'I can't really quit painting'

At 89 years old, Harriet Rex Smith is not about to set down her brush.

"I can't really quit painting," she says. "It's the thing that gives me the most joy."

In her Ashland studio, several hundred paintings are strewn across furniture, hung on walls and shoved in drawers, each the product of a day's creativity and a lifetime of inspiration.

"Every time artists paint they produce something," says Smith. "They are practicing, but they don't know it because everything they do leads to something better. Most of us go right to the masterpiece, but two or three years down the road look back and say, 'That was a good practice piece.' "

Smith's original masterpieces will be displayed and sold alongside her "practice" pieces at an open studio held from noon to dusk, Saturday and Sunday, May 29-30, at the studio in her home, 11600 Highway 66 (next to the Greensprings Inn), Ashland. Several of her family members will be on hand to lead nature walks and offer visitors an opportunity to try sketching, painting or clay modeling.

Smith received her bachelor of fine arts degree from Indiana University and her master of fine arts degree from the University of Notre Dame. She taught at Purdue University, Indiana University and Valparaiso University for about 13 years, before moving to Southern Oregon 32 years ago.

Although she was trained in oil painting and taught drawing, Smith prefers acrylic and watercolor.

"There are some advantages to acrylic that make me prefer it," she says. "One is the smell. Another is the flexibility of the medium. With acrylics ... you can thin it and paint almost watercolor or thicken it and paint anything you want."

Smith favors acrylic for her large-scale works, which measure up to 80 by 80 inches. She opts for watercolor when working "en plein air," with smaller works (no larger than 40 by 60 inches) and when painting the nebulae and galaxies as seen in photographs taken with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Entranced by astronomy, Smith has painted nearly 100 paintings inspired by Hubble images. She says she uses watercolor for these works because "it mixes and looks more like what you see in the heavens."

While living in the Chicago area, Smith painted portraits and figure compositions, submitted her work in numerous competitions and won dozens of awards. After moving west, she says she stopped treating her art as a commodity, and instead saw it as a "kind of acknowledgment of my gratitude of the beauty of creation."

Smith feels that competition affect's an artist's work, as he or she works to appeal to a judge or to fit into the mold of the time period.

"Give prizes for sports where everyone is trying to do the same thing," she says. "Art is where you're trying not to do the same thing, so it doesn't make any sense to judge one artist's work against another's."

Two years ago, Smith sold a collection of 40 paintings to Asante Health System, who placed them in three Rogue Valley facilities.

For more information about Smith's work or her open studio, call 541-488-0576.

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