Larry Smithers as FEATURED ARTIST
First of all, may I say what an honor it is to be selected as Kelly’s Featured Artist. As a relatively new artist I feel in privileged company with her many talented students.
You say you are a relatively new artist. How did you get started?
It was about 5 years ago. My wife gave me a book called Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain. Until that moment I did not even know I could draw. Since we were living and cruising on a boat then, I had plenty of time to read it and, for fun, I did everything it said to do. Then I tried drawing pictures of our friends. Though they might have been laughing behind my back, they were encouraging. So I continued to draw.
About this time in our cruising career, we had settled into sort of a routine. We would tell people that we just went where the weather was better. We would head for the Bahamas or the Keys for the winter and then head north to the Chesapeake Bay for the summer. One of our favorite stops along the way was Stuart. We like to stay there for about a month at time, in the Fall while heading south, and in the Spring when heading north.
It was during one of our Stuart visits that my wife, Ruth, asked if I might want to take an art class. The truth is that I had never even thought about it. Even so, I jumped at the opportunity. We stopped by an art supply store to ask if there were any art teachers in the area. They said there were many they could recommend. In fact, they handed me a business card for one by the name of Kelly Arnold.
I have been studying with Kelly ever since. OK, until last year it was pretty sporadic. I would take a couple of lessons and then head south for the winter, then take another couple lessons passing through as we headed north for the summer. But to my surprise, with every lesson, it seemed like my artwork kept improving.
Kelly would review what I had done and give me feedback. I always had a list of questions and goals for things I thought I needed. She would answer my questions while I took copious notes. But often what she had me do was not in the direction I thought I needed to go. Kelly could see what skills I really needed to learn and would give me what I often thought were very strange things to practice. Looking back, it felt kind of like the “wax on, wax off” training for the young boy in the KARATE KID movie. That’s how I got started.
Do you still live on boat? Do you call it a boat or was it a yacht?
It was a really a motor yacht. But, no, last year we “swallowed the anchor,” as they say, and moved ashore. Having travelled up and down the East Coast, we found that we really liked the Stuart area. So we decided to move here. Actually, we settled in Saint Lucie West and just love it. For one thing, I now have a little studio where I can try painting. Painting was too messy to learn on the boat.
I understand you recently completed your first painting. Could you tell us about that? I heard there was something unusual about it.
Yes, I would say the whole experience was unusual. My wife and I were in Chattanooga, TN visiting our son. Coincidentally, Jana, my wife’s best childhood friend from back in Ohio, also lives in Chattanooga. We all got together at my son’s house. As I was showing off my portfolio of pencil drawings, Jana asked if I would consider doing a painting for her dining room, a commission.
A painting? I’d never painted before! Could I paint a painting? I mean I did want to learn how to paint but… I quickly excused myself and ran to another room to call Kelly, who assured me I could paint a painting. What was the subject? Did Jana want it in oils or acrylics? Find out and Kelly would help guide me through the process. Hanging up I walked back into the room, saying with just the barest hint of confidence that I could certainly paint Jana a picture for her dining room. She said that would be great.
What she wanted was a polish rooster, four feet tall and five feet wide. What? My drawings were portraits of people. A rooster? Sure, one time I drew a Key West rooster but…wait! How big did she want this? 4 feet by 5 feet? Uh oh. I was sure I had bitten off more than I could chew. Where would I even find a canvas that big? It would have to be a canvas, right? So far I had only drawn on paper!
Did you have any trouble locating a canvas?
Oh, yes. The closest art supply store was AC Moore right in Saint Lucie West. They did not carry any that size. Neither did Michaels. Stuart Art Supply could order it for me, but they came 2 to a pack and were pretty expensive. Kelly found one at a reasonable price.
Do you have any idea how big a 4 foot by 5 foot canvas is? And this one had thick sides so you did not need a frame. It was so big that is did not fit in either of our cars! Kelly came through again. We fabricated an elaborate pulley system to hoist the canvas, hopefully with dry paint, up against the ceiling of Kelly’s van. From the driver’s seat, she could just see under the canvas through the rear view mirror. Obviously, that meant the only time I could work on the painting was during class, once a week.
Was that a problem? When did your client want the painting done?
It turned out not being a problem, but I did not know that at the time. You see, there were a couple of things I had failed to ask or negotiate. I had no idea when Jana wanted the painting. Plus, we never talked about a price. Heck, I didn’t really know IF I could do the painting to her satisfaction.
There never was deadline set. Jana was in the process of remodeling her dining room. In fact, she is remodeling the entire house, a huge project. So, I never felt a time pressure to complete the painting. I just had to learn how to paint a polish rooster.
Did your client have a specific rooster in mind? Did she own one? Why a polish rooster?
I don’t know why she wanted a polish rooster. You‘d have to ask her that question. I know she did not own one. She sent me a picture of a painting of a polish rooster that she liked but could not afford.
I told her I could not copy it due to copyright issues. The final bird was a composite of maybe 20 different pictures. He has the beak from one, the feathers from several others, even the background was from a rooster portrait.
In the end, he was one very unique bird. I am pretty sure you could not find another like him in real life.
You had never painted before. What were some of the first hurdles you had to overcome?
There were several big ones. The first was whether to paint with acrylics or oils. We settled on acrylics because it dried quickly (saving Kelly’s van ceiling) and mostly because, if I didn’t leave globs of paint on the canvas, I could easily paint over parts I didn’t like.
I learned that you want to paint the background first rather than try to paint it in and around your subject.
