Radio Maine Episode 38: Holly Smith

 

11/28/21

 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today ,I have with me artist Holly Smith. Thanks for coming in today.

 

Holly L. Smith:

Oh, thank you for having me. This is wonderful. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I'm glad you think so. And I thought it was wonderful to read about you and your family and some of the work that you sent over because you've got some fun family backstory happening; starting with having a relative who came over on the Mayflower. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. My grandmother kept telling my dad that we were related to someone on the Mayflower. And so, in my dad's retirement years, he decided to pursue that and ended up traveling all over the state. And the only way that he could find a lot of the factual information was actually to visit a lot of the graveyards and find the stones and find the dates because, to become a member of the Mayflower Society, you have to have documentation. And lo and behold, he proved that we are related to an Edward Dody that came across the Atlantic as an indentured servant on the Mayflower. 

So, that was kind of cool.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Your family also has a long background in seafaring along the coast of Maine. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. My great-grandfather, Captain George Lane, sailed from Rockport to the West Indies. He carried lime and lumber. And one of the ships that he said sailed on was the Edward Hinckley. And my grandmother told stories of how she and her  brother and two sisters would travel to the West Indies with him. They were not allowed to come out of their cabins because they weren't allowed to see the seafaring men without their shirts on, it was improper. That was one of the stories she told us. And then she recalled when they landed in the West Indies that they met up with one of her girlfriends whose father was also a sea captain. And she talked about how it was fun to have that happen. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You have a pretty strong connection with the sea as well. I understand that you love to visit Monhegan. You live, of course, on Chickawaukie Lake here in Rockport, Maine. And you also like to go to Eagle island every summer when you can. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes, we’re very, very fortunate.  My sister-in-law has family on Eagle Island,  the Quinn family, and they have a business renting cottages. And so we make a trek out there at the end of June every year, right before the 4th of July, and my husband,  who loves to putter,  and my brother-in-law,, they go to help Bob Quinn work on his generator or fix the float or whatever else might need to be done. And I take my paints, go down to the beach or down the road to the lighthouse, and paint. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You speak of what your husband does as puttering but he also built your house.


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. He's quite a jack of all trades.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

He's a man of many talents.


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. He even built furniture in our home and currently he makes the framing for my paintings which is great. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

A little bird told me that he will actually go into your studio, look at your pieces and start thinking about how to measure them and create frames even perhaps before you think they might be done. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. He’s always saying that you never know that that may be a finished painting and you're going to need a frame. So, we have many spares. We usually get it right though. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Does he usually have a sense as to when things are just about ready to be framed? 


 

Holly L. Smith:

He's pretty good at it. And, he has them all numbered and he marks all the backs of every canvas. So he’ll ask “what number is that?” Then down to the basement he goes and finds the frame and pops it in. It comes in handy because I'll post things on the Portland Art Gallery site and, and lo and behold, something has an inquiry or you know, there's the one that has, you know, an interest. And he'll say, what number is that? Then he goes, finds the frame and it's ready to go. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It actually is a pretty big deal because getting things framed, especially right now with labor shortages, isn't always easy. 


 

Holly L. Smith: Yes. That's true. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: That's a nice plus that they can leave your home and they're already ready to be put on someone's wall. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes ,very, very fortunate.  


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

This painting behind us is obviously framed. So shout out to Stew. Thank you very much. Tell me about the painting itself, Holly. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Well, this is a view down to the Port Clyde area. It's a popular beach where a lot of the locals go swimming. It's a public area. You can take the loop around from the Marshall Point lighthouse. And you can get a beautiful view along the road either way. I love low tide.  To me, low tide is much more beautiful than high tide. What I love is all the eddies and all the different patterning and design that form from the water. And so that's what I try to put into the painting.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

As you're describing the low tide, I can absolutely see that. And I was commenting to you before about the remarkable detail in the front of the work, that must've taken a lot of time. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Well, I love rocks. I don't know why. I just think they're great. I love all their different shapes and forms. I have to be careful that I don't go overboard with too much detail.  So, with this one here, those rocks have come and gone several times and, finally, I muted the middle ground to not have it as detailed so that your eye can work a little bit and see how to travel into the painting, into the foreground. I could get out the brush and make those even more detailed but I decided no, I have to stop. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you're talking about the process of subtracting, which isn't something that all of us consider when we consider art, we think about adding to, but you've very thoughtfully gone back and said, okay, I know I need to, in order to make this a more cohesive scene, I need to take some things away. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

I think all artists are our own worst critics. For me, I'll start a painting and it will be going along just wonderfully. And then, I come back and I work on it a little bit more. And the next thing, you know, when I step back, I go, whoa, you know, I've just gone overboard. I've started to photograph some of my work during the process. It's interesting to look back and see maybe a first or two beginning steps and then whoa, that was pretty good. I should have kept going.  Sometimes I'll look at what I've done and if it needs to retract a bit, I will do that.  


