of teaching workshops, praised Smith's technical skills but also urged him to consider what direction he should take with his art. Smith, who had thought he might relocate to New York or another major art center, pondered Hirsch's advice. In effect, Hirsch told Smith to be true to what he believed in, and not be swayed by the art marketplace. (left: Growth, 1996, 72 x 96 inches)
Smith decided that his gallery contacts and commissions would allow him to pursue his own interests, so he left Brigham Young University in 1973 and embarked on the path of an independent artist. "We struggled in the beginning with an income of two to three thousand dollars a year, but we lived in a small rented house in the country, which helped, and our needs were not great:" he says.
From 1973 through 1982, Smith worked on paintings as well as mural commissions. During this period he often explored commercial buildings for their mural possibilities, or talked to local architects about potential sites. After his research was completed, he would approach the owners with a proposal for a mural. Most of the mural projects dealt with Mormon history and historical events in Utah. One of his first commissions was to create thirty panels, each of them twenty by twenty-five feet, for a recreational center in Upland, California. Working twelve to fourteen hours a day for three months, Smith used a combination of brush and spray gun to create the panels, incorporating specific themes drawn from Western history such as outlaws, Indians, frontier towns, and the desert.
Many of Smith's historical murals were destined for banks in and around Salt Lake City, such as American Fork Bank, Copper State Bank, Deseret Bank, Murray First Thrift, Brighton State Bank, and the Dixie State Bank in St. George, Utah. The murals were based on ideas prompted by images in early photographs and were done using imaginative colors that Smith felt expressed those earlier times. "Old photographs were important," he says, "but they failed to show the color and feel of the early era. While the paintings are historically accurate, I wanted to convey a cultural and emotional point of view in these murals:" Ultimately, Smith completed fifteen significant murals between 1973 and 1982.
By 1974, Smith had moved to Alpine, Utah, and with several artist friends, established an artists cooperative. Among his projects at that time were six large-scale paintings detailing important events in Mormon pioneer life in and around Navuoo, Illinois, commissioned by a group of Salt Lake City businessmen. These took eight months to complete. A more unusual project involved the painting of a four-by-eight-foot canvas showing Salt Lake Valley as it might have appeared in 1847, background for a film about Brigham Young. Smith finished the painting at his studio in two and a half weeks.
During 1977, Smith experienced a severe illness -- which he suspected might be paint poisoning -- causing a serious allergic reaction and severely curtailing his painting that year. After his recovery the following year, he and his family moved to Highland, Utah, and started construction on their present home. Along with several other artists Smith worked to establish the North Mountain Artists Cooperative as a nonprofit, loosely knit art community scattered along the Bull River. Smith and the others -- painters, sculptors, graphic designers -- each purchased two acres and constructed contemporary-style homes along the wooded stream. Serving as his own contractor, Smith built his house from the foundation up, finally completing it in 1979.
While he now considered himself successful as an artist, Smith nonetheless pondered his future. After almost a decade of commissioned work, he decided to follow another trail. "Something inside me was screaming to get out," Smith recalls. After lengthy reflection and discussions with Judy, he embarked on an exploration of his historical roots. He canceled most of his present and future commissions and secured a second mortgage on his home. Then, drawn by the call of half-buried perceptions and emotions, he returned to Baker City, Oregon, for several weeks.
There he roamed the familiar sagebrush-covered hills during the days, then in the evenings pored through old family photograph albums and talked with his parents about memories. The feel of hot summers and cold winters, the weathered faces and callused hands of people who tilled and tended the earth, sweat and dust, the seasonal rhythms of a demanding land confronted him. "Somehow I saw myself trying to capture all of that," Smith recalls. "Perhaps it was nostalgia, or the dignity of the lifestyle," he reflects, "yet there was an intuitive response to what I saw and remembered."
