A Studio Visit with Artist Bruce Smith

A Studio Visit with Artist Bruce Smith


You may or may not have heard his name, but if you are familiar with our artists, you probably have seen his influence. Bruce Hixson Smith is an emeritus Professor of Art at Brigham Young University and has held a tremendous role in developing the work of established and respected artists such as Brian Kershisnik, J. Kirk Richards, Peter Everett, and Sarah Richards Samuelson to name a few. Kershisnik says of Bruce Smith, "He was a brilliant teacher to bring out what I do rather than to just teach what he does." He was awarded the prestigious Utah Governor’s Mansion Artist Award this year in Visual Arts . Smith retired from his teaching career in 2006 and lives with his wife Mary in Springville where he continues a rigorous studio practice.

We visited their beautiful home and studio on a recent October afternoon and spoke with Bruce about everything from Italian renaissance painters to his process as an artist. They worked with an architect to design their home from start to finish, and it gracefully sits between a garden and a small forest and pond in the suburbs of Springville. Bruce and Mary have a standard black poodle aptly named Matisse and a small pond in the back of their house with a duck. “It’s really a dumb duck,” says Smith. “It’s an Indian Runner which is supposed to be quite an intelligent species, but it’s not very smart at all.” He is observant and sincere, that Bruce Smith. 

Smith has a large series of work that consists of stunningly rendered paintings where items such as preserved fruits, statues, furniture, and clothing are put together in conversation with one another on the same canvas. An excellent draughtsman, these paintings have a deep connection to the European still-life tradition and yet there is a contemporary freshness in them where you see the expressiveness of the brush challenge his photorealistic elements in a very painterly and expressionistic manner, moreover you can see minimalism’s influence and the deliberate stripping away of unnecessary information. Old meets new in his work and to see these pieces in person is to see a dialogue between art worlds of past and present.

Our favorite flora painter Sarah Richards Samuelson remembers his painting influence at the school fondly, "I love his chair paintings so very much! They are really so exquisite, the textures and beautiful colors and shapes, of all the paintings I ever saw at BYU, they are some of the very most memorable and actually he is the reason that I paint on tempered Masonite." Sarah also notes of his kindness and interest in his students work, "I was so ensnared with his work...and he took time to entertain my questions even though I wasn't his student...A couple of years ago when I had a solo show in the Springville Museum, he came to the opening [and] it was gratifying to have him take interest in my art."

And there is yet another very different series of work of Bruce Hixson Smith’s work that depicts Biblical stories. One of our favorite paintings in this group of Smith’s work is “Nativity” and we have this piece available just in time for the Christmas season as a signed limited edition high quality print in our print gallery.

We talked in detail about his process with these Biblical paintings. “I use tracing paper as a way of hunting for the exact pose and expression I want for the image. I trace the same face over and over again until it sits right with me,” said Bruce on how he composes his pieces. Right now he is hard at work on constructing a painting about the Raising of Lazarus. As he describes the different characters in this scene, they seem to have minds of their own. “I used to think she was frightened,” says Smith pointing to a woman who he drew next to Lazarus’ miraculous resurrection, “but now I realized she’s overwhelmed in a different way.” “I didn’t mean to draw all women, it wasn’t my plan,” he says, inferring that the painting has its own will and personality that it asserts as it is being created.

There is an intuition not only to his process, but to the way he draws the human form as well. Looking through his large pile of studies, the characters don’t feel like mere technical figure drawings, but true gestural forms that convey the grace and organic nature of the human body, much like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael drew in their studies. Smith names Albrecht Durer as an influence because, ““[Durer] is approaching it from the inside out—And when it gets down to it, Durer paints what resonates on the inside, he’s a lot more searching rather than dramatic in the way he draws. He’s certainly not Italian in that aspect.”

Bruce Smith talks about some of his other influences such as J. W. Waterhouse, German printmaker Albrecht Durer, and Renaissance painters as we look through reference books. He has a wealth of knowledge of both classical and modern artists, a studio brimming full of sketches and ideas, and near the end of our visit with him he quotes the famous optical illusionist printmaker Escher who said right before he died that "he had enough in his mind to occupy three lifetimes." Talking to Smith it is clear that he is just as active a thinker as he is a painter in his later career, and that he is still anxious to hunt down and then portray and convey the beautiful and the true.

We really enjoyed this visit. Get a close up look of the Nativity print here.

-New Vision Art