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So, will you then go back to one of the photographs that's done earlier and see what you can do that might match it and simplify it back up again. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes, yes, Yes. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, that's interesting. I know that when we were talking with Dick Alden recently, and of course he's a sculptor, not a painter, he was talking about the idea of negative space and how important that is obviously in sculpture, but there is some sense of needing that even with the work that you're doing. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. And I think that also comes from watercolors which I also like to use. And with that, you have to always save the light areas.  And you do negative space painting a lot. And I think that technique I tend to try to use also in my oil paintings. If the trees over in the upper I'm trying to think from my view, it'd be the upper left-hand corner, but the light areas that are there, I ended up having the light there, but then I went in with another darker value so that those would pop. So in the sense I'm painting the negative around the positive to make that come forward. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That's very interesting. I can't help, not that this is in any way related to art, but the qigong instructor that I worked with, who's also a Chinese medicine physician, he used to talk about the importance of space when placing needles on the bodies. So this idea that it's not just what is, but it's also what isn't and how what isn't can help define what is. And that's very much what you're talking about because as I'm looking at these trees, I can absolutely see what you've done and how you've done it, But I wouldn't have known to look before you pointed it out. 


 

Holly L. Smith: Yes. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I love this idea that your parents encouraged you from an early age. And in fact, they bought you the “learn how to be an artist by what” program we used to see advertised. What was the drawing? A pirate?  Those ads from the back of a magazine. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. That was very, very popular. If you ever flipped through any of the magazines back in the seventies, there would be this pirate with the question “can you draw that?” And, I would draw that and then everyone would look and say, oh, my word, you're so talented. And the high school that I attended didn't have an art program. So my parents were wonderful about giving me private art lessons, which was great. But with the pirate story, they decided that they would go ahead and send in the pirate photo and a drawing, then see where it goes. And we got a call from the correspondence people, and they came to the house and interviewed me and looked at what I could draw. And so my parents ended up subscribing to the whole correspondence program. But it failed terribly. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

I was in high school. I was dating my husband at the end of my high school years. And I was, you know, busy with my friends. And my dad would say, you've got that to do, remember you've got that to do, but it was so impersonal because you would draw something and then you'd send it in the mail and you'd wait a while and it would come back and they would mark it up with what you could do better. It was so impersonal and I needed to have that person with me like I did with the private art lessons.And so that whole process just failed miserably. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, it's interesting to even be thinking about this because anybody who's watching the show who is beyond a certain age you will have no idea what we're actually referring to. But this is something that they would put in an ad in the back of a magazine and you'd see it as you flipped through. And it was an ad for this correspondence course. I I actually had never met anybody who actually was signed up for this.

 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. And my dad was so nice. He wasn't angry that I didn't finish it but I think he was disappointed that I didn't finish it. And then I felt disappointed that in these later years, well, I could've done that, but it just was not a good fit. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, thank goodness. You came back around and you showed your appreciation for his early support of your art by becoming an artist in your own way. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And prior to that, you also taught art.


 

Holly L. Smith:

Growing up, I had a great aunt Bert who taught in the Massachusetts school system. I would go to her house and see her paintings. And she was always encouraging me to keep doing my art. Graduating from high school in the seventies, choices for women weren't as prevalent as they are now. My daughters had so many choices of careers. But it was pretty limited back then;  teaching, nursing or secretary were primarily it. 

