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 February 2011
Published by Artists of Utah
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Gibbs Smith at his desk, photo by Kim Silcox
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Gibbs Smith . . . from page 1

Smith first came to Kaysville as a young boy when his family moved here from Berkeley, California because his father wanted to be a small-town dentist. Gibbs says his mother was passionate about art – “she was a wonderful Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) artist and did windows for Gump’s and the like in San Francisco” – so when the family met local artist LeConte Stewart they developed a friendship and Smith’s mother began taking lessons. “I was always tagging along,” Gibbs explains. He describes sitting at Stewart’s knee at age twelve watching him paint, and Stewart’s response when he asked him who the best American painters were: Maynard Dixon and Edward Hopper. Stewart would take Gibbs for rides around the back country, driving very slowly, stopping to point out various aspects of the landscape, saying things like, “Just look at that pattern of snow on the asphalt, black and white ….” and asking Gibbs what he thought was the darkest element in a landscape, then answering for him -- the trees. “As I grew up,” Smith says, “I became more and more interested in how one could paint landscapes, through him. Although I wasn’t particularly drawn to landscape painting myself, I WAS interested in seeing how he did it.” And so he decided to practice what Stewart was telling him and to study Dixon’s and Hopper’s work. “I really didn’t want to be another LeConte in my style and I really didn’t want to go to art school, because I always felt like I had a unique self and could express what’s inside of me rather than be trained to think like someone else.”

Smith developed friendships with several artists in Salt Lake – Denis Phillips, Bonnie Posselli, Randall Lake, Earl Jones – all of whom took him under their wing. He says he kind of grafted himself onto them, trying to learn what he could from each. “But I really suffer from not having disciplined myself in terms of formal training, because I’m not a good drawer, but I do understand the emotional impact of a painting – I know how to pull it off . . . sometimes. I haven’t regretted what I’ve done but I could use more technical training."

Smith's not likely to take up any formal training, however, having always preferred to find his own path. Ever since he was young he has paid attention to what he responds to personally. Early on he loved big cities -- like New York or Chicago -- at night. He trained himself in the Ashcan School genre and started thinking about nocturnes.|6| “That really turned me on – I liked that.” He especially liked city pavements in the rain, with light reflecting out of windows.|7| He was drawn to abstract art, attracted by its emotional power, and mentions getting to know and like Lee Deffebach and her work, and admiring her love of Tuscarora, Nevada. In the end, though, he acknowledges that it really wasn’t him. “I kind of think … that if I paint a city street at night, with rain and the lights reflecting, that I’m a little bit like an abstract painter in parts of the painting . . . So I still have these other traditions in my mind.”

“My core belief is that I have to listen to myself, expose myself to a lot of things, and see what I like, to experiment,” Smith says of his autodidacticism. “And so I studied art history on my own just to see what I liked.” What he liked was the French painter Pierre Bonnard for his loose drawing style and ability to capture his subject better than any one Smith had seen. He admires Bonnard’s humility, his painting only what he liked, his being not terribly concerned about selling his work. Another French artist, Albert Marquet, appealed because of his ability to capture in a single gesture whatever he wanted to convey.

When looking at Smiths’ paintings, it’s easy to understand why he likes Bonnard and Marquet. Smith is a sensualist – he loves color, the smells of turpentine, canvas, linen, and oil paint (he says each pigment has a different aroma). He feels art’s connection to nature. “I love the buttery feel of oil paints … it all connects with the earth. Those are natural earth things that symbolically get packaged up so that we can use them.”

Smith also enjoys the sensual aspect of his day job. He loves the smell of new books, the ink, the paper, the binding. Aromas are important to him and he loves to cook (cook-books make up a substantial portion of his publishing portfolio). He got into the business after attending college in California. He was inspired by a meeting with Alfred A. Knopf, of Random House Publishing. When they met in New York Knopf told him that the best way to grasp what it takes to be a publisher was to look around his library. Smith did just that, spending the whole day in the library. A life-long friendship developed between Knopf and Smith, and a decades-long career began for Smith when he and his wife published their first four books --classics on California -- in 1969.

Publishing and painting are intimately connected in Smith’s world. It seems as though the two can’t be separated in terms of his life outlook and values and aesthetics. He likes the combination and has no wish to retire from publishing or from painting; nor does he particularly wish to sell or part with his paintings. He sees them as old friends. “Why I do bookstores is obvious – I’m a publisher, and I want to celebrate book-selling. Bookstore owners are really interesting, always, and their creation, physically, of their little drama with their store is something I try to appreciate through the paintings. And they like it.”

“I’m always thinking about paintings, even when not painting. What I paint isn’t what’s out there, isn’t reality. It’s my dream of the reality. I paint my dream of the city at night – it’s not actually representing what’s there, it’s the feeling of what’s there. My paintings start with conjuring up a dream, days before getting a brush out. I either sketch or make photos, then start thinking and dreaming about it, then I sit down and try to pull it off.” He says it’s not like LeConte Stewart who could take his easel outdoors and come away with a finished piece in a single afternoon. “I don’t like that, I enjoy what I do better.” He finds painting to be a very contemplative act. When asked how he knows when a painting is finished, he says that he’s learned to hold back a bit, to not make it be finished. He’s learned the value of layering and feels that he can add depth by being patient and doing more. “ But I do quit eventually, just say, ‘Okay, it’s over’.” He trusts his inner self rather than obeying rules. “I’ve never been good at that.”

