April 8, 2010 in Washington Voices

Medical Lake man drawn to a life of art

Jennifer Larue
 
PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON photo

Dennis Smith works in his Medical Lake studio creating new artwork Monday.
(Full-size photo)

Dennis Smith seems to have no trouble finding inspiration for his paintings and ceramic creations. He has a lake and all of its beauty practically in his backyard and over 30 years of experience dealing with the human spirit.

“The human spirit is phenomenal under adverse conditions,” he said. “I have witnessed compassion, tenacity, and men and women taking care of each other.”

Smith joined the Air Force during Vietnam War and served as a survival instructor at Fairchild Air Force Base for four years. During that time, he helped build the survival museum, creating artwork to go along with the displays. Though he had no formal training in art, save for the time he spent painting in high school, his natural talent was recognized. Not long after leaving the military, he was offered a civil servant job as an illustrator.

After taking a year of classes in illustration at Spokane Falls Community College, Smith, 60, illustrated manuals, student study guides, slides and posters. He was called a visual information specialist, a job title with duties that included video and film production work focusing on prisoners of wars and detainees. One poster he created, called “Facing the Unknown,” depicts two detainees seated with their hands tied behind their backs, an American flag, and a pair of broken glasses in the foreground. The words surviving, courage, stand tall, freedom, and resistance frame the central focus: the two captured Americans.

Smith retired in 2003. More than 30 years ago, he purchased a home in Medical Lake and a cottage next door, which he rented out. In the mid-’90s, he tore down the cottage and built a large studio where he is free to create. His wife Linda has a small area where she quilts, and Smith takes over the rest to sketch, paint and hand-build unique ceramic vessels.

The couple opens the studio to neighbors and friends for an annual art show and hands-on events, including a “Play in Clay Day,” where children are invited to create.

“If you feel you’re stagnating as an artist, invite a child into your studio, get them started, leave them alone, and then watch them work,” Smith said.

Smith’s paintings contain moments of grace, from his portraits of strong, wise and pensive subjects, to his simple depictions of a bowl of fish, a cast-iron skillet sitting in a stripped field, or a forgotten boat waiting to be repaired for fishing season. A regal peacock with a flowing train of color commands attention, as do tall and stoic trees surrounded by dreamy foliage.

Smith’s ceramic pieces also contain soft beauty taken from the nature that surrounds him, like bugs, leaves and branches found on his walks along the lake that he collects and makes molds of, to be pressed into the wet clay.

He makes functional pieces as well as wall hangings.

Smith has shown his work sparingly in Spokane, Idaho and Seattle. For about nine years, he participated in Western art shows and auctions and is currently a member of Avenue West Gallery, 122 S. Monroe St.

For years as an illustrator, Smith has catered to a client’s wants. Now he is free to “show how he feels” and share with others the inspiring things he has seen over the years, represented in strokes of color and awe-inspiring form.

“My desire is that my work might reflect the richness of where I live and who I meet.”

The Verve is a weekly feature celebrating the arts. If you know an artist, dancer, actor, musician, photographer, band or singer, contact correspondent Jennifer LaRue by e-mail jlarue99@hotmail.com

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