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Two artists reflect on personal experiences in 'Seeing Visions' work

Friday, September 11, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:11 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 12, 2009
Byron Smith paints a house he started working on with his friend Frank Stack at Orr Street Studios. Stack has an almost identical painting of the house on the wall of the studio they share.

Byron Smith can remember hanging out at Cemetery Hill, a predominantly black neighborhood in Columbia where he heard the train traffic at Wabash Station.

Gladys Swan, 74, has fond memories of the Maine woods and one particular “clear and sparkling” stream near Schoodic Lake, where she summered as a child.

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This month, the two friends and artists are sharing personal life experiences through their work at the Orr Street Studios’ recurring event, “Seeing Visions,” which resumed Tuesday.

Smith, 49, was born and raised in Columbia. He took his artistic skill to the next level when he spent time at MU in 1980. Although he never graduated, he took a number of classes toward a bachelor’s degree. His lifelong interest in visual art was inspired by the evolution of the city.

“It’s a grand old place to be, but it has changed,” he said of Columbia. “I still like the way it looks, but it doesn’t have the inhabitants from the neighborhood — the little old ladies that used to come out and talk to you. They’re not there anymore.”

Smith also has vivid recollections of his grandfather’s farm, experiences like baling hay, tending to farm animals and living on the banks of a river. He incorporates these images into his work.

“I didn’t even carry around a pencil and paper — I wasn’t drawing then — but my imagination was capturing the smells and everything about the farm,” he said. “I can intensify the colors and shapes of the landscape by having that experience.”

To inform his subject matter, Smith still studies the outdoors, particularly around Boonville, McBaine and Rocheport, where he has family. He also takes part in a figure-drawing session every weekend with former MU professor and artist Frank Stack.

Of late, Smith has begun to work with casein, a milk-based water-soluble medium for paint pigment that dries quickly.

In a painting of Gans Creek in Rock Bridge State Park, the casein, mixed with white paint and water, creates an illusion of downward depth in the stream. Tangled branches are painted onto a background of yellow paint and seem to add depth within the canvas.

“I would make up my own world and try to make mine as appealing to me as possible,” Smith said of his paintings.

Outlet for creativity

Swan has been intrigued by art her entire life, but a fear of its impracticality, as well as a beloved literature professor in college, pushed her toward writing.

“I was interested in painting in high school, and I took a painting class as a way of getting out of physical education,” she said, laughing. “But I was hard-pressed to think of earning a living in painting.”

She received a fellowship from the Lilly Endowment in 1975 as a professor at Purdue University and used her endowment in Indiana to pursue a project in art and mythology.

“It was then that I embarked on something that I would be interested in for the rest of my life,” she said. “That was a real start for me.”

Swan came to MU in 1987 to teach creative writing and literature. By that time, she had published two novels and six collections of short stories. Then the vivid descriptions in her written work called her back to the visual arts.

“I had been away from painting for a while and had a great desire to go back into it,” she said. She began taking classes in MU’s art department in 1992.

Swan’s work is based in both her background in diverse landscapes and her vivid imagination. Born in the Bronx, Swan grew up in Delaware and New Mexico.

“A lot of my painting has reference to mountains and deserts,” she said. “Both my painting and my writing are in an effort to explore what the imagination can reveal.”

Much of her work includes watercolor landscapes, but she likes to work in oils. Although she sometimes includes figures in her work, Swan said many of them are mythical.

“I like the kind of spontaneity of watercolors and letting things run together, and I like the texture of oils,” Swan explained. “I really like color. I like to explore what color and form can do.”

She uses geometric shapes with soft edges in many of her works and experiments with multiple perspectives. In one small watercolor, she applies bright green, pink  and orange on a sofa and palm tree outside a framed glass window. Her oils are more subdued, with darker hues of purple, brown, red and gray.

Contributing to culture via art

The “Seeing Visions” series was the brainchild of artist Chris Teeter and Anthony Connolly, a professor at MU and a writer, on a trip to Sedalia three years ago. The first event was held in 2006 and since then the series has expanded to include film screenings, coffee, wine, art and lively discussion.

Tracy Lane, the director of the studio, said Orr Street Studios is a welcoming place for the event.

“Intimacy is the word,” she said. “It’s a look inside of the artist’s world — you’re not only in a gallery, you’re in a studio space of 30 artists. You have the opportunity to interact with them.”

Swan agrees and said she thinks that the relationship between the Columbia public and its artists has grown with The District.

“Art contributes to a culture, it civilizes and humanizes it — the more the better,” she said. “We need it.”


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