Artist Statements

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Biographical Memories, 1964

They picked me up May 20th, 1906 in the Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma in 1907. My family farmed and ranched. Although we were part Cherokee, we lived among the Chickasaws and Choctaws in Pontotoc County, twenty miles from the Railroad Town. I have lived in sod houses, log cabins, frame houses lined with cardboard boxes and news papered. We carried water from the creek about one-half mile away in lard buckets strung on a broom handle with one of my brothers or sisters on the other end from me. They had nine of us.

We walked two and three miles to a one-room, one-teacher school and children passed as they were ready in each subject to the next grade so that when a child was asked what grade he was in the reply might be, “third, fourth and fifth” or “fifth, sixth and seventh.” For the eighth grade I rode horse-back eight miles each way, then I went out near Chickasha to stay with an older married sister so that I could go to high school. We grew corn, oats, wheat, cotton, sorghum and all kinds of food stuff. We raised cattle, hogs, turkeys, chickens, mules and horses. Every summer we went “on top the mountain” where my father had grass land leased and there we camped out for about six weeks while we bailed prairie hay with a crew of 19 to 21 men. When I was six I drove the bailer team and as years passed, progressed to each of the other jobs. The mower, the sulky rake, buck rake, bailer feeder, tying, and after high school one summer I cooked for the crew. I didn’t like the confinement with my sister in this little town where I was going to high school so I decided to do it in three years so as to get away from it. Then came hail storms, destroying entirely one year of crops, droughts, more crop failures, dust bowl, bole weevils, more failures, selling and giving away stock (cattle, horses, hogs), mortgages, trying to pay, moving, moving again, trying to pay and always trying to pay.

“The grapes of wrath” to the plains to pick cotton – to Arizona to work with a hi-way construction crew. Camped on the desert. Mountain state telephone project. Camped in the mountains. Sending money back to help pay mortgage. I wanted to go to college. More places, more jobs. Always less money to put in the kitty to pay higher mortgage fees, interest, etc. Then foreclosure. Now I was free to go to college. So much time had passed, five years since high school. Now I must rush and finish college in three years and then I could start teaching. I decided when six that I wanted to be a teacher and was never able to get it out of my mind. Also, during my last year of college I discovered by accident the art department. I proceeded to take some courses. Realized almost at once that I had always been an artist.

My first year of teaching was sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in a three teacher rural school where I also was called the principal. A geologist discovered an oil pool 2 miles away and people started coming in by the thousands and we were now busy also planning new schools. My second year of teaching, after spending my summer studying at Columbia University, was in one of the newly formed schools where I was principal and also sixth grade teacher. Children, of oil field workers, were adjusted to being transferred to different oil fields and different schools several times during a year and it was amazing to see new pupils come into a class and from their ever changing experiences be able to adjust so easily to new situations. I believe much of this was due to the fact that I had a strong creative arts program in connection with the regular curriculum which afforded the pupils with an emotional and intellectual outlet that supported well being and an exciting learning situation. After six wonderful years I resigned my job in this system to come to New York City where I had my first exhibition of paintings which I had done at night and on week-ends while teaching. The exhibition received extensive review (1940) from the New York press and I was asked to take charge of the art department in the College of Education of the university system of Georgia. I had hoped to teach in a university. Although I survived “The red-neck” Governor Talmadge I strongly advocated equal rights for all. After two and a half years in Georgia, I resigned to accept a job in Delaware as state supervisor of art education. This was a most interesting experience. Schools were segregated in Delaware and 1 worked with both the negro and white schools. After my first years experience with the two state teachers annual conventions, one white, one black, I helped start a movement to combine the two meetings and the conventions were combined the third year. In both Georgia and Delaware I was told that I “got by” with my “radical ideas” because I was from Oklahoma and people allowed for an Oklahoman to be “different”. This I never believed in.

In 1945 I accepted a Guggenheim award to paint for a year and resigned from Delaware. I painted two years in Santa Fe, New Mexico came back to New York City for more shows and accepted an assistant professorship of art at Rollins College in Florida. I liked the winters there but was somewhat disappointed in Rollins as a College, therefore I left there in 1951 and went to Cuba where I stayed seven months and was then able to return to New York refreshed. I taught one term at N.Y.U. and then was given charge of the art program at Mills College where I taught until 1958. By this time my paintings were well known and selling and I was able to leave the teaching field, and give myself to painting. And I can remember many years ago (it seems like thousands) when I was a child and my oldest brother married a fine Chickasaw woman who told stories and sang songs to me in her own language, which she taught me to quite well. So long ago, now I have forgotten most all the words but they still give me energy and keep me warm.

