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National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum exhibit explores later painter Lowell Ellsworth Smith's unique process

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1983 Prix de West Purchase Award Winner Lowell Ellsworth Smith, Church Façade, Plaza del Oriente, watercolor on board, chosen by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum for its permanent art collection. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
  • 1983 Prix de West Purchase Award Winner Lowell Ellsworth Smith, Church Façade, Plaza del Oriente, watercolor on board, chosen by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum for its permanent art collection. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Tucked in between the galleries full of startling headdresses and majestic sculptures in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is a small art display that gives viewers a chance to see the process behind some award-winning work.

Lowell Ellsworth Smith: My Theology of Painting, a small watercolor exhibition from the late Prix de West winner, is on display now at the museum, 1700 NE 63rd St. Communications director Tara Carr said the show gives viewers a chance to glimpse the method behind the masterpieces.

“Often in museums, we see the finished works, the ‘what,’ so to speak,” Carr said of the several studies, or small, preliminary pieces used as kind of a warm-up before starting the bigger, final piece, now on display. “These studies are the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ behind his art. They give insight into his process and approach.”

‘In the moment’

Carr said Smith worked differently than a lot of artists.

“Many artists will do field sketches and make color notes, but Smith never cared for that,” she said. “He wanted to be in the moment and directly respond to whatever or whoever inspired him. He’d set up his easel and already have paper ready so that when lightning struck, he could set to work.”

That immediacy is apparent in his paintings.

Smith used bold blocks of solid colors and paid special attention to light, and his simple yet striking watercolors convey an almost palpable sense of moment. His portrait studies, informal and loose, read more like intimate snapshots of the subjects.

In “Church Façade, Plaza del Oriente,” the painting that won him the Purchase Award at 1983’s Prix de West, viewers can almost hear the church bells tolling through the plaza as a priest walks into the morning sunlight.

Although his paintings captured scenes from his native Ohio to Mexico and Europe, most of Smith’s work centers around the Southwest, its land and its people. The two are almost always together as subjects in My Theology of Painting — a Smith landscape without a human inhabitant is rare.

American Southwest

However, no matter the subject, Smith always pairs it with one constant that runs throughout his work: light. The clear sun of the Southwest bathes every piece he made, from the glowing walls of an adobe church to the grizzled cheeks of a cowboy leaning in a doorway.

It’s evidence that Smith loved to immerse himself in the great, open spaces of the American Southwest, and that love of the land is undoubtedly what led him to create a perfect collection for a place like the Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

“He had a long history with the museum and with Prix de West,” Carr said. “He participated in it for 29 years. Because of that long history, he understood that this collection would be preserved and utilized; so in 2004, he donated roughly 50 watercolor studies, photographs, letters and articles related to his personal life and career. He was a teacher as much as an artist, and in a sense, he continues to teach today through his collection.”

Power and potential

Smith battled Parkinson’s disease in his later years but painted until his death in 2008, although he did jokingly note that his style had become more impressionistic.

“Lowell gave an interview once where he mentioned his ‘theology of painting,’” Carr said. “That phrase tells you everything you need to know about his approach and passion. Art was more than just a hobby or a pastime: It was the lens through which he saw and experienced the world. Above all else, he believed in the power and potential of creative energy that resided within all of us. Everyone can create something — a painting, a poem, a recipe, a building. The idea of creating something out of nothing was what truly moved and motivated him.”

My Theology of Painting is on display through July 9 at National Cowboy & Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63rd St. 

Print Headline: Southwest rays, A National Cowboy & Heritage Museum exhibit illuminates the creative processes of artist Lowell Ellsworth Smith.

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