When Smith returned to Utah, he started painting eight to fourteen hours a day, six days a week. The emotional images from his boyhood Oregon emerged on canvas as artistic statements encompassing a style and subject uniquely his own. The subject matter centered around the private life, and the order, in moments of deep-rooted habit and intimacy drawn from a nurturing land, the benchmarks of rural life. "When I was young, my father told me a good artist could draw anything without looking at it," Smith recalls. "So, from the time I was very young I have been visually memorizing how these things were. Now I began to use those mental sketches to portray images from a certain viewpoint and time, impressions of the past played against present-day reality."
During the time Smith was pondering the visions in his mind, he was offered a commission from Red Ryder Enterprises in Tampa, Florida, to resurrect for syndication the Western comic heroes from the 1940s, Red Ryder and Little Beaver. Driven by his love for the characters, he finished an illustrated story in six weeks and submitted it to the contractor. Pleased, they forwarded the drawings to King Features in New York. But King Features informed Smith that the Red Ryder project had been terminated. "The timing was off," Smith reflects, since public interest in space adventures had overtaken western adventure stories. He considered this development rather fortuitous, though, for it allowed him to concentrate on his painting.
After he returned from Baker City, Smith continued to explore the string of memories from his rural past, formulating ideas in his mind for images he would create in the future. In 1981 he received a commission from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for travel to Israel and the Middle East to find subjects for historical paintings, followed by an extended tour of Europe to visit museums and study art. But throughout these travels, ever since the 1979 visit to Oregon, shadowy images in his mind confronted his esthetic senses.
Those images finally revealed themselves, their inspiration wide and varied: a gesture, the way a shadow strikes a face, an image in an old family photograph, or the memory of a past experience. They emerged in 1983 when Smith created the precursors to what became known as the "Solitary Man" series, symbols of rural farmers and ranchers, memories extracted from the historical past and from his own experiences. Leonardo da Vinci once declared, "Every man paints himself." Smith took his own introspective thoughts, added the recollections of rural life, and transformed them into personal visions executed with paint.
With his sketchbook in hand, Smith started to document what he had seen and remembered. His paintings stressed an emphasis on bold shapes and expressive colors, and a switch to the palette knife brought out their power. Paintings of ranch hands, pumpkin farmers, and others characteristic of agrarian life illustrated a generation of people, and their spirit of frugality, hard work, responsibility, individual reliance, and dignity. Some of the first paintings were loose, impressionistic, their subjects drawn through the imprecise lens of history. But the Solitary Man paintings that followed are a radical departure. More contemporary in execution, the figures in them are big-boned, muscular, and marked with a geometric severity of line and form, their shadowed faces lending mystery and poignancy. An abstract, dreamlike quality resides in them, the formal, distanced figures symbolic participants in Smith's vision of a rural Eden.
Smith's paintings of rural culture proved compelling, for when he held a special exhibition of them at Brigham Young University in 1983, all sixty works in the show sold. Other exhibitions of the new paintings included one with a group of leading Utah painters at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum in Logan, Utah. Perhaps the year's most significant event was when Ray E. Johnson, the owner of Overland Gallery of Fine Art in Bloomington, Minnesota, and Scottsdale, Arizona, several Wooden Bird Gallery locations, and the Hadley Companies, producers of limited edition lithographs, contacted Smith.
Johnson and his wife, Susan, were visiting Salt Lake City in December 1983 when they encountered Smith's work at a gallery. The gallery owner provided them with Smith's number and the Johnsons called for an appointment to meet him at his studio. They came out, viewed his paintings, and talked to him at length. "I always look for paint quality, and I saw Smith could handle paint," recalls Johnson. "Besides, they had that rural feel which has always attracted me." The Johnsons purchased several works for their personal collection. Some time later, Ray Johnson asked to represent Smith, to which he quickly agreed, beginning what has proved a productive, long-term relationship. "I saw in Smith potential that did not have an end," says Johnson.
