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JANUARY 24, 2011

by Elwood H. Smith
(Comments taken from my monograph for my upcoming one-man show at the Norman Rockwell Museum)

I grew up in a home, in Alpena, Michigan, without paintings on the walls. My parents didn't attend chamber music concerts, read Shakespeare or own a record player. But they owned a radio and we received daily newspapers and various magazines. Those were my conduits to the arts.

Some of my earliest memories are the sounds of nasal hillbilly singers, local polka bands and jazz orchestras like Benny Goodman transmitting from WATZ, my hometown radio station. Long before I began school and discovered Huckleberry Finn, I was poring over the Sunday Comics in the Detroit Free Press. I spent hours studying the colorful halftone images. I remember comparing the cartoonists’ drawing skills, separating the great ones from the lesser ones. Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom were fun stories, but the art, according to my rating system, wasn’t as good as the work in the strips at the top of my list: Prince Valiant, Krazy Kat, Popeye, Barney Google and Pogo. No one else in my home or my community shared my enthusiasm for the genre, but I was content traveling about in the world of comics by myself. I have no idea when or why I began rating the comic artists, but the hierarchy I’d created improved my eye for quality. Producing quality in my own work was a much more difficult matter altogether.

Another rich source of art flowing into our household was the Saturday Evening Post. The magazine featured cartoons by the likes of John Gallagher and Henry Syverson (my two favorites) but nothing excited me as much as the arrival of a new Post cover illustrated by Norman Rockwell. It wasn't until I met my high school art teacher, Nancy Boyer Feindt, that I stretched beyond my narrow, but carefully constructed world of art.

As I said, my parents weren’t familiar with the arts but they were genuinely supportive of my determination to be an artist and, later on, my desire to play the guitar. My father worked as a foundry foreman in a factory. He built my first electric guitar with wood supplied by his pattern maker. As foreman, he often visited the drafting department and the clean, well lit workspace prompted him to encourage me to study mechanical drawing course in high school. Which I did and did poorly. After a two year struggle to learn drafting, I switched to an art class, where I met the new teacher, Nancy Boyer Feindt, who had arrived fresh from New York City. Nancy and I remained friends over the decades and, two weeks before she died, she told me that I was the most stubborn student she'd ever taught. Luckily for me, she spotted talent behind the stubbornness, saw possibilities in my amateurish squiggles, and took me under her wing. Mrs. Feindt prodded and encouraged me despite my resistance. She saw hunger and curiosity lurking behind the fear and ignorance. She slyly eased me into the world of fine art by first introducing me to illustrative artists like Saul Steinberg, Honoré Daumier, Leonard Baskin and Ben Shahn. It wasn't long before she was showing me prints of Vincent Van Gogh, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso. As my high school graduation drew near, she asked around and found an art school in Chicago that offered a course in cartooning. Thanks to Nancy Feindt, I was on my way.

It has always been my impression that my life as an artist was like a Conestoga wagon (B-Western movies were a big part of my childhood) traveling along a road, taking me from those early comic days in Alpena, down to art school and my early career in Chicago and then across to my heady New York City days and finally to my Rhinebeck years and my show here at the Norman Rockwell Museum. However, as I began writing these notes for the monograph, I realized that my career and, indeed, my life, wasn’t a linear journey, but instead an ever expanding circle. Those old swing tunes and Nancy Feindt and Barney Google With The Goo-Goo-Goggly Eyes are here, right now, in the circle, not lagging behind in the dust of the past.

Norman Rockwell, who was there, guiding me in my earliest days, is also in my life right now and has been in it all along. So it makes perfect sense that this collection of my life’s work exists, at least for a while, in Mr. Rockwell’s museum, a stone’s throw away from his marvelous paintings.