Another early big one was that if you let acrylics dry on your clothes, they will never come out. This lesson, of course, resulted in the dedication of a set of permanent “painting” clothes… and the purchase of other “good” clothes. I never noticed the aprons some of the other students were wearing until after that lesson.
Do I paint the whole bird or just a portrait? I settled on a portrait.
And just how do you paint a feather, anyway?
It must be pretty expensive to paint a picture that size?
Big paintings require a lot of paint. No wimpy tubes of paint for me. No wimpy brushes either. It can get expensive. I kept track for a while, thinking I would justify the price, still unknown, with a summary of the costs involved. Then, one day, I received an unsolicited check in the mail from my client for $400 to help cover some of my expenses. I was ecstatic. This was for expenses. That means she was thinking of paying me more than that for the finished painting, doesn’t it? I obviously had no clue what people pay for paintings. No experience, remember? And this was a very big painting.
With such a big canvas, I imagine you drew a lot of attention while you were painting?
Right from the very beginning. At first, they would come to me and ask what I was painting. Towards the end, I knew it was coming along because the main question shifted to, “What’s his name?” That one stumped me for a while. I took photos of my progress every day. Looking back over those photos, I cannot remember exactly when that shift occurred.
What was his name? Hugo Gailis
That is a very unusual name. There must be some story behind it, isn’t there?
There certainly is. As the painting progressed, I tried to give my client somewhat regular updates. I did not want her to regret her commission and did want her to appreciate that progress was indeed being made.
When faced with the repeated question of the rooster’s name, I decided to ask my client for her suggestions. Here is the name part of what I emailed to her:
Here is where I might benefit from your help. One of the most frequent questions I hear now is, "What is his name?" I tell them he is a Polish Rooster and sometimes make up a little story about his early life and family, but he ought to have a name, don't you think? Should it be Polish? Latvian? Or, did you know they were originally bred in the Netherlands? They were called Polish chickens because their top feathers made them look like the helmets on Polish soldiers.
Let me know your name ideas and I will try them out on him and ask him which he likes best.
This was her response:
This is so exciting. I can't wait to see him. What I love is that he already has a personality. He will not be seen directly from the living room but from a corner of it and will be seen from the kitchen as well.
He will have prominence on the major wall of the dining room. I love that you have stories about him and his family. I will give his name some more thought but the first ones that came to me immediately were Gailis (pronounced Guylis and means Rooster in Latvian), Hugo, and of course Gedimins, Daddy's full name since he was always the rooster of our household, always taking care of his hens. Did you know that my Father's ancestors were Dutch (Grotius)? And Grandfather Grotuss was an artist? If you google Hugo Grotuss, there are quite a few links that show some of his paintings. He was a realist.
Anyway, I do like Gailis, but you will need to ask him if any of the above names appeal to him. If not, then we'll come up with something more appropriate. Just remind him that Gedimins was a King.
Based on her input, this is the story I put together:
Patriarch of a very colorful family.
His story begins in the Netherlands.
Hugo was named after his benefactor, Hugo Grotius, whom he and his family served… Or was it the other way around?
Both Hugo’s were rather outspoken, even in such turbulent times. It is no surprise that Grotius was finally arrested and sentenced to life in prison for his religious views.
As the story goes, during Grotius’s daring escape from prison in a book chest, it was Hugo the Rooster’s job to distract attention from the fleeing humans.
Once in Paris, Hugo’s family grew and spread throughout Europe, many finally settling in Poland where they flourished and thrived.
Hugo’s descendants became so beloved that people started thinking of them as “The Polish Chickens,” completely ignoring their Dutch origins.
They became such local icons that it is rumored the Polish Army fashioned the shape of their helmets and their marching strut to honor them.
They owe it all to Hugo, who kept a protective eye on his family… and his hens happy.
Did you send this to your client in one of your progress reports?
No. I saved it for the unveiling presentation. I think I did tell her that his name was Hugo Gailis.
On seeing Hugo’s story, Kelly suggested that I might want to include adoption papers for Hugo when I transferred ownership. So, while finishing up the painting, I also put together a Baby Book for Hugo. It included the story, the adoption papers and a few key photos of Hugo’s development from a blank canvas up to his full maturity.
This is when the time pressure started. Jana, my client, wrote that she and her mother wanted to drive from Chattanooga to Florida to visit Hugo.
I finished Hugo. They came. And, I presented them with the painting.
How did you present Hugo?
First, Kelly graciously delivered Hugo to our house. I put him in the garage, covered with a sheet and surrounded with garage stuff so that he could hide until the appropriate moment. Since Hugo was commissioned to go into a dining room, I carried he sheet covered painting into our dining room and set Hugo onto a buffet leaning against a wall where he would be well lit. I asked Jana and her mother to stand in a spot that would give them a good first viewing and with a slight fanfare revealed Hugo. I watched their jaws drop open.
Before they could say anything, I told them that the consensus of my art teacher and other artists who had viewed Hugo in his final stages of development was that Hugo was more than just another painting. His seemed almost real. Consequently, I explained to my client that she was actually adopting Hugo into her family. With that I presented her with Hugo’s adoption papers, complete with official seal.
Next came a leather bound Baby Book with contained the story mentioned earlier as well a selection of photos representing Hugo’s development from the first stokes of paint to today.
From their initial reactions, I knew that Hugo had exceeded their expectations. Jana kept disappearing into the dining room to sit and stare at Hugo. Every time I saw her there, it brought a smile to my heart. The next morning Jana surprised me by offering me more than I had expected for the commission.