In August 1984, Southwest Art featured Smith's paintings in an article written by Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum of Art in Springville, Utah. By 1985, Smith saw his paintings of rural subject matter exposed to wider audiences, fostered by another solo exhibition at Brigham Young University, a group show of Utah painters at the Sundance Institute and, in 1986, his first one-artist exhibition at Ray Johnson's Overland Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona. That same year three of Smith's works were selected for inclusion in the Third Western States Traveling Exhibition organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Another visit to Oregon in 1988 prompted a realization about important visual patterns of the American West -- gateways, fencelines, isolated barns -- that could be translated as symbols onto canvas. So in June of 1989, Smith returned to the Baker City area, his car loaded with canvases, paint, brushes, sketchbooks, cameras, and film. Smith traveled the back roads for a month in search of his images: watertanks, ranchers, windmills, the skeleton of a deer hung on a barbed-wire fence, the red volcanic earth, and the gray-green of a sagebrush sea. Days were filled with sketching and photography. An agreement with a film development store in Baker City allowed Smith to have his photographs ready the day after he dropped them off.
Armed with the field sketches and photographs, he worked in a makeshift studio set up in his parents' basement, where he painted long hours every night. Nearly thirty paintings, some as large as four by six feet, were completed during or shortly after the month he explored northeastern Oregon's distinct topography. Then, one afternoon in early July, Smith hosted an impromptu exhibit of the paintings at his parents' home. Large numbers of people from around the area stopped by to view them, and the local newspaper printed an enthusiastic article about Smith and his paintings. Smith remembers, "This artistic quest opened strange and wonderful gateways in the mind. Beckoning paths weaved and stretched far beyond the horizon. I became immersed in a spiritual odyssey to rediscover visual fragments long hidden in my memory:"
The paintings include symbolic constructions such as cow or elk skulls nailed to the top of a square-arched gate, perhaps a caution against arrogant assumptions of human dominance over nature. Mummified carcasses of deer or cattle draped over wire fences after a hard winter recognize death as part of life's cycle. The spindly legs of a windmill or the sharp outline of a thistle punctuate the broad sweep of hard-baked earth and horizon in other paintings. The ranchers portrayed in several canvases project that universal image of people whose strength derives from working a difficult, uncompromising land. Through the medium of paint they are endowed with the virtues of hard work and self-reliance in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, facial features shadowed beneath cowboy hats and John Deere caps, the everyman of the rural American West.
By now the status and role of women had undergone significant change in the rural West, Smith knew, and it prompted him to paint a portrait series of local women ranchers in Baker and adjacent Union counties during the summer of 1990. In these canvases Smith projects the self-reliance and ability of women at work outdoors in various roles handling cattle, milking cows, cutting wood, or caring for the land. He completed eighteen paintings, each an identifiable portrait of a specific woman. As Smith considered the portraits more personal than commercial, he donated two of them and sales proceeds of a catalog to the Oregon Trail Regional Museum in Baker City.
In September 1989, when Smith completed the last of his Oregon paintings, the Springville Museum of Art in Utah organized an exhibition of them titled Journey in Search of Lost Images. When the exhibition closed, the paintings went on tour to Twenty-two museums throughout the United States from 1991 through 1992.
Since Smith worked with bold forms and shapes in his paintings, it seemed natural he would begin to explore sculpture. Sometime in late 1989, neighbor and fellow artist Neil Hadlock, owner of Wasatch Bronzeworks, brought a prepared armature and clay to Smith's studio with a challenge: "Here is the clay; here is the armature. Do it!" The subject of Smith's first sculpture was one of the most popular images in his painting genre: a man with a scythe over his shoulder. The image translated well into the bronze medium, and the edition of fifteen soon sold out. This was followed by a second bronze, a farmer lifting a sack of potatoes, in an edition of three eight-foot-tall sculptures. Eventually Smith crafted additional bronzes drawn from examples of rural life. Other sculptures reflect his interest in cartoon characters, such as Krazy Kat and Alley Oop, and western historical figures like Billy the Kid. Sculpture, Smith discovered, was not just a natural outgrowth from his painting, but a mechanism that allowed him to recharge his vision.