His iconoclast instinct would seem to put him at odds with the conservative state he has made his home for most of his life. A few years after starting their publishing business he and his wife returned to Utah, where all their parents lived. He shares his mother's feeling that Utah is "different," but remarks on the number of cultural heroes who choose to stay here while being plugged in to what is going on outside. If you know how to find it, he says, “[Utah] has everything . . . little bits of everything a big city has. " And like many other transplants he's drawn to the landscape. "I love feeling like beyond the Wasatch Front all this wild country is real close.” He has published several books about Utah art, including Donna Poulton’s and Vern Swanson’s Painters of Utah’s Canyons and Deserts and the previously mentioned books on Maynard Dixon. Plans for the future include a book on LeConte Stewart, one about Yellowstone National Park and paintings of it, and a new one about art in the Wasatch Mountains. He published Betsy Burton’s book The Kings English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller last year. In his own book you'll find 68 paintings |8-9|and accompanying essays about bookstores around the country, plus more paintings of different subject matter. He continues to paint this favorite subject and hopes to do another volume of bookstore paintings. In The Art of the Bookstore : The Bookstore Paintings of Gibbs M. Smith you'll find a delicious venture by a delightful, thoughtful, and soft-spoken man.

Alternative Venue: Salt Lake City
Blonde Grizzly
Peddling Art on Fourth South
Dan Christofferson's Terrible Gentle Man

As it is now, downtown SLC’s Fourth South is better known for its automobile traffic than its foot traffic; but as more local restaurants, clubs and galleries open for business along the thoroughfare, certain pockets may become just as congested with pedestrians. The busy stretch between State and Main is witnessing a change as pedestrians head to new destinations such as the Green Pig Pub, the House Gallery and the Blonde Grizzly.

Blonde Grizzly is the project of Caleb and Hillary Barney, a husband/wife duo who began by peddling their products for three months at a small kiosk in Layton. It didn’t take long for them to realize their products and ideas should be shared with an audience other than the shoppers at the Layton Hills Mall, so they moved the operation to the Historic New Grand Hotel on Fourth South.

“We wanted to bring the product we were currently selling and add local artists' products,” says Caleb.|1| “The Gallery Stroll is such a great program in Salt Lake that we wanted for sure to be a part of that. It seemed like a no-brainer to have our space be part gallery.”

Blonde Grizzly sells tee shirts, jewelry, clutches, cards, prints, magnets, and just about anything else an artist shows them that catches their interest. The other day a guy came in with a roll of masking tape and started making small figurines, and Caleb put a few of them on display. Each Gallery Stroll, the store features new artists on their gallery walls. They do solo shows, but they also like to do group shows. The variety that comes with a group of artists fits well with the atmosphere they’ve created.

The concept of a store/gallery isn’t a new one to Salt Lake. You can visit alternative galleries like Local Colors of Utah and UTah Artist Hands and find artist products such as bags, jewelry, clothing, and accessories, in addition to art on the walls. But each business has its own unique flavor. One thing Blonde Grizzly likes to do is invite big name artists into Salt Lake to meet the local talent, and then mingle their work and products together for the clientele. They host events where locals can meet and learn about the art outside of Utah. “Alex Pardee and Dave Correia did a signing when we were at the mall kiosk, and Tara McPherson did a signing event at our downtown location in November,” explains Caleb. “We are looking into more events like this and are so excited to bring something new to Salt Lake.”

Blonde Grizzly interior, photo by Laura Durham
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Caleb and Hillary see the local scene starting to cater towards a younger crowd. “There is so much talent in Salt Lake. I love to see these young artists making a name for themselves and getting out there and exhibiting,” says Caleb. “Salt Lake has a huge support system with their artists. The scene seems to be growing and we want to do our best to grow with it.”

Currently, Dan Christofferson’s work occupies the gallery walls in a show called The Terrible Gentle Man. The artist describes the majority of his work as “getting at the guts of a person.” Christofferson explains: “It’s an attempt at pinpointing some vague emotional state that may be sort of hard to verbalize or easily share with people. Lately I’m obsessed with what makes us who we are down to our most brutal selves.”

The artist has human behavior distilled down to three elements: 1) things that make us happy, 2) things that make us sad or upset, and 3) things we can’t control. These different elements are represented visually with corresponding colors, shapes and symbols.

Christofferson describes The Terrible Gentle Man as the personification of who we are underneath our shells when we’re filled with these three basic groups; each of us in different combinations. The image of the Russian nesting doll or “Matryoshka” is a simple but beautiful symbol to call attention to the different layers we all possess. He hopes to push the viewer to examine what makes up the layers underneath our individual “shells.”

Christofferson’s last show for FICE helped him decide what he wanted to do at Blonde Grizzly. Previously, he created a series of large cut-out paintings based on illustrations from taro/playing cards. He sold every painting and most of the tee shirts he printed for the event – which helped him realize that when his work is affordable for most people, it creates both a desire from the public for more product, and a personal desire to create not only artwork but art products as well. The Blonde Grizzly presented itself as the perfect venue for Christofferson to allow himself to expand his work beyond one particular medium and let the art or concept dictate how it needed to be presented. From a seven foot tall painting of a Russian doll to a one-inch button with a ghost doll, this show certainly has something for everyone.

Stop in Blonde Grizzly on 15 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City and check out The Terrible Gentle Man. You’ll also just want to see the space this young couple has created for Salt Lake. In the words of Dan Christofferson, “Hillary and Caleb are doing what so many people have sorta thought about but not dared to do. It's pretty admirable.”

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