17 May Vernon Smith – Cape Cod Artist and Artisan
The Cape Cod Museum of Art (CCMoA) is bringing together a wealth of information and uncovered many outstanding examples of the work of Vernon Smith in a comprehensive retrospective of this key artist in the history of Cape Cod art from the 1920s through the 1960s.
Smith (1894 – 1969) was a modernist who was rooted in naturalist forms. As an influential regional director for the WPA’s Federal Art Project, he also had an important impact on Cape artists such as Blanche Lazzell, Bruce McKain, Philip Malicoat and Karl Knaths.
“Because of the excitement and assistance from his family and community who knew him, we are fortunate to be able to show the stunning range of Vernon Smith’s work that reveals his mastery as painter, sculptor and craftsman. His work is still very compelling to our contemporary sensibilities. ” said Edith (Deede) Tonelli, director of CCMoA.
“We see Vernon Smith as a master artist whose work is emblematic of the dynamic art impulses that were so strong on the Cape from the 30s through the 60s. You can see it in his oil paintings of the 30s….so intent on nature and specific in place that you can recognize Orleans’ landmarks today,” Tonelli continued.
“His early representational work was dramatic in his use of perspective and flowing lines to define space. His work evolved to become more abstract, yet still rooted in naturalist imagery as he used Cubist ideas in his paintings and geometric forms in his carved wood panels in relief. Smith was a Renaissance man who also used his distinctive style and skills to create functional art, such as tables and lamps.”
Vernon Smith has particular significance for Tonelli, as she first became familiar with his work while writing her 385-page illustrated Doctoral thesis, “The Massachusetts Federal Art Project: A Case Study in Government Support for Art,” and organizing her first major exhibition at the De Cordova Museum, “By the People, for the People: New England.’
In the catalog that accompanies the exhibit, Tonelli says, “Sometimes in life our interests and passions come full circle. For me, my interest in Vernon Smith as a dynamic and influential supervisor on the Federal Art Project of the WPA was stimulated as a doctoral student, combing through National Archives documents in Washington, DC.
“My passion for illuminating the details of this unprecedented (and not yet repeated!) government program lay primarily in the revelation of the dynamics of the day-to-day creative opportunity given to artists in their studios.”
Tonelli remarked that “in ‘rediscovering’ Smith at the CCMoA, I have had the opportunity to unearth my early correspondence with his daughter, Sara Smith Joy, from 40 years ago, before this museum was even in existence! At that time, Ms. Joy wrote to me, ‘It is interesting to know that there are still people interested in the Federal Arts Project of the 1930s.’
“In truth, Smith was not only revered by most artists and administrators as a consummate professional, he was seen as a champion for artists’ rights to free expression, and often found ways around government regulations to help artists stay at their easels. He fought for higher wages for Cape Cod artists, because of the seasonal nature of the Cape, and because of the higher cost of living than other ‘rural’ areas of Massachusetts.”
In his biography of Smith in the catalogue, Bruce Wolf, a collector and champion of Smith’s work, writes:
….. it was in the town of Orleans, on Cape Cod, where Smith was best known and accomplished most of his most important work. In the late 1940’s, he turned almost exclusively to carving low-relief wood sculpture, and experimented with realistic and abstract subjects.
Many of his earlier paintings and watercolors became studies for his wood relief sculptures. In addition to intricate wood relief sculptures of herring runs, shore birds, beach grass, planetary, and other nature-based motifs, Smith designed and carved intricate wooden lamp bases, affixing them with shades which contained painted scenes or abstractions.
Smith’s grandson, artist Dan B. Joy, who has carefully preserved much of his grandfather’s artistic and written legacy, quotes him, and comments: ‘There is a crying need in every community for an artist of ability, insight, tact and dignity,’ Smith wrote, ‘who is not above designing a stage set for a local theatrical venture, decorating a ball room for the senior hop, giving advice about city planning, selecting pictures for its public buildings, serving on art juries, talking on art in its schools and helping form good taste and promote the true art spirit in his town….’
Art and utility were fully integrated at home. He decorated his floors and walls with effortless motifs. Cabinet latches were fishes and the drawer pulls were worked aluminum. His handcrafted kitchen utensils and serving trays seemed to be of medieval vintage. Lamps were carved and lampshades hand-painted. He personalized jewelry boxes and blanket chests. His outdoor bird feeders were ingeniously artistic (they provided cash flow during the 50’s and 60’s).
Tonelli concludes her remarks in the catalogue saying, “It is a full circle for me to “rediscover” Vernon Smith. But it is also a new discovery – to get to know the man, the artist, the artisan – the long span of his life and work, his relatives, friends, and passionate collectors. I agree with the enigmatic “C.T.C,” who wrote in 1962: “Vernon Smith, a shy, gentle, slight man, goes forth in his art a man of stature.”
Smith’s work is represented in the collections of many art museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, the Cape Cod Museum of Art, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and the Toledo the Museum of Art.