An unusual challenge for Smith arrived in 1993 when the community of Metropolis, Illinois, decided to commission a giant statue of that man of steel, Superman, for the town square. Barron Walton, a Utah company serving as project manager for the sculpture, knew of Smith's interest in cartoon and comic characters. The company approached him and helped arrange the contract. Smith soon discovered that the addition of a third dimension to a character heretofore known in two dimensions was challenging. "My goal was to make Superman more than just a statue:," Smith says. "I have great love for the character, which began when I was a boy and continued into adulthood. My dream was to make the statue something the entire country could be proud of."
Smith commenced the sculpture process with a small clay model, then enlarged proportions to the needed height of fifteen feet. The image evolved from discussions between the city of Metropolis, DC Comics, representatives from Barron Walton, and Smith, and from the engineering limitations posed by the design of such a large sculpture. As envisioned by Smith, Superman's facial expression eventually stood between innocent pleasure and a worldly-wise scowl.
Guided by the model, two assistants blocked the sculpture out in clay while Smith refined detail work on the face, hands, belt, and other formal parts of the figure. It might take twelve months or more to complete a sculpture this size, but with help from his assistants, Smith completed the statue in a little over six months. Once final approval arrived from DC Comics, a rubber-and-plaster mold was fabricated, and then cut into sections and moved to Metal Letters in Lehi, Utah, for bronzing.
When the over-two-ton statue was completed and the red, blue, and yellow paints applied, the foundry held an open house for one day. An estimated one thousand people stopped by to get a glimpse of the superhero before it would be loaded on a flatbed truck for the journey to its permanent home. The visitors enjoyed Superman in all his glory: hands on hips, the flared red cape flowing out, the letter "S" on his chest, a look of determination on his face. Finally, the statue was shipped to Metropolis in June 1997, where it was unveiled in Superman Square, set on a granite base engraved with "Truth, Justice, and the American Way:"
As the Soviet Union began to crumble in the early 1990s rumors circulated of artistic treasures created by Russian and Soviet impressionists and realist painters during the Soviet period between 1930 and the early 1970s. Soon exciting stories of an impressive body of work by these artists filtered out of Russia. Ray Johnson, who had already been to Russia to assess the work, invited Smith and Vern Swanson to accompany him on another trip, to locate, purchase, and bring to the United States the best examples of this long-hidden art.' "I needed people like Smith and Swanson who could tell me whether or not an artist and his paintings had potential," he says. Johnson, Smith, and Swanson traveled throughout Russia, visiting museums and artists in their homes and studios. Eventually, Smith returned to Russia several times with Johnson and Swanson. Smith credits these visits to observe artists who painted Russia's rural life with strengthening his resolve to continue with similar subjects.
There have always been certain periods in Gary Ernest Smith's life when he recognized the need to self-impose a new direction for his art. One of these periods arrived in 1994 when the landscape recalibrated itself in his paintings. For many years, landscapes served as backdrops in his figurative work, connecting the human shapes with the earth. Now he saw the familiar landscapes of northeastern Oregon and the agricultural fields scattered throughout Iowa, Minnesota, Utah, Idaho, and Arizona with fresh eyes. The resulting landscape or field paintings became personal records of sensations drawn from novel and singular spaces, something more powerful than the human experience.