And so teaching seemed good for me and knowing that my aunt Bert was successful with it, I thought, why not?  I went to the University of Maine,  it was called Portland-Gorham. It had been a state teaching college prior to the university taking it over and they only accepted 30 students to the art program that year that I first went. I had a wonderful time, took a lot of classes and graduated. And then art jobs did not come readily.  I ended up working at a clothing store. I worked at a bank and then eventually my mom got a call from a good friend of hers who worked in a school system. She said, there's an opening, come in and  apply. And so I did, and I was there for 31 years. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You described this as the era of the art in a cart. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. That's where my waitressing days in college came in handy because my first five years there, I taught elementary and it was “art on a cart”.  I had a time limit and had to have all my art supplies prepared. I went into the classroom, passed out all the art supplies. I talked about what I wanted them to do. They had a wonderful time doing it. And then I had to be out of that room at a certain time and into another room. And so I had a time limit as to delivering. I was like waiting on a table. It felt like I was delivering what I needed to and cleaning it up and leaving and going somewhere else. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I think that I had “art on a cart” when I was growing up, so I can very much relate to this. Eventually,  there were enormous art rooms that were built and remember that there was pottery. By the time my kids graduated, there was photography and all different manner of art instruction.  But you're right, it absolutely was not a focus not so very long ago. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Right.  And again, I think it was due to the budget and what they could afford. Art, music and physical education always seemed to be the extras.  My career did expand and I ended up teaching high school art and photography. I started out with a little dark room that I think had been used for tire storage. I ended up getting the ventilation that was needed and the class grew. I can remember that I started out with a good size group of students that wanted to take the class. And then the next thing I knew, I had 90 students in one year alone that had signed up for my class. They just loved going into that dark room. It was so rewarding and teaching art was great. At the end of my career, I ended up getting my credentials for AP art. It was wonderful to see students that were just pushing themselves to do the best that they could and to get a high score. And it was so rewarding when they did.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It all seemed to evolve over the years to the point where art students are now. If they apply to go into an art program, they actually need a formal portfolio. And it's often done in a digital manner. That's such an interesting concept compared to what you're describing starting out 31 years before where I could come in and do a little project. And then you're on your way. 

What, why do you think? That we as a culture have kind of evolved towards the importance of art education? 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Oh, I just think that they understand more about how our brains develop and that you need the music, you need art, you need all those other parts of thinking in order to develop with a much more rounded view and to be able to do much more with whatever you're going to do with your career as you get older.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So, was it difficult to make the transition from being a full-time teacher to being a full-time artist? 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Not so bad because during my whole years of teaching in the summer months, I would go and do outdoor shows. I started with watercolor when my children were young because I could take and get out the mess and I didn't have to worry about any of the toxic materials that might be with painting an oil painting.  I had a good friend. She and I both enjoyed painting, and we said, why not? Let's try the outdoor shows. And they, the ones that we entered were juried and we got accepted in. And my husband built me a wonderful setup, you know, cause you had to, it was, and also the practice of getting your work finished and completed and then getting it set up at whatever show you're going to. And I can remember going up to Bar Harbor one beautiful day and setting up my, our booths and not being prepared for the weather. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

The wind and the rain came up in the late part of the afternoon. And it was so strong that some of the booths around us, like the pottery booth, the pieces were going over and things were breaking. And I had to quickly grab all my things. We made it through the day but I ended up eventually getting better setups for that kind of event, but outdoor shows are hard and a lot of work. So I moved to trying artists' co-ops and  participated in those. And that was a great business experience because you basically rented your space, you had to prepare your work, you had to price it. You had to have a price point of small items to bigger items and you had to work your long days at the co-op. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

And so you've got a whole idea of what it was to, if you ever had your own business, set up and do what you have to do. So I did that for a while and then eventually I thought, okay, let's try some galleries. And I was very happy to be in some galleries locally. And then, at the very end of my teaching career, I think it was then called Art Collector Maine, representatives from the gallery came to speak at the River Arts organization in Damariscotta. They were promoting getting involved. And I said to a coworker, I think I'm going to see what happens with that. And so I submitted my images, iit was juried and I was accepted and off I went. So when I retired from teaching that's where I next stepped. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You mentioned that one of the things you've enjoyed about Art Collector Maine, well now it's called the Portland Art Gallery,  is the creative approach that they've taken to getting artists work out into the world and particularly the virtual openings that they've done during COVID. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Oh, it's wonderful because it's almost like remembering a storm's coming and you could hear how COVID was going to be a threat and I'm thinking, okay, how's this going to impact everything? And I can remember, you know, hearing it on the news and seeing it, seeing it coming, coming, coming, and here it is. And then of course everything closed down and I'm thinking, oh, I wonder what is going to happen. I was so, so impressed with the Portland Art Gallery and their openings that they did virtually and how you could still walk around the gallery from home if you wanted to use the Matterport that they have. And so a lot of my friends,I said that's where I'm exhibiting my work. Oh, I'd like to go see, but COVID. I’d say, well, you can, all you have to do is go to their site and, and check it out. And that was great. And then, you know, it gave some of my friends a chance to see what I was doing. And I think with that whole process, it kept the gallery going and kept selling/ I believe the sales were just great through everything. So I'm very happy. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I think you've touched on something a few different times which I'm not sure everybody really thinks about when it comes to art. We think about art and creativity and kind of the process of art but art truly is, I mean art done well, is really, it is also a job. It's something that you need to understand that it's work. You need to consider that it's work that you need to sell. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. I think it's sometimes romantic to think I'm going to paint and I'm going to have my work at a gallery and I'm going to just be an artist, but there's a lot that goes under that cap.  You may finish the painting but then you have to think about how you're going to keep track of it, how you're going to present it, how are you going to price it, who's going to be more interested in it than someone else and why. And and, and on, then as an artist, do you paint only on what you want to paint? Do you paint what you think others want you to paint? And so those are a lot of things that go back and forth in your head. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, explore that a bit with me. And how do you balance out the painting? What you want to paint versus painting what you think other people want you to paint? 

