Artist of the Month: Colette Odya Smith

On the Surface (pastel over watercolor, 20×20) by Colette Odya Smith was a finalist in the 24th Annual Art Competition. Smith is our June 2008 Artist of the Month.

Residence: Wauwatosa, Wisconsin


Start in art: My mother tells me that it was easy to keep me happy as a child. All she had to do was set out crayons, paper and scissors, and I would keep myself occupied for hours. So it wasn’t a big surprise that I started taking art classes as soon as I could in high school and majored in fine art, humanities and education at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Weekend adult classes at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design spurred my interest in soft pastels. I began working and exhibiting as a professional 11 years ago, but I’m not supporting myself with my painting yet.

Her process: I often begin by taking walks. When something about a particular place inspires me, I photograph it. Since I like to work in series, I try to get a rich variety of source photos and work with the ones I’m most attracted to. I make thumbnail sketches to alter or combine compositions as I feel the need, planning out the watercolor underpainting. The pastels are then applied in many layers, scumbled atop one other until they create the complex hues I’m after. It’s as if I slowly dance around before finally closing in on my final choices. My palette tends to be natural, with a heavy inclination to blues, probably because I love painting water, but I remain open to whatever nature shows me. I spend anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks on a piece, depending on its size and complexity. On the Surface is one of my favorite sizes to work in—20×20. It took under a week to complete.

About this painting: I’ve long been transfixed by Monet’s water lily paintings. So when I saw the photos I had taken while kayaking on the Milwaukee River with a friend, I decided to face the master and create some water lily paintings of my own as an homage to Monet.

On the Surface, one of three done from that day’s photos, is an example of a case where the photos gave me color and form references but needed compositional refinements. For instance, I created the line of trees at the horizon based loosely on a different photo and completely invented the sky because it seemed necessary for balance. My favorite part is undoubtedly the lower area of lily pads with the touches of greens, purples, whites and golds emerging from the deep blue that unites the forms. Painting this area was like pure play. The surprise in the painting is how much fun it was to put the strong, olive vertical strokes over the horizontal roses and magentas in the middle ground. I was also struck with how strong the light golds needed to be approaching the far shore. The importance of that mass of light on the surface of the water led to the title. In regards to the title, I wanted viewers to think about what in our lives is on the surface and how it relates to what’s beneath.

Why she creates art: I didn’t create my own serious work for many years because I thought it was all about expressing myself and sharing what I had to say, and I couldn’t imagine why the world needed to hear what I had to say when there were so many others more talented than I was. I found guidance and inspiration in the writings of the Bahai Faith about art and its role in society. It was a delightful discovery to realize that it wasn’t about me at all, but rather about how I could try to give physical form to what I had been given to understand about the spiritual mysteries that underlie everything. I believe there is a reason for beauty and our attraction to it. I believe participating in the act of creating centers us and offers a path to healing and peace through its positive energy. While it also seems to be good for me, I guess I paint because I hope that others can be served through it.

Edited by Grace Dobush, associate editor of The Artist’s Magazine.


Artists of the Month are chosen from our Annual Competition entrants. To learn more, visit our competition page.

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