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 Gilbert Smith  (1911 - 2002)

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Lived/Active: Alaska/New Mexico/Ohio / Mexico      Known for: mountain landscape

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Mountain Pass in Winter
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following obituary is from the Chilkit Valley News, of Haines, Alaska, May 30, 2002

Famed landscape artist dies at New Mexico home
By Steve Williams

Gil Smith, the Chilkat Valley's pre-eminent landscape artist, died Tuesday in Las Cruces, New Mexico of natural causes.  He was 88.

Smith lived in Haines from l940 to l988, when he and wife Janis Marston moved to Glenwood, New Mexico after he was partially paralyzed by a severe stroke.  He had been living in a Las Cruces nursing home since September.

Smith, whose realistic oil paintings of the Chilkat Valley hang in many local homes, is remembered as a resourceful homesteader with a taste for solitude and a dedication to craft.

In l948 he built the valley's only stone house at his 8 Mile homestead, and spent much of his time hiking and blazing trails along mountain ridges.  An early member of Lynn Canal Conservation, Smith is credited with establishing the Mount Ripinsky trail.

Smith painted in a variety of mediums, but was prolific in oils and watercolors. Marston said he painted approximately 3,000 images of local landscapes, especially of the Cathedral Peaks, the series of pinnacles that dominate the western skyline across the Chilkat Valley from his home.

Although Smith was a productive artist, he didn't put much energy into promoting his career.  In l990, the Alaska State Museum described Smith as "one of the major Alaskan artists today."

"Partly due to his long residence in a small, relatively isolated corner of Alaska and his independent nature, Smith does not yet have the reputation that his work deserves."

Artist John Svenson, who studied under Smith in the l960s, called him an excellent painter in oils who mastered the medium's techniques.

"He was a great instructor and in Southeast he was one of the best oil painters to come around.  It's hard to bracket a guy like that, but technically he was right up there with (renowned Denali artists) Eustice Zeigler and Belmore Brown.  He had a good sense of form and color and his composition was real good. Nobody's done a Cathedral Peaks to match his," Svenson said.

Longtime friend Vivian Menaker said Smith spent a good part of his life alone in landscapes he painted.  "We knew him for a long time.  Whether we knew him well, we don't know."

Born in Ohio and raised in Colorado, Smith graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in the l930s.  He moved to Alaska in l940, booking passage to Skagway on the steamship Denali.  He paddled from Skagway to Haines, landing in Chilkoot Inlet in a home built kayak.  In l940, he paid $12.50 for his five-acre homestead at 8 Mile Haines Highway.

He joined the U.S. Army in l942, serving at Fort Seward, the Pribilof Islands and India. When the war ended, Smith returned to Haines and a job as a construction worker on the Haines Highway, collecting stone during the job to build the walls of his house.

Using the front room of his home as a studio, Smith produced the multitude of landscapes that defined his career.  His work has been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, in the offices of the Alaska Delegation in Washington, D.C., and is included in the permanent collections of many Alaska museums.

Eight early paintings were used to illustrate a l960 article on Southeast Alaska in the Ford Motor Company's Ford Times magazine.  The cover featured a Smith rendition of the Haines Highway with a Ford Galaxie station wagon superimposed on the road.

Sheldon Museum curator Cindy Jones said an early painting of Pyramid Harbor on display at the museum is her favorite.  "It was painted for Whitey and Lib Hakkinen for their wedding.  For Gil it was primitive, because it doesn't have a lot of detail, but I love it because of that."

The detail that Smith added later came from using photographic slides to trace the outlines of landforms on canvas, Jones said.

Svenson said while the technique wasn't used much by serious painters in the l960s, it's now commonplace.  "His detail was immaculate, and there was probably no other way to get it. I'm sure he had the skill to just paint that detail. It used to be the big taboo, but I do it myself sometimes."

After his stroke, Smith developed his left hand for drawing, concentrating on wildlife portraits.

Marston described his new style as akin to a print-making process, with use of shading rather than the sketching of distinct lines.   Jones has a series of the drawings, which she describes as beautiful.

"He sent me a caribou and a tiger. They're gorgeous."

Marston said she planned to bring Smith's ashes back to Haines to be spread.  Marston is Smith's only survivor.  A sister, Elva, died in the l970s.


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Gilbert Smith is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Notable Alaska

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