Russell Smith: Historical Artist

Russell Smith portrays images in his paintings of two eras in history: World War I and the old American West. In these portrayals of history, he captures the hardships of World War I aviators, along with the aesthetics of old West landscapes and peoples.

AIRED: May 13, 2019 | 0:07:17

>> I think that

when you look at art and when you create art,

it teaches you how to look at the world more critically.

It teaches you how to understand your environment.

When you look at what's going on around you

when you observe - not just look but observe.

You stop and think about why I'm doing this

why do these things - why does life work around us like this?

[birds chirping]

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>> Half a mile to the west we'll be over [unintelligible].

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>> I like to tell stories with my painting.

I like to communicate an idea you know these are stories

of people under duress under extreme circumstances.

There are dark stories and then there are tales of heroism.

This is humanity at its extreme.

Art has always been the thing that I've been good at

ever since I was a kid.

Art is one thing that I've always enjoyed.

I like older subjects I like very old airplanes.

Primarily what I paint is from the era of World War One.

And of course the old west scenes that I paint

and I would credit my father and my father introduced me

to airplanes when I was about six or seven years old.

He bought me a model airplane that I put together

and it was all downhill from there.

I fell in love with airplanes I fell in love with history.

The World War One is actually the first modern war

that the world was ever involved with.

These people that flew these planes,

they had a rough idea of how they work

but there was a lot they didn't know too.

It was almost a man at the mercy of his technology at the time.

A lot of the reason why a lot of these pilots went into aviation

because they wanted to get out of the trenches.

But as it turns out some of these pilots it was just as raw

and just as tough for them up in the air

as it was down on the ground.

There are photos of some World War One pilots, a before

and after shot of a photo in May and then in October

and you can just see how much they've aged in those few months

in between is just unreal

the stress that they went to.

Far as gathering my inspiration

I do have to do a lot of traveling

because living in North Carolina the Western resources

are out West.

The first time I ever went out West I was in my 20s.

Now I grew up in South Carolina.

I'm used to trees all around me.

I'm used to not being able to see the horizon.

And I went to South Dakota

and there are no trees out there.

And I remember driving across the prairie and looking out

and I could see 20 miles out in front of me.

And it took my breath away.

And that really became a second love.

I was just amazed that you could see that far

and just the rock structures - the mountains are bigger.

The colors are brighter.

As an artist it takes my breath away

every time I go out there.

I really fell in love with the wide open spaces out there

with the landscape, with the people

and stories involved out there the people who carved out

the West 100, 150 years ago.

A Prayer for the Valley.

That particular painting was inspired by a song

by a North Carolina musician named Warren Haynes.

Glory Road which it's a song about a bounty hunter

in the Old West who had been sent out into the badlands

to track down his bounty.

And he does his job he shoots his bounty

he's bringing it in, but it turns out this fugitive

is just a kid he's maybe 16 or 17-years-old

and this bounty hunter is just filled with regret

that he's had to shoot such a young guy

and he's convinced now that his soul was damned to hell

and a lot of my inspiration as far as the western stuff

does come from contemporary Western ideas, movies, music,

what have you, because that's what a lot of people

are stuck with.

You know, we can't go back in time

and live 150 ago

and then of course I do fall back on the history books

to see what actually happened

and see how I can kind of translate that back

into a historical and an accurate context.

I just love the idea of know this happened here

and this is how it happened.

These are the people who did that.

You know these days we live in a modern world

where even airplanes you're flying by computer.

And I think the reasons why I'm really intrigued

by the interaction of human beings

directly with the machine or directly with an animal

or directly with the environment.

I like that direct interaction.

You know like in World War One

where the pilot is actually sitting in the environment

you're sitting in an open cockpit with the wind

blowing in your faces and your hand is on that stick

and that stick is directly controlling the ailerons.

It's all up to you.

Or whether you're riding on a horse in a dust storm

and the dust is blowing in your face

it shows on the character of those people

of the stories involved.

I love painting the character on people's faces.

And the historical scenes and the stories involved.


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