A new exhibit showcasing original prints and rarely seen works by James Agrell Smith is now on display at the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery.
‘James Agrell Smith: A Broader Picture: Drawings, Paintings and Original Prints’ runs through to Nov. 11 with an opening reception and a talk with curator Mary Beth Laviolette set for Sept. 29 at 2 p.m.
Agrell Smith, who passed away in 1988, was born in Stettler in 1913. This centenary exhibition of Agrell Smith is the first comprehensive survey of his original prints and rarely seen works on paper and paintings.
Working in sumi-ink, wood engraving, woodcuts and woodblock prints, his subjects range from black and white portraits, self-portraits and figures to native scenes and prairie farm landscapes.
He was also a writer and illustrator, and he retired from working in the post office in 1970. He passed away in Red Deer at the age of 75.
“He was essentially a self-taught artist,” explains Lorna Johnson, executive director of the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery.
“At the age of 17, he joined the Navy. So he had the opportunity to travel. In his journals, he mentions New York and London as being where, when he was on leave, he would go to the art galleries and look at all the works of the old masters.”
With Agrell Smith’s birth being in 1913, the same year the City of Red Deer was incorporated, a showcase of his work seemed absolutely appropriate as well. “It’s a wonderful local story. And it’s a chapter in our history that isn’t really told.”
Laviolette was then brought onboard to research, arrange and produce the exhibit.
“What surprised me in the exhibition is that I knew him as a wood engraver, but the paintings we had never seen,” adds Johnson. There are indeed powerful paintings done of a sailor (Portrait of a Red-Bearded Sailor) and another of Agrell Smith’s wife, done in elegant profile against a shimmering blue sky. Another, entitled Sailors’ Reunion, is also compelling in its gritty, ‘real life’ sensibilities.
Of course, his wood engravings are perhaps most recognizable – the detail to his craft in this regard is amazing as is the capturing of personalities in each and every piece from Boy with a Book to The Man From Big Stone.
“They are so unusual, because when you think of that time, the 1970s, what most artists were doing in this region were landscapes, not people.” The folks in the wood engraving works are somewhat stylized images, not sitting for their portraits, said Johnson. “It really goes back to an old tradition of sketching people from life.
“He’s got that slight abstraction, but he’s interested in ordinary people.”
Another fantastic example of his talent shines in Reflection on a Great-Grandfather – done as both a wood engraving and an extraordinary painting. The painting is particularly eye-catching, with its reflection of Agrell Smith subtly captured in the portrait itself.
His gift for portraiture again is reflected in paintings of both himself (The Revenant – Self at Stettler) and another of his wife in later years. The one at Stettler shows him standing in a lonely field just outside of town.
Johnson said Agrell Smith’s son, who lives in Edmonton, made several of his father’s paintings available for the exhibit.
Other pieces come from private collections.
There is an unmistakable uniqueness to his work – his renderings of individuals are striking in their quality and style. It’s clear that Agrell Smith really noticed people around him and brought those reflections to his artistic interpretations.
“We can see from some of his sketches that he would sometimes sketch people as they came into the post office.” One piece includes a photo of him during his last day of work there before retiring, and the photo is surrounded by small, simple sketches of figures and faces that must have caught his eye during the day-to-day routines of working there over the years.
Ultimately, Agrell Smith’s approach to creativity is what stands out most when one peruses his work. “I think it’s one of the advantages of being a self-taught artist. He didn’t have any pre-conceptions of what an image should look like, he invented it all for himself. It’s really quite wonderful. “It’s also so great to be able to explore the works of a local person, and there have been so many surprises in this – that’s been what’s really exciting about it.”
Ultimately, no one really summed up the experiences of an artist better than Agrell Smith himself. It’s clear he received much fulfillment in his range of subjects and genres that he was so gifted in.
“I think art is a way of life,” he once noted. “A glorious way in which a man can live.”