Leon Polk Smith: Hiding in Plain Sight at Heard Museum

By Jenna Duncan, March 2020 Issue.

The mood of the midcentury built many memorable masters in art and architecture — many of whom were reacting to American and European recent history and events. Family life and education often shaped an artist’s experience, but an even more intrinsic, influential force came from the environment.

Such is the case of painter and sculptor Leon Polk Smith, who may have emerged from obscurity in New York City, but was captivated by the American Southwest from the time of his youth in Oklahoma Territory, throughout his later life, work and travels. “Leon Polk Smith: Hiding in Plain Sight” at Heard Museum features more than 40 of the artist’s most celebrated works.

“[Leon Polk Smith] spent the first 40 years of his life in Oklahoma. It has a warm place in my heart and everywhere in his painting,” says Joe Baker, co-curator of the exhibit and executive director at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. “I give all the credit to Oklahoma,” Baker quotes Smith as saying near the end of his life.

While he was interested in the artist for many years prior, Baker says co-curating this exhibit gave him the chance to delve into Leon Polk Smith’s early years.

LPS grew up on a farm near Pocasset, Oklahoma, living with his mother, father, and nine brothers and sisters. He was born in Oklahoma, a year before the territory received statehood. He grew up near Chickasha, the nations of the Chickasaw, and Chocktaw, his neighbors. Smith claimed the Southwest as his home, describing its influence on his art and his spirit.

Leon Polk Smith —Hiding in Plain Sight

“I believe his creative self was already shaped by this exposure to the Tribal communities,” Baker says. “The dances, the social gatherings — all of which he participated in,” Baker says the evidence is shown in his free use of color, which reflects palettes of historic beadwork and ribbon work.

Baker describes the development of Oklahoma state as a time of creativity, lawlessness, and invention. “From that space, that place, came all sorts of innovations and creative individuals.” For example, Richard Adams, Delaware Indian poet, writer, and activist; Lewis W. Ballard, composer and former music director of Institute of American Indian Arts; and Lynn Riggs, who wrote the play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” Baker says.

As a young man, Smith’s mother and father faced the foreclosure of their land and family farm, and he was sent to work to try to save it. Different accounts find him traveling the country, working as a laborer with Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, and as a railroad laborer, where he landed a brief stint in Arizona.

The wildly colorful desert sunsets may certainly have played into Smith’s adopted color palette, as did the decorative trends of the time. In one of his most memorable paintings, “Stonewall,” (1956), two red-orange orbs gently graze one another. But these shapes are more than just decorative — they suggest human energy, momentum — two planets about to form an eclipse or two lovers about to share a kiss.

“To me, it’s very much a part of the pow wow,” Baker says of Smith’s vibrant color palette and what informs it. “A riot of color, in movement.”

Though some of LPS’s early work was figurative, and he did experiment somewhat with Surrealism, LPS never truly veered from Hard-Edge painting, Baker says. Geometry and vibrant color play big roles in Smith’s work. Many attribute Piet Mondrian as one of his primary influences, and he was friends with many other working artists of the time, including Martha Graham and Carmen Herrera.

Baker has a special connection to Heard Museum and Leon Polk Smith. For one, Baker was at Heard Museum for 12 years, first in education and then serving as Lloyd Kiva New Curator of Fine Art. And another significant connection, Baker is also from Oklahoma and a member of the Delaware tribe. “I know the town he was born in,” Baker explains. “I know how that part of Oklahoma feels — the difficult history of the founding of the state of Oklahoma. It became a very personal experience for me.”

The difficult history, as Baker explains, covers Oklahoma’s timeline from the 1800s into the early 20th century. “It’s important to realize there were over 60 Native American communities that were forced into what I refer to as a holding area,” Baker says. “They were misplaced by expansion until something could be decided about what to do about the ‘Indian problem.’”

Leon Polk Smith —Hiding in Plain Sight

It was a time in the nation’s history when communities of diverse Native people, owning different customs and different languages, were forcibly pushed together into the “no man’s lands.”

“What I do know that resulted from that action was really something quite beautiful,” Baker says. “Tribal people came together; there was a lot of sharing and exchange. They contributed formatively to the formation of the state of Oklahoma.”

Smith was also coming of age in this era, embedded in a turbulent time. Baker says he wasn’t able to find any documentation that the Smith family had a tribal affiliation, but it has been said they were of Cherokee heritage. LPS didn’t speak much during his life about his Native American background, but his lifelong partner, Robert (Bob) Mead Jamieson, in interviews with the Leon Polk Foundation, did state that both of LPS’s parents had Cherokee ancestors.

Smith and Jamieson met in a bar called Goody’s in New York City in the early 1950s, Baker says. Baker tried to track down the place but could not find a record of it. He did find records, though. The Smith maintained studios around Union Square and Greenwich from the mid-century to his later life.

But before he got to New York, he enrolled in some classes at a college in Aida, Oklahoma. Initially, LPS had planned to become a teacher.

“Somehow, during his time on campus, he walked by an open studio in the department of art and was just fascinated with painting class,” Baker says. “He looks in the door and somehow this moment of recognition that this was his calling.” LPS convinced the professor to let him sit in, and this initiated his formal investigation of the medium.

Throughout his active art life, LPS evolved his style to include more curves. He also began to experiment with alternative shapes for his canvases, embracing the “tondo,” or round disk shape.

“All of that was inspired by baseballs,” Baker says. His interpretation is that the seams on the ball held for LPS a connection to space and the endless horizons, inspiring his group of paintings, “Constellations.”

Baker says last year, he visited the foundation and LPS’ home studio in Long Island before it was sold.

“What we found in a box was his notebooks, which had never been seen before by anyone at the foundation. It was really exciting because there are really meticulous records of the painting — where they were exhibited, where they traveled. Along with pencil sketches. References to colors. All of this provided insight into the mind of the artist; you could see his literal side.  He was also very fastidious with his record-keeping and note-taking.”

The Heard has on view some never-before-exhibited pages of the notebook. Also on view is a painting very atypical of LPSs work, “Black Black,” Baker says, which was produced during his time in Santa Fe on a fellowship.

Leon Polk Smith died in 1996 at age 90. He was active in painting for more than 70 years.

“Hiding in Plain Sight” is on view at Heard Museum through May 31. For more information, visit heard.org.

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