Continuing the Western Art Tradition

For Oregon artist Clara Smith, capturing the spirit of the American West through drawing and paintings is a family tradition.

Article by Lyssette Williams
Photography courtesy Clara Smith

Like most horse crazy girls, Clara Smith spent her youth daydreaming and doodling horses in her sketchbook.

“My late aunt, Joelle Smith, was a Western artist,” Clara said. “She was the one that got me started on horses—both riding and drawing them. She showed me the beauty of the American West and the Western lifestyle through her eyes, and I fell in love with it, too.”

On a 20-acre ranch on the outskirts of Bend, Oregon, Clara’s aunt, Joelle, raised Paint Horses and committed the images of Western life to canvas. The family’s horses would often be models for her paintings. When Joelle lost her battle with breast cancer in 2005, and Clara took over not only the care of the horses and the property but has also taken up the mantle of rendering cowboy culture in vivid sketches and paintings to share with the world.

An Art’s Education

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Clara was the only horse girl in her school, she spent her days longing for the open fields and big sky of her aunt’s ranch.

“Everything my aunt did inspired me,” Clara said. “Summer mornings, we rode the horses and afterward she’d show me her works in progress. I loved watching her work in her studio.”

On those seemingly endless summer days, Clara gleaned not only art basics from Joelle but also the intricacies of horse anatomy. Yet while Clara had a great teacher and role model in her aunt, she didn’t start developing her artwork to sell until the end of high school.

“I mostly dabbled in art,” Clara said. “An art teacher, Melody Rockwell, eventually pushed me to go beyond my sketchbook.”

In her senior year of high school, she made her first print on scratchboard of her horse, “TeddiBridled,” and began attending art shows with her grandmother, Sally Smith.

“My grandmother helped my aunt Joelle at shows for a long time,” Clara said. “After Joellepassed, Sally continued to represent and sell my aunt’s art, continuing her legacy. Once I began creating prints, I joined my grandmother at shows, learning the ropes and getting to know the great community of makers and artisans.”

After graduating high school, Clara opted to attend Oregon State University in Corvallis. Wanting to pursue her artistic dreams, Clara also wrestled with the cliché of the starving artist.

“You are told that you can’t be successful as a full-time artist,” Clara said. “I tried to be realisticby pursuing my passion for art through graphic design and also received a minor in art.”

The design program at Oregon State offered Clara many opportunities and exposed Clara to different mediums.

“I mostly work in acrylic or digitally,” Clara said. “I bounce around from time to working in other traditional mediums like watercolor, pen and ink, or even using scratch board for some pieces.”

An education in graphic design also allowed Clara to stretch her brain in problem-solving and thinking outside of the box.

“My most talked-about piece was an exercise in problem solving,” Clara laughed, remembering the piece in question, “Mocha Mares.”

As a freshman in college, Clara arrived at school without her painting supplies. But that didn’t stop her from creating her memorable piece—grabbing what supplies she could find, she deftly crafted her assignment and created one of her most memorable works of art.

“I had some instant coffee, an old makeup brush, and a toothbrush,” she said. “I did the line art in pen and then stained the paper with coffee—it was a fun little piece. Once people heard the story,the piece went viral; I get asked about it at every art show.”


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2021 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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