Tuesday, September 1, 2009

30 Minutes with Gary Ernest Smith

This week I am finishing a new painting of Taos pueblo, seen from across the small river that flows in between the two largest buildings at the Pueblo. This is a new view, completely different than the other pueblos that I've painted, and I'll be excited to show it in December at the Tansey Gallery.

I have been thinking a great deal about influences this past month, and I should say that it has been a distinct priveldge to both know and meet countless artists that I truly admire. Among contemporary artists, the two that I would rank of the most importance in influencing my own career would be Jean-Claude Quilici - an artist who readers of my blog will know well - and Gary Ernest Smith. Gary Ernest Smith is one of the finest and most original painters now working in the west. He also shares a passion and a strong sensitivity that I have to color and the thick, earlthlike application of paint.

I did not know of Gary's work until I moved to Arizona in 2003. At that point, I saw his work in a gallery in Tucson and was deeply moved. Here was a painter that seemed to have the soil of the land in his blood. Someone incorporating the various sentiments of Monet, Maynard Dixon, Van Gogh - and who had weaved the feeling those artists brought into something else altogether - something we could simplistically call, his own style. Southwest Art Magazine ran a feature piece on Gary's work not long after I discovered him, only further adding to his many accomplishments.

But me being me, I'm never one to sit back and say "oh that's nice" and never do anything about it - so when I learned that Gary would be present at an opening for the Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson on November 19, 2005, I went there, and though I didn't recognize Gary outright, a friend of mine who worked for the gallery was kind enough to point him out to me. Gary was a wonderfully pleasant man, calm, self assured and almost serene. Looking back at our conversation, it seemed to me that Gary himself exuded some of the qualities of his work. He knew himself well as an artist, and had all the ease and confidence of an artist whose body of work spoke for itself, and whose career was one to be respected.

Gary and I talked about countless things relating to art. I remember telling him that I loved his work because he put viewers of fine art right square in the middle of fields - making them contemplate elemental aspects of the earth, and of all life that springs from the earth. He nodded with satisfaction at this comment. I also told him that even though his style was notably different, that I had something of the feeling, looking at his work, like one has when looking at the best of Edward Hopper's work. Something very American in its sentiment, solid and permanent, which invites the viewer to a quiet contemplation of beautifully cultivated fields; of bales of hay in the sunlight, or raw earth tilled and prepared for planting. I remember when I mentioned Hoppper Gary said something along the lines of "Now you're talking about my kind of artist." And he went on to talk a good deal about Maynard Dixon and how Dixon's work had influenced his own. When I became better acquainted with the work of Maynard Dixon, I too saw the connection. In addition to all that, I realized that one of the things I loved the most about Gary's work was the fact that his work did not repeat the endlessly copied themes of the cowboy painters - Gary Ernest Smith's American West was, and is, a West which seemed to be to be both in the external and internal of us. He had his own vision of the West which continues to stand out against all other painters of his generation.

At some point Gary and I talked and talked until I looked at my watch and realized that I had been hogging his attention for around 30 minutes, (get two committed artists together and they could talk all day, but an artist at his own opening likes to make himself available to chat with various collectors and art lovers) and out of politeness I excused myself, gave him my card and my website address and said "I'm not groping for compliments" , so that he would know I'm not asking him to reciprocate - that would be dishonest. And he very kindly said "Oh, I will anyway!" with a very genuine smile.

I got the idea recently that it would be interesting to have Gary answer a few basic questions about his work for this blog. Dr Sublette and Jaime Gould of Medicine Man Gallery were kind enough to put me in contact with Gary, and he graciously put down some of his thoughts about his work for me. Here are the questions and answers:

1) Your strong focus on fields as subject matter has always been striking to me. Fields seem to be representative of primal life, food, sustenance, emblems of rural life and more. Do you see field subjects in that metaphorical sense? Or do they strike you more as meaningful in the strictly visual sense? I see my field paintings as what they are but also with deeper meaning. they represent the substance of what we are in this life. Our bodies come from the dust and return to the dust. All life springs from the earth. Our source of nourishment comes from the earth. On an other level, I love the vastness of space and the quietness of standing in open fields. I wanted to try to recreate these feelings in these large paintings. I could only see the paintings in this large scale format as I wanted this sense of vastness, of being all consumed by the surroundings. I originally saw the series in my head before I painted them. Not that I saw each piece individually, but I sensed the feelings I wanted to convey. I wanted the hand of man to show in them and how preparing the earth for harvest has created life sustaining rewards as well as beautiful design elements .I knew the size of each was important and to be 6'x8', 6'x10', and up to 16' long.

