Recently we headed up Highway 66 to the Green Springs for a meeting with artist Harriett Rex Smith. Harriett’s studio is hidden in the forest, down a long, winding driveway. She has lived and worked here since 1979, the year she moved to Southern Oregon from Valparaiso, Indiana.
The studio is a large room flooded with light from a wall of north-facing windows. A second floor balcony hangs over two sides of the room. Paintings are everywhere. Monumental canvases cover one unbroken wall. More watercolors and acrylics line the upstairs walkway. A work in progress occupies an easel in the middle of the room. Large flat drawers hold prints in various sizes. A door in one corner leads to a cozy living space.
How did an artist of Harriett Rex Smith’s energy and stature come to a forest clearing in the Southern Cascades? What does she have to say about art? What does her art say about her?
A brief history of Harriett
“It took me many years to see it as a blessing.”
In the 1970s, Harriett was a big success in the Midwest. Her paintings won major competitions and commanded handsome prices. Her academic credentials, including a fine arts degree from the Herron School at Indiana University and master’s from Notre Dame, qualified her for teaching positions at Purdue and Valparaiso University. Churches and patrons commissioned major works.
Then fate popped Harriett’s bubble. A botched medical procedure left her unable to stand before a classroom and sapped her confidence in social situations. She fled. To Oregon.
What she found was, in her words, “nothing like Chicago or New York.”
No critics to review her work. (Harriett calls them “trumpets.”) No competitions to win. Not even galleries with walls big enough for her monumental architectural paintings. (Go to her studio if you want to see them.)
What to do? “I reinvented myself,” Harriett says.
Art and competition
“I object to prizes. Kids get the idea of art all wrong.”
These words come from an artist whose paintings won titles like “Best In Show” and “People’s Choice Award.”
“I was on a competitive path,” Harriett admits. “We all were.”
But life in rural Oregon eventually taught Harriett that she was missing the point of art, which is, for her, about communicating spiritual insights, not winning prizes.
“I am moved by ideas that lift you, that make you feel life is worth living,” Harriett says.
Not that her competitive nature has disappeared entirely. “I play Scrabble™ and I play to win,” Harriett admits.
“This painting was Best of Show and won the People’s Award in an Indianapolis Museum of Art competition, says Harriett, pointing to Blue Brick Wall, a ten-foot wide canvas. “In fact all the architectural Yin-Yangs won major prizes.
“I went to Notre Dame for a MFA and was thrown into competition big-time. This was before women were admitted to the undergraduate school and maybe the all-male art faculty didn’t know what to do with them in the graduate school. So I began to work very large, huge, which I really love doing. I only stopped because there were no venues to show such big works.
“Then I moved out here. There’s no art critic here.”
Art and critics
As years passed, Harriett found that her work was evolving in new directions. She was pleased. But, if a painting appears in a forest, will anyone know?
“There’s no art critic here,” Harriett repeats. “If you make an exceptional painting, who notices?”
But gradually Harriett discovered that a critic-free artistic landscape created new possibilities. For one thing, she now had a direct relationship with people who understood and appreciated her work.
“There’s no intermediary,” Harriett noted.
People found Harriett and spent time with her in her studio. They purchased her paintings without guidance from an expert. They told others.
Meanwhile, Harriett found herself free of another artistic trap: categorization.
“Critics prefer to put you in a slot,” Harriett explains. “It’s a left-brain sort of thing. But you see, by definition creativity is non-repetitive. So as soon as they hang you on one hook you’re off in another direction.”
Abstract expressionism, neoclassicism, minimalism, late modernism, conceptual art, figurative art: “Every five years there is a new school in art,” Harriett says.
“I have totally discarded that. If I am to be free, I must be free of art history. It is confining.”
Art and money
“Every artist has the same dilemma. We need to eat. But if selling your work becomes more important than doing it, you are lost,” Harriett says.
Which means that you don’t ask Harriett to paint your vision.
“If you let patrons dictate to you, where does that lead?” she asks. It may lead to the wealth-producing art factories of artists who paint with one eye on the market.
“They made a commodity of art, which should be a spiritual thing,” says Harriett. “It’s like being a preacher for the money.”
Art and community
So how has Harriett survived as an artist for 70-some years, ever since she walked away from a brief career in advertising?
It may have something to do with community. Harriett sees herself as part of a network that extends to the far reaches of the universe. Somehow everything is connected, from subatomic particles to supernovae, from paupers and painters to presidents, and those connections support Harriett, just as they support an unseen figure sleeping on a park bench, covered with newspapers, oblivious to the galaxy overhead, in her painting Homeless in the Universe.
“We are never homeless,” Harriett says.
“The universe supports us.”