Ahead of his time

While working as a postal clerk in downtown Red Deer in the 1950s and ’60s, James Agrell Smith would doodle quick likenesses of customers who would walk in to post parcels or buy stamps.

While working as a postal clerk in downtown Red Deer in the 1950s and ’60s, James Agrell Smith would doodle quick likenesses of customers who would walk in to post parcels or buy stamps.

“There is personality in each face, but not all faces have character,” observed Agrell Smith, who nonetheless found enough of it in faces young and old, in people who toiled the earth, as well as those who laboured at various other jobs.

As well as sketching children, hunters, mothers and farmers, he doodled pictures of the non-Caucasian inhabitants of Central Alberta, including aboriginals and Asians — eventually covering a broad cross-section of Red Deer residents.

In the evenings, Agrell Smith would return to his modest two-bedroom apartment to turn these sparse line drawings into more exacting artworks that would eventually win him recognition as one of Western Canada’s earliest and most skilled wood block printmakers.

For most of his 74-year lifespan, Agrell Smith would burn the midnight oil, as he diligently created high-quality prints and paintings largely in isolation — an artist ahead of his time.

While his career was gaining ground in the mid decades of the last century, he got more attention in Ontario than in Alberta, which had little artistic infrastructure, such as education programs or public art galleries.

Agrell Smith “was working in a time and place where art was envisioned as a hobby, but for him it was a profession,” said Mary-Beth Laviolette, guest curator for his first solo show in 40 years — James Agrell Smith, A Wider Picture: Drawings, Paintings and Original Prints, at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.

Those familiar with his artistic output will think of bold, textural black and white wood engravings. But there’s another side to the late artist that’s on view at the museum.

Agrell Smith, who was born in Stettler in 1913, the same year Red Deer became a city, also created moving oil paintings of his wife, Grace, and some of his sailor comrades in the Royal Canadian Navy. There’s also a series of self-portraits, in which he depicted himself peering out at the viewer, almost always with a cigarette between his lips or fingers.

As well, a few birds and animals of Central Alberta were portrayed in various media — watercolour, egg tempera and oil paint, sumi ink, charcoal and pencil.

“It was a huge and very delightful surprise to see how wide his range was,” said Laviolette, who was only previously aware of his printmaking.

Knowing the limitations of Agrell Smith’s artistic life — his need to hold a day job, lack of supportive local arts community and educational opportunities (he was largely self-taught, only taking one summer art course at Mount Allison University at Sackville, N.B.) — Laviolette said, “He just really had a lot of stubborn spirit, that’s for sure.”

He held to the belief that art was a “glorious” way of life, and to excel at it, he needed to perfect his craft. That required a singularity of purpose.

Agrell Smith’s son, Ken, recalled his father lighting a big bonfire before the family left Chilliwack, B.C., for Red Deer in 1954 and throwing all of his sketchbooks, early prints, canvases and drawings onto it. It was a purge that Ken didn’t understand: “There were some of those pictures I said I really liked.”

But Agrell Smith explained that he didn’t want to be known for his early trial-and-error works: “They will not be left as my artistic legacy.”

The paintings and prints he did leave certainly show a high skill set, said Laviolette, who noted the artist initially learned from the works of old masters he observed in public galleries in London and New York. Those travel opportunities came courtesy of his navy stint during the Second World War.

An 1947 egg tempera portrait of his wife, Grace, who had helped him with his early printmaking, appears influenced by Italian Renaissance painting. The subject’s pale profile and dark blouse stand out from the surreal blue sky as a fringe of mountains is seen on the low horizon.

Portrait of a Red-Bearded Sailor, from 1943, has a similar striking, flat perspective, with a ship picture serving as a backdrop.

Agrell Smith’s later portraits lose this stylization. For instance, a naturalistic 1973 oil painting of his wife features a delicate colour palette and seems a contemplation on mortality. An aging Grace appears with her eyes closed on the extreme right of the canvas, while her lilac shadow falls on a scrim of material behind her.

The Revenant (Self at Stettler) was painted in 1984, four years before the artist’s death. In this piece the artist is staring out with a sober expression from beneath the brim of a hat. The rural Stettler skyline appears behind him.

While Agrell Smith wasn’t a landscape painter, identifiable aspects of Central Alberta often appear as background to his works, said Laviolette.

There’s the Snowbound Binder, a wood engraving of a farm implement getting buried in snow, almost like a ship tossed in a gale. There’s Horses and Dust, a print from 1961 in which horses huddle for protection from a windstorm. And there’s the large dry brush watercolour Birdwatcher, which shows the back of a figure (perhaps his wife) standing on grassy terrain, framed by the doorway of an abandoned homesteader’s cabin.

“Through it all, I’ve just been seeking the spirit of the Prairies. That’s the why of it. You have this compulsion to find the spirit of it. I don’t think that sounds too corny. That’s what it’s all about,” Agrell Smith stated.

Much of that spirit can be seen in his portrayals of people, including his prize-winning Cariboo Cowboy, a 1952 wood engraving that won the George A. Reid Memorial Award from The Society of Canadian Painters-Etchers and Engravers. (Agrell Smith, who became a society member and later helped co-found the Edmonton chapter, was the first Westerner to receive the award.)

Among the array of local characters he captured are children (The Nest, 1955), aboriginal men in Two Indians, 1950, outdoors figures in The Man from Big Stone, 1955, and The Goose Hunter, 1957, Asian residents in Two Chinamen, 1953, working stiffs in Three Men, 1953, and a literary figure in Portrait of a Poet, 1956.

Laviolette said Agrell Smith dove into art full time after retiring from the post office. He began creating more paintings than prints in the latter phase of his career. “That’s the part that a lot of us didn’t know anything about,” said Laviolette.

His Reflections on a Great-Grandfather from 1972 shows his own reflection in the curved glass of a photo of his maternal grandfather. Also reflected on the glass is a print he created of a third-generation family member, his son Ken.

The museum exhibit shows that Agrell Smith often completed multiple artworks along the same theme, often alternating between using watercolours, printmaking and brushed sumi ink.

Some subjects that inspired multiple treatments are a fox pelt on top of a post, and dead owls hanging from a fence. The theme of death is also central to Crow on Barbed Wire from 1958.

Agrell Smith was aware some viewers found these images disturbing or even ugly, but stated, “It’s just a picture of the way prairie life is sometimes.”

Of the crow piece, he said: “The dead bird itself — forget the ramifications of the killing — is a thing of beauty … and I think what happens is you go one step further and say there is also beauty in death.”

His stark and unsentimentalized views of Central Alberta life are as unique as the artist who created them, said Laviolette, who is impressed by Agrell Smith’s inner fortitude and determination to create, despite the odds. Although his wood engravings were first shown in a solo exhibit at the University of Toronto’s Hart House in 1955, he didn’t have his first Alberta show until nearly the end of the ’60s.

While his artworks are now in many private and public collections — including the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Royal Ontario Museum, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, the Universities of Calgary and Lethbridge, Red Deer College, the Alberta Foundation of the Arts, the Whyte Museum in Banff, and the Red Deer Public Library — Laviolette believes he deserves more recognition in the place where he spent most of his life — Red Deer.

“I just think that James Agrell Smith, as a first generation Alberta artist, should be known better. His works should be shown and celebrated and collected, because that’s how we keep the contributions and the history of these people alive.”

The exhibit continues to Nov. 11.