Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Speaking with Images: Publisher Gibbs Smith Also an Artist


The minute I enter the reception area of Gibbs Smith Publisher, among the expected stacks of books I am struck by the large oil painting of southern Utah hanging on the wall. It is by the publisher, who, in addition to running a successful publishing house for over 40 years, is an avid painter. Gibbs Smith has twice moved to Utah from California, most recently in 1973 when he moved with his wife, Catherine, to set up Gibbs Smith Publisher in a converted barn in Kaysville. He ushers me in to his office, a spacious, warmly-furnished room with a window looking out on a landscape of trees and snow – a perfect setting for an environmentalist who for five years was the president of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club. Paintings, memorabilia and bookshelves line the walls. Among the photos Smith points out a black-and-white shot of Maynard Dixon in his smock, next to one of his paintings. Dixon, a painter Smith studied when he was younger, is the subject of three books published by Smith, two of which were part of last year’s catalog. Looking through the company’s Spring 2011 catalogue I see two of Smith’s paintings, on the front and back cover. The subjects are two of the many bookstores he has visited all over the country and which appear regularly in his catalogs. His 2009 publication commemorating four decades in the business, The Art of the Bookstore, includes 68 of these.

Smith first came to Kaysville as a young boy when his family moved here from Berkeley, California, because his father wanted to be a small-town dentist. Gibbs says his mother was passionate about art – “she was a wonderful Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) artist and did windows for Gump’s and the like in San Francisco” – so when the family met local artist LeConte Stewart they developed a friendship and Smith’s mother began taking lessons. “I was always tagging along,” Gibbs explains. He describes sitting at Stewart’s knee at age 12 watching him paint, and Stewart’s response when he asked him who the best American painters were: Maynard Dixon and Edward Hopper. Stewart would take Gibbs for rides around the back country, driving very slowly, stopping to point out various aspects of the landscape, saying things like, “Just look at that pattern of snow on the asphalt, black and white ….” and asking Gibbs what he thought was the darkest element in a landscape, then answering for him — the trees. “As I grew up,” Smith says, “I became more and more interested in how one could paint landscapes, through him. Although I wasn’t particularly drawn to landscape painting myself, I WAS interested in seeing how he did it.” And so he decided to practice what Stewart was telling him and to study Dixon’s and Hopper’s work. “I really didn’t want to be another LeConte in my style and I really didn’t want to go to art school, because I always felt like I had a unique self and could express what’s inside of me rather than be trained to think like someone else.”

Smith developed friendships with several artists in Salt Lake City – Denis Phillips, Bonnie Posselli, Randall Lake, Earl Jones – all of whom took him under their wing. He says he kind of grafted himself onto them, trying to learn what he could from each. “But I really suffer from not having disciplined myself in terms of formal training, because I’m not a good drawer, but I do understand the emotional impact of a painting – I know how to pull it off . . . sometimes. I haven’t regretted what I’ve done but I could use more technical training.”

Smith’s not likely to take up any formal training, however, having always preferred to find his own path. Ever since he was young he has paid attention to what he responds to personally. Early on he loved big cities — like New York or Chicago — at night. He trained himself in the Ashcan School genre and started thinking about nocturnes. “That really turned me on – I liked that.” He especially liked city pavements in the rain, with light reflecting out of windows. He was drawn to abstract art, attracted by its emotional power, and mentions getting to know and like Lee Deffebach and her work, and admiring her love of Tuscarora, Nevada. In the end, though, he acknowledges that it really wasn’t him. “I kind of think … that if I paint a city street at night, with rain and the lights reflecting, that I’m a little bit like an abstract painter in parts of the painting . . . So I still have these other traditions in my mind.”

“My core belief is that I have to listen to myself, expose myself to a lot of things, and see what I like, to experiment,” Smith says of his autodidacticism. “And so I studied art history on my own just to see what I liked.” What he liked was the French painter Pierre Bonnard for his loose drawing style and ability to capture his subject better than any one Smith had seen. He admires Bonnard’s humility, his painting only what he liked, his being not terribly concerned about selling his work. Another French artist, Albert Marquet, appealed because of his ability to capture in a single gesture whatever he wanted to convey.

When looking at Smith’s paintings, it’s easy to understand why he likes Bonnard and Marquet. Smith is a sensualist – he loves color, the smells of turpentine, canvas, linen, and oil paint (he says each pigment has a different aroma). He feels art’s connection to nature. “I love the buttery feel of oil paints … it all connects with the earth. Those are natural earth things that symbolically get packaged up so that we can use them.”

Smith also enjoys the sensual aspect of his day job. He loves the smell of new books, the ink, the paper, the binding. Aromas are important to him and he loves to cook (cookbooks make up a substantial portion of his publishing portfolio). He got into the business after attending college in California. He was inspired by a meeting with Alfred A. Knopf, of Random House Publishing. When they met in New York Knopf told him that the best way to grasp what it takes to be a publisher was to look around his library. Smith did just that, spending the whole day in the library. A lifelong friendship developed between Knopf and Smith, and a decades-long career began for Smith when he and his wife published their first four books –classics on California — in 1969.

Publishing and painting are intimately connected in Smith’s world. It seems as though the two can’t be separated in terms of his life outlook and values and aesthetics. He likes the combination and has no wish to retire from publishing or from painting; nor does he particularly wish to sell or part with his paintings. He sees them as old friends. “Why I do bookstores is obvious – I’m a publisher, and I want to celebrate book-selling. Bookstore owners are really interesting, always, and their creation, physically, of their little drama with their store is something I try to appreciate through the paintings. And they like it.”

“I’m always thinking about paintings, even when not painting. What I paint isn’t what’s out there, isn’t reality. It’s my dream of the reality. I paint my dream of the city at night – it’s not actually representing what’s there, it’s the feeling of what’s there. My paintings start with conjuring up a dream, days before getting a brush out. I either sketch or make photos, then start thinking and dreaming about it, then I sit down and try to pull it off.” He says it’s not like LeConte Stewart who could take his easel outdoors and come away with a finished piece in a single afternoon. “I don’t like that, I enjoy what I do better.” He finds painting to be a very contemplative act. When asked how he knows when a painting is finished, he says that he’s learned to hold back a bit, to not make it be finished. He’s learned the value of layering and feels that he can add depth by being patient and doing more. “But I do quit eventually, just say, ‘OK, it’s over.’” He trusts his inner self rather than obeying rules. “I’ve never been good at that.”

His iconoclast instinct would seem to put him at odds with the conservative state he has made his home for most of his life. A few years after starting their publishing business he and his wife returned to Utah, where all their parents lived. He shares his mother’s feeling that Utah is “different,” but remarks on the number of cultural heroes who choose to stay here while being plugged in to what is going on outside. If you know how to find it, he says, “[Utah] has everything . . . little bits of everything a big city has. ” And like many other transplants he’s drawn to the landscape. “I love feeling like beyond the Wasatch Front all this wild country is real close.” He has published several books about Utah art, including Donna Poulton’s and Vern Swanson’s Painters of Utah’s Canyons and Deserts and the previously mentioned books on Maynard Dixon. Plans for the future include a book on LeConte Stewart, one about Yellowstone National Park and paintings of it, and a new one about art in the Wasatch Mountains. He published Betsy Burton’s book The Kings English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller last year. In his own book you’ll find 68 paintings and accompanying essays about bookstores around the country, plus more paintings of different subject matter. He continues to paint this favorite subject and hopes to do another volume of bookstore paintings. In The Art of the Bookstore : The Bookstore Paintings of Gibbs M. Smith you’ll find a delicious venture by a delightful, thoughtful, and soft-spoken man.

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