Harriett Rex Smith, a well-noted valley artist, cosmic-minded philosopher and environmental activist, died Thursday, surrounded by her children at home in the Greensprings. She was 96.
Smith was noted for blazing her own trails as an artist, not painting what was in vogue and not seeking gallery showings and marketing. She invited many students, friends and admirers to her studio on the Greensprings.
Smith, a native of Indiana, earned her Masters in Fine Art from Notre Dame University and established herself as an artist in Chicago before coming, with friend Betty Shotliff, now a centenarian on the Greensprings, to the valley in 1978.
On her website, harriettrexsmith.com, she wrote, “In her tenth decade, fine artist Harriett Rex Smith is still painting, both her signature very large astronomy watercolors inspired by Hubble space photography, and her meticulously rendered acrylics on canvas. Inspired by Southern Oregon’s verdant mountains, she paints plein-air landscapes and travels to the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and coastal California for more subject matter.”
State Rep. Pam Marsh of Ashland says, “She was a phenomenal artist, mentor and my neighbor on the Greensprings for 10 years. … She was extraordinary and challenging, the way she saw the universe connecting with extremely ordinary things.”
Hanging in Marsh’s office in the Legislature is a large painting by Smith of the Bubble Nebula towering over a homeless man sleeping on a park bench, covering himself with newspapers.
“I asked her to lend me a painting. I felt they were the best reflection of my valley. Everyone who comes in my office stands there reflecting on this amazing piece of art on the wall. She did a series of paintings from the incredible Hubble images, showing the connection of the infinite with little things on the ground, even the most humble. One shows our Green Springs Inn.”
Marsh’s husband, Diarmuid McGuire, co-owner of the inn, says, “She was the most warm, loving person I’ve ever known. She greeted us with open arms when we bought the inn in 1994 and was our best friend ever since. She was an incredible icon for womanhood, art and progressive politics.
“She even went to jail 20 years ago in a battle over timber sales, blocking a bridge after the Biscuit fire. The jailer had a harder time than she did. She was telling him how to run his jail. She was convinced in the rightness of her cause. She wasn’t someone you wanted to mess around with.”
“She reflected in her art the deep connections about life, philosophy, who we are and what we are here to do,” Marsh said. “She was very engaging, constantly thinking the big thoughts. … She reached out to all kinds of people. They would come to pay homage to her at her studio in the woods. She was an incredible mentor for me — someone who is a woman and decided to live her life as she wanted to, just constantly engaging and thinking about people around her. She was charming and straight forward. She loved her studio, the calm serenity and painted till her final illness.”
Smith’s daughter, Lucy Maria Smith of Santa Fe, New Mexico, called her “an amazing, prolific artist and a great mother. We children were blessed to have had her in our lives. She saw the world with so much love and painted plants, animals, portraits and everything with such love.”
Her son Dominic Smith, a retired plumber in Ashland, said, “She never stopped giving, as a mother and artist. She was the mother of seven and was always working, taking care of her children and painting and teaching.” Another son, Andrew, is a plumber-contractor in Ashland.
Noted local artist, close friend and emeritus professor Betty LaDuke, says, “She paints lush watercolors, often juxtaposing tangible momentary pleasures of everyday life with the deep dark celestial mysteries of the night sky. While we feel and enjoy a variety of scenes and objects, from flowers to fir trees to antique machinery, we also ponder the vastness of the star sprinkled space that surrounds her reality, and to which we must all surrender.”
Another Smith daughter, Tina Tomiyama of Los Angeles, said, “Harriett often spoke about the value of the artist in the community, about the artist seeing the familiar in different ways, and by painting it, helping others see it. … When Harriett taught architectural rendering at Purdue University to young people who had never drawn or painted before, she would take them out to an alley near the campus and tell them, ‘Draw what you see.’ With consternation, a student would say, ‘But what is there to see here?’ And then Harriett would show them the radial symmetry of dandelions, the vigor of thistles growing through the pavement, the delicate tints of nearly-invisible flowers — and the students would start seeing the familiar in completely new ways.
“Harriett’s ‘Rex Astronomy’ series paired images from the Hubble telescope, painstakingly rendered, with foregrounds of an entirely different scale: a bouquet of flowers, a cellist playing amidst bomb debris, children dancing in Lithia Park. These juxtapositions help the viewer see the painting, and by extension the world, with fresh eyes. Even at 96, Harriett’s eyes were always fresh!”
The artist entered and won many contests and cash prizes but, says Tomiyama, she eventually realized “she wanted to honor other artists, not compete against them, so she quit that, making her poorer but she’d put her money where her mouth is — and it kept her in communion with all other artists.”
Plans call for a celebration of love for Smith in the fall on a date yet to be determined.
—John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at [email protected].