2.) I have seen a handful of your large works, and when viewing them found myself reminded of something Jackson Pollock said...when he once said "when I am IN my painting". I found myself as a viewer feeling as if I was literally contained within the work I was viewing. These kinds of extremely large format works, to me, hearken back to sensations created in large works by the Abstract Expressionists, such as Pollock, Still, and Rothko; is this sensation of being "in" a painting deliberate? Or is it the reaction produced on Mr Myers alone? I definitely relate to Pollock's statement about "being contained within the work". When I start a large size painting, I start early in the morning and work straight through the first day in organizing and laying out the painting. This time often goes into the night. I take few breaks. It is all encompassing, even stopping is difficult. It is like this creative hunger must be fed. the painting is not most often completed in a day, but the compositional problems and direction is resolved. When I struggle beyond the first day of composing, it eats at me until I resolve it.I carry around imagery in my head all the time. If I'm not painting I'm thinking about it.

3.) Just as you are keenly interested in fields as subjects, it strikes me also that you like the barrier spaces, like ditch grass between rows, or any other kind of wild, overgrown spaces on the edges of fields. Could you talk about that a bit? My first attempts at painting rural America started with iconic imagery of people that worked the fields that I remembered while growing up on a farm in Oregon. The paintings were primarily of a historic nature and of a time when self reliance and hard physical work accomplished the task of making a living in a primarily rural society. My paintings began to evolve, after a few years, and the individuals begin to diminish in size and proportion until the gave way to the landscape. The paintings transformed from yesterday to today. Man's presents is still there in the cultivated land. I began to notice the edges of fields and ditch banks and saw the beauty in the common place and overlooked. I look for subject matter that is so familiar that we look past it and try to find the beauty there in. My work continues to evolve. Discovery leads from one thing to another. It keeps my art fresh and challenging.

4.) I remember, when you and I talked, that you mentioned influences on your work such as Maynard Dixon and Edward Hopper, however the quality of light in some of your works, accompanied by a softly impastoed surface you've created by palette knife - occasionally reminds me a some works by Monet. Have you looked to the Impressionists as influences, or is this a coincidental cross current? I study art all through the ages and appreciate the best of what each generation and society has produced. One cannot incorporate techniques and philosophies along the way. You pick up your favorites like Giotto, Rembrandt, The Pre-Raphaelites,Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, the Nabis, Modigliani, Russell, Remington TheTaos School, Maynard Dixon, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and the list goes on and on into contemporary times. Some how we take all these influences, put them in the hopper and let them congeal over time, then, following our own path, get to know yourself, develop your skills and something unique of you comes out.I was told by an art professor one time when he I asked about developing a style,"don't worry about a style. Work hard. Build a body of work. Over time your work will be as legible as your hand writing.

5.) You have had a long and very successful career as an artist, is there anything nagging you that you feel you have not done, artistically? To me, what I have not done is the next painting. I stay excited to see the results of a new painting. If I discover something exciting within the process that needs exploring, that's the best. It will often become a series to explore. I don't get to this point by intellectualizing. It most often comes by discovery in something I'm working on or some special insight gained while painting.

6.) What would be the best advice you could offer beginner and mid-career artists who would like to be successful? Develop your skills, study from the great art, be the best artist you can be. Discover what excites you and explore the visual possibilities. A true work of art has all elements, principles, craft and creativity going on within it .If one thing is missing it falls short. It is said that it takes about 50 years after an artist dies to really assess their work. Does it have relevance enough to be remembered? That is for time and others to decide. We can only do our best with sincerity and enjoy the journey along the way as it is truly a rewarding and remarkable journey.

Gary Ernest Smith

* Note from Neil: My sincere thanks to the nice folks at Medicine Man Gallery of Tucson for their assistance, and to Gary Ernest Smith himself for taking his time to answer the curious questions from another artist.
Be sure to check out the beautiful book on Gary's work called "Holding Ground, the Art of Gary Ernest Smith", by Donald J. Hagerty.

Visit Medicine Man Gallery at http://www.medicinemangallery.com/ or drop by to see original works by Gary and countless other talented artists. Images used in this column are copyright Medicine Man Gallery and Gary Ernest Smith 2009.
*Image at the top of this article is "Wild Growth Patterns", original oil painting by Gary Ernest Smith, currently on display at Medicine Man Gallery.