Exhibit features art by student’s grandmother, a nationally recognized artist

October 20, 2009

Jes Osrow ’10 has been waiting since last spring for this evening’s debut of Body Language, a collection of Rowena Smith’s paintings and collages, in Rice Gallery. After all, it isn’t every day that a college student wanders through an on-campus exhibit of her grandmother’s art.

The Art, Spanish and Theatre Arts major couldn’t be prouder.

It was Rowena Smith who put a paintbrush in her granddaughter’s hand even before she took her first steps. Later, Grandma Smith sat a 3-year-old Jes on the patio behind her Florida home studio and surrounded the toddler with scores of inexpensive paper plates, with brushes and paints in a rainbow of colors. As the little girl’s skills improved, so did the quality of the paper, the brushes and the paints Smith supplied.

Along the way, the artist taught the rookie the tricks of the trade: Tennis ball canisters make great travel cases for paintbrushes. Paintbrushes can shrink if you wash them in hot water. Be free, express yourself – you can paint over just about any mistake.

Smith welcomed her granddaughter to the classes she teaches at Flamingo Botanical Gardens and other Florida venues. And as she did with all the students in her class, Smith stood watching silently but intently just over Osrow’s shoulder as the youngest of her four grandchildren brought a blank canvas to life.

Artist Rowena Smith sits with daughter Pam Smith (left) and granddaughter Jes Osrow '10 beneath three of the 30 paintings and collages of the artist's work on exhibit Oct. 20-Nov. 13 on campus in Rice Gallery.

“She was my first teacher,” Osrow says, reciting the many ways she and her grandmother are alike. “Our figures look as if the same artist drew them. Our hands are the same. If you look at pictures of her at my age, we could be twins.”

McDaniel Art Professor Steve Pearson agrees there is an obvious connection between Osrow’s approach to art and her grandmother’s.

“There is a connection in artistic attitudes that goes beyond their relationship – they are both bold and fearless,” Pearson says. “Both have a lyrical sense of line that creates movement through their compositions, and both have a strong understanding of the ‘all over’ composition handed down to us from the cubists and modernists.”

But, he points out, there are the differences. As there should be.

“Rowena Smith's paintings have a quiet, thoughtful contemplative approach to color and form that only comes with maturity and countless hours of drawing and painting. She has learned to use only what is necessary in her paintings,” Pearson says.  “Jes' paintings have the color, texture, and energy of youth. Thick texture, saturated colors, and dense compositions that show an exploration and urgency that is aided and fueled by youthful exuberance.”

Rowena Smith says her paintings attempt to depict the human form without glorifying it as a voyeur's object. She combines color, line, value, and design into a personal statement with a relaxed intuitive style.

“The making of art is my way of exploring nature in all its facets, a means of capturing the wonder and excitement of the everyday world," Smith says.  "To create a painting is for me the highest form of personal expression, sometimes joyous, sometimes frightening, and at all times leaving myself exposed and vulnerable.  I am always hopeful that my creative efforts will reach out in a meaningful way and evoke a response from another human being.”

Rowena Smith has been an artist for most of her 86 years. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1943, she went to work for General Electric in the design department. She moved to Boston and designed furniture, silverware, pottery and other items for various manufacturers. In New York, Smith taught art at Hofstra University for 14 years.

“I’ve made a living in art my whole life,” says Smith, who encourages artists, her granddaughter included, to be proud of their art and to promote it. “Nobody’s going to look under your bed for your work.”

Almost all of Smith’s 1,400 to 1,500 paintings were created after she and her late husband moved from New York to Florida when they retired in the late 1970s. She works in water media – watercolor, bleeding pens, acrylics, wash – often with collage, which she says she’s sometimes used to cover over mistakes she’s made. When the watercolors with collages weren’t accepted into water-media shows, Smith used the collage as a master and painted a close copy completely in water media. Several of the collages and their near twins are included in the exhibit in Peterson Hall.

The world will have to wait until April for the senior exhibition to see Osrow’s work. But the exhibit of Smith’s paintings and collages opens today. An artist’s reception is 7-9 p.m. with a talk at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 in the Rice Gallery. Osrow and her mother, Pam Smith, a professor of nutrition and health science at Keene State College in New Hampshire, will likely take front-row seats.

The exhibit and opening reception are free and open to the public. For information and gallery hours, call 410-857-2595.