Painter Mark Smith, 60, came by his love of the natural world early. As a kid, he spent equal time in the countryside near Denton and in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, in a little house on a high plateau near the eastern edge of the Rockies. His parents were art collectors and bohemians –– his dad a sculptor, his mom a pianist –– so he grew up surrounded by visual art, music, and his parents’ eccentric artist friends. But it was the big sky, grassy plains, and tall mountains that really fired his imagination.
“It’s no surprise I became an artist,” said Smith, who as a young man studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute and later at Queens College in New York. “I started off as a plein air artist, which is a fancy way of saying someone who painted outdoor scenes. I spent a lot of time studying the environment and responding with paint and brush. Early on that conflicted with what I saw my parents’ friends doing. They were gregarious, improvisational abstract painters.”
Those two streams of influence –– outdoor and abstract painting –– gradually merged with a third: Smith’s childhood love of cartography. The artist, who currently lives in Argyle and teaches at Austin College in Sherman, has united all three seamlessly in The Earth Below, his current show at William Campbell Contemporary Art. The brightly colored, serenely kinetic paintings and illustrations in the exhibit came about from a very specialized process. Smith studied digital satellite photos of the Earth’s surface. Then he used computer technology to sample sections from those shots and mix them with samples from some of his older paintings into new, grid-like abstract compositions. Finally, he put away the new computer images and painted them from memory using mineral-based, pigment-saturated paint and hardwood surfaces. The results in The Earth Below are merry, mosaic-like combinations of squares and loops that seem to jostle and shift tectonically on the canvas without ever descending into outright chaos. The paintings manage to seem harmonious within their organic, jittery loopiness.
Smith mentions another big influence and a rather obscure one: the Swiss illustrator Adolf Wölfli, who died in 1930. Smith fell in love with the troubled artist’s intense, finely detailed images more than 35 years ago.
“If you looked at his work and didn’t know anything about it, you would see these incredibly complex and beautiful and delicate compositions like a spider would weave if he had colored pencils,” Smith said. “They contain micro-particle shapes drawn into a lace-like pattern that’s full of little moments of color. He turned out to be a self-taught painter who, ironically, was a patient at a Swiss mental institution. But there’s a universal beauty to his work.”
Similarly, Smith’s drawings and paintings in The Earth Below would have a visceral pull even if you didn’t realize that they were reconstructed, abstracted scenes from the planet we inhabit. As a diehard naturalist and self-described hippie, the artist expresses some surprise that, at the age of 60, he has come to use digital software as an integral part of his own art-making. For years he felt a certain abhorrence for computer technology in general and digital painting programs in particular, believing they were part of some larger, vaguely sinister plot to encourage people to avoid interacting with one another. (The early, crappy AppleWorks painting and drawing program contributed significantly to his disdain.) But improvements in the software’s quality, as well as the ease with which Smith can access an online wealth of archival maps and satellite photography, led him over the years to a fairly dramatic change of heart. And he sees accomplished contemporary painters around the globe as well as his own students at Austin College doing subtle, sophisticated work with computer software while not thinking twice about the medium.
“I think technology can be as good and humane as you want it to be,” Smith said. “In the visual arts, the benefits [of computer technology] are greater than the drawbacks. If I could be reincarnated, I’d still like to come back in the same time period but maybe a little further along. Like 2025.”