Line, Color, and the Concept of Space, 1961

Three elements which have interested me in art are: line, color, and the concept of space and its use as a positive force.

Mondrian’s discovery of the interchangeability of form and space greatly interested me, even though it was limited to rectilinear shapes. In the early ’40’s I set out from Mondrian to find a way of freeing this concept of space so that it could be expressed with the use of curved line as well as straight. I soon found that this was not an easy thing to do. After more than a decade of intense search and painting (in 1954) somewhat by accident, while drawing with free line on a spherical surface, I observed a concomitant situation wherein the idea of space and form were complimentary to each other as well as interchangeable. After many of these drawings I was able to carry this situation over into paintings on a circular format. And not until I had done more than a dozen of the circular paintings could I achieve this interchangeable use of space and form on a rectangular canvas. – Then, more than ever, there was the curved space which moves in every direction and when at a particular point a line changes its course you can not tell whether it turns right or left, up or down, in or out. A curved space all across the canvas, with only two colors to go by. The extending points where these two colors meet seem only to indicate a means by which to manoeuver through this evolved space which has absorbed the form, releasing it of its every need to behave any longer as form.

As to color. – The traditional use of somber color was never a part of my environment. I grew up in the Southwest where the colors in nature were pure and rampant and where my Indian neighbors and relatives used color to vibrate and shock in all its intensity with equal rampancy.

I have always felt that I was born for my time, the Twentieth Century, and never resisting it 1 have moved along with it as easily and as naturally as air and the breeze move together or even at times on the spire of a tornado.

Leon Polk Smith, 1961

Space and Color, 1982

I am interested in the way space becomes distorted and multidimensional between, around and amongst the collage forms, which I place on the given or selected surface, without using any traditional means of accomplishing this, such as perspective, shading, etc. The fine line acts as a pleasingly disturbing element in aesthetic contrasts. Then by simplest of means this is to create the greatest amount of space, moving in all directions. Space being activated and disturbed in this manner becomes multidimensional.

The drawings are not “drawings for paintings” but they are in the above manner closely related to the “Form Space Series” of my paintings begun in 1979 and “Form Space Series” is a further development of the “Constellation Series” begun in 1967. And these, of course, are rooted in all of my panel and folding paintings started in 1957.

Indeed, the space of which I have been speaking is an externalized evolution of the space in all of my paintings from the 1950s and the “Correspondence Series” of the 1960’s. The content of all of my works for over forty years has been mainly concerned with space and color. And my driving interest in the study of the history of art and its evolvements has been with artists concepts of space and their use of color. The last art to have been an influence on my own work was that of the painter Mondrian, whose paintings I first saw in 1936 while in study at Columbia University. Since then there has been a strict evolutionary development in my paintings and I have not seen a painting since that has given me an idea for my work in any sort of way.

Panel Paintings, 1986

My first panel paintings were made in the forties, then, in the fifties. They came about when I, by happenstance, had some paintings standing in a zig-zag manner near the wall and noticed some very strange phenomenons when patterns and or forms were juxtaposed in such a manner.

Even paintings that were not meant to be combined or were unrelated in color and form seemed to relate and communicate in a strange and exciting manner.

By 1961 when “two involvements” came about I was already deeply concerned with the mystery and function of space in paintings. And when I placed a circle, a segment of a circle or, a straight line across two or more connected panels then zig-zaged the panels, the results were pure magic and metaphoric, indeed.

This experience greatly facilitated my curiosity and interest. In space as one of the major elements of content in my paintings.

Leon Polk Smith, 1986

New York City, 1979

With me, New York City was love at first sight. Somehow it revealed its physical self to me through the mountains and canyons of the Southwest. There were the ups and downs – the high peaks, the in-betweens, or the canyons, and topped with the great dome. Indeed, an endless drama in itself. I felt the physical city to be a perfect equation for a great abstraction.

I had been in and out of the city every year since 1936. I received so much energy from it that I was all but levitated – I could easily roam all over and barely touch the pavement with my feet.

When I finally decided to paint “New York City” – I knew it well, and I knew that it was going to be like no other painting of a city. It was in my head, in my body and certainly in my heart. The actual painting came easily; it came wholly and I knew when it was finished that this was true. Maybe it was too bad that I knew. Otherwise I might have done more paintings of NYC. But this one was so complete that it seemed to me that there could be no others. I needed someone who would have said: “Do more – do many more paintings of the city.” Yes, it came full and full-blown and in full levitation – every part of it and the whole thing floats – floats as I have floated through its streets for these many years. The containment of this city, like the containment of Art or the containment of this painting, is the release of the SPIRIT end the fulfillment of the mind. New York certainly gave freedom to my mind and spirit and ever continues with the process of fulfillment.

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