In his landscape paintings, Smith uncovered beauty in the less obvious -- perhaps the solitude of a sagebrush-littered plain, or grain stubble in a field with intriguing patterns. These paintings depart from traditional landscape renderings, for they invoke the overlooked and ordinary in the land. They are more literal than any of his previous paintings, although they are created in the same way: landscape fragments collected through photographs, field sketches, and memory. Smith pried away the layers of earth, looked inside, discovered more than surface beauty, then created something new and different. Through this insight he has revealed the complicated, the familiar, the inconsistent, the nonconforming, the solitary and the spectacular, all characteristics of place. (left: Planted, 1996, 72 x 96 inches)
Furthermore, these paintings elaborate upon man's cultural occupancy of the land: perhaps how a fence follows a slope over the horizon, or the shape of a contoured field, the resultant mosaic a refashioned landscape, temporal expression of time's passage. Most importantly, through Smith's vision, this action thrust upon the land is not viewed as disruptive, but rather as a harmonious link between human life and the natural environment. He found that the serpentine line of a contoured field or the march of a fence toward the far distance measures both humanity and nature.
Smith ventured further with these paintings, his goal a complete redefinition as an artist. "Seeing these broad, beautiful fields converted into subdivisions or shopping malls provided inspiration for me to explore ways I could preserve those fields on canvas," Smith remarks. The minimalism of plowed earth pointed the way to bold new statements in a series of monumental field paintings through the seasonal cycles. They were mostly six by eight feet but included one heroic six-by-sixteen-foot, mural-like canvas. Unlike his color-saturated, boldly structured figure paintings, these images rely on texture and perspective, strong horizontal lines, and an array of colors that border on monochromatic. The field paintings stress the here-and-now, and are reflective of seasonal shifts, basic as life itself. Smith's feet have always been planted on the soil, and these paintings, windows to the lives of fields, do not elaborate upon the act of painting alone, but speculate on spiritual rapport with the land.
Sixteen of the field paintings and ten studies were first exhibited at the Springville Museum of Art in December 1995. In the fall of 1997, the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University organized another exhibition of the paintings. As part of this exhibit, a load of dirt was brought in to create a modest field in the center of the exhibition area. Another exhibition occurred at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana, in October 1999, which included not only the original paintings but some recent canvases.
While Smith continues to pursue the exploration of landscape concepts in his painting, he will oscillate back and forth with special commissions and monumental sculpture. Through the efforts of Ray Johnson, Smith received numerous commissions to paint or sculpt famous country music personalities. Recently he commenced work on a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Owen Bradley, a legendary figure in Nashville's music industry, destined for installation in a city park named after Bradley.
Whatever Smith does in the future, though, his drive and
vision no doubt will be fueled by what he calls his "pilot light."
"There is something always flickering, a spark that keeps pointing
me toward that elusive imagery out there," he says. "My art is
a constant struggle for new insight, for the more effective technique."
A thorough craftsman, someone whose techniques have come through years of
labor, Smith's work is a reflection, not only of his own nature, but of
a people and land with whom he is closely allied. Wendell Berry might call
Smith a "placed person, rooted to memories of the terrain and cultures
that penetrate his life. Smith is an artist still in mid-flight, with over
twenty-five years of productive work behind him. He has become someone who
no longer needs to search for the how, but for the why, that intersection
between memory and observation, self and idea. There are new avenues, new
visions yet to be explored.
About the author:
According to information provided in the book "Holding Ground: the Art of Gary Ernest Smith," Donald J. Hagerty was at the time of publication an independent scholar and consultant on the art and culture of the American West. He served on the faculty of the University of California, Davis, and has authored several books, given lectures and organized exhibitions throughout his career. Other books authored and co-authored include: Desert Dreams: The Art and Life of Maynard Dixon, Leading the West: One Hundred Contemporary Painters and Sculptors, Beyond the Visible Terrain: The Art of Ed Mell, and Canyon De Chelly: 100 Years of Painting and Photography (Places of Spirit Series).
March 21, 2006 editors note:
Mr. Unverzagt of Art Instruction Schools sent the following email to TFAO which we are copying below in its entirety for the benefit of Dr. Hagerty, the Museum and Resource Library readers:
Read more about the Dubuque Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/7/11
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