Holly L. Smith:

I try to be careful with that because there's so many times I start a painting and my husband would come up and go, that's a great painting. And then he'll come back a couple of hours later and I've totally painted over it. It's like, where'd it go? And I've discovered that what I was trying to paint or what the image was, it wasn't what I felt was something I wanted or felt was important for other people to see. And it's like, when I go out to plein air paint. I feel like I try to gather whatever energy is there, the day, the feeling, the mood, and then paint that. And if I’m  painting at home, as I'm going  I'll bring in my studies from what I'm playing their painting with, and if I'm painting that bigger painting and it's not giving that feeling or whatever the energy is, and I want people to have aye, aye, aye. That's it. I cover it up 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

In the information that you gave us so that I could learn more about you before you and I sat down to talk, you described one of these situations where you were creating a painting and your painting fell on the ground and into some leaves. And I guess you must have felt like it had the right energy because you brought it back to the studio, you picked the leaves off it and you reworked it.


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. I was out on Vinalhaven. We had boated over there with my brother and sister-in-law . We were staying there and had a few days and I had my paints with me and off I went to paint for the afternoon. I was real happy with the day and what I had gotten for an image. And so I was gathering up my stuff and you have to walk over a bunch of rocks and uneven ground. And the next thing you know, I lost my balance. Over I went and the painting went face down and just got covered with all these leaves and twigs and everything else. And so I knew not to do much with it until it dried. So once it did, I was able to pick off everything.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did somebody end up buying that painting? 


 

Holly L. Smith:

I can't remember where that image went. I'm not sure 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I'd be interested to know because obviously you felt like it was successful enough that you took the time to actually put it out there in the world. And I'd love to know who has that now on their wall with potentially a little bit of twigs and sticks, like a little piece of the Maine coast. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Yes. I'm not sure where it ended up. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So those of you who have some Holly Smith pieces, you might want to look a little closely to see if there's something in there that's surprising for you. 

This piece that we were talking about earlier, what comes up for you? What do you think people would like about this piece? 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Well, I think there are so many people that travel to our coastlines and just sit on those rocks and just stare out at that ocean for hours and just soak in the sun and the salt air. What I hope is that there's going to be someone that has been there, or has had that feeling of being on a beach in Maine and walked it, picked up the seashells and found the beach glass and they want to bring home just a little bit of what they experienced. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, my understanding is that your work has done very well at the Portland Art Gallery. So I'm guessing that the essence of what you're describing, what you've put out into the world, probably is actually occurring. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Well, I'm very, very pleased with how my sales are going. And yes. And I think that isn't as important to me as knowing that people will come up and go, “oh, I could just be in your painting. I just love your art.” And I think that's more of what I'm thrilled with, that someone really wanted to look at that and have it on their wall and just be with it. So that's important. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I’m looking at this painting and I can say for sure, even though I don't think I've been to this particular spot, that I have a sense of place and being part of that place. So, from my standpoint, I think it's been very successful. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Oh, great. Thank you. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I have enjoyed our conversation today and I know that people who are interested in learning more about your work can go to the Portland Art Gallery and also to the Portland Art Gallery website. And I hope that you will indeed, if you've been listening or watching this episode of Radio Maine, take that opportunity. Because if you love Maine, the way that I love Maine, and the way Holly loves Maine, you will really enjoy her work. I am Dr. Lisa Belisle. You've been watching or listening to Radio Maine. Holly, I really appreciate the chance to talk with you today. 


 

Holly L. Smith:

Thank you very much for having me.