Guest Opinion: Harriet Rex Smith: Farewell to an artist in the forest

Every year since Jan. 7, 1967, Janet and I have celebrated what I call our annual honeymoon. In 2005 we spent our 38th honeymoon at Green Springs Inn, where we bumped into our plumber, Andy Smith, at the restaurant. As much as Andy and I had talked through the years I had never heard him mention his mother.

“Oh yeah!” he said, “She lives down the next driveway. She has a studio there where she paints.”

Shortly, I met his mom, and the visit was, well, memorable! Suggesting that we might be intruding, we were instead greeted like old friends.

Expecting an elderly lady perhaps using a walker, I was surprised to meet the energetic woman who welcomed us in like old friends. Asking her if it wasn’t lonely up here in the woods, she laughed, “People come all the time! I have Andy down the road and Dominick in Ashland and two of my daughters come regularly, plus all the visitors from the restaurant who see my art and want to meet the artist. Oh no, I’m hardly lonesome!”

Before we could protest, she insisted on us sharing a cup of tea and some cookies. With that, we sat down to a marvelous two-hour chat that passed so quickly I didn’t realize it except for the fading light on the winter scene outside her wall of windows, the fir trees’ boughs bending under the weight of the snow. We talked about her life and the difficulties of raising seven children alone after her husband left. We talked about religion and politics and children and house-building, and of course, art. Not just graphic art but the arts in general. She was a devotee of chamber music particularly, and enjoyed the concert series at Southern Oregon University.

I couldn’t help but wonder at this charismatic lady who continued to create art at a pace which certainly belied her age. When I asked, “How do you ever get any work done with all the interruptions by visitors?” She explained that in her personal hierarchy she places God at the top of the pyramid, people second and work below that.

The more we talked and the farther afield we explored subjects, the more I liked her. Even when we disagreed at times, it was a pleasant disagreement and I discovered she was far more tolerant than I.

How did this octogenarian continue to have the power and passion of a person half her age? How was she able to live such an independent life in such a secluded environment? How was she able to produce valued work when others her age are more focused on which retirement home they’re going to spend their last days to live in, or where they’re going to be buried? I don’t know the answer, but whatever it is, if she could’ve bottled it, she’d have made more money than Coca Cola!

You can’t peek into this marvelous woman’s “bottling plant” at Greensprings anymore.

She died last week, July 20, but I feel honored to have had several visits with this delightful and lively anomaly, this artist in the forest. Thank you, Harriett!

— Don Dolan lives in Ashland.

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