his father a career Air Force officer and his mother a dramatic
arts major, both travel and creativity have influenced Roderick
Smith's journey through life. He and his wife, Linda, live in Southeast
Leading the brush
Roderick Smith's decision to call himself an impressionist comes
from the story of Cézanne asking Pissarro about the meaning
of impressionism. "An impressionist is someone who never paints
the same picture twice," responded Pissarro.
"Life is in constant motion and reiteration is not an option,"
Roderick said. "It is all fleeting before our eyes. I never
know if I will ever be able to do another painting."
"My work is a desperate attempt to grab hold of the moment
and sew it into my garments before it is torn away."
Roderick views painting as a type of performance art the
energy of its creation is found in the determination of every painted
"Sometimes you lead the brush, other times it leads you,"
he said. "This is a constant dynamic that requires an intuitive
response and the perfect balance is often illusive.
"You are throwing yourself into a cauldron of mystery. This
is the great leap of faith that brings you back again and again.
It is a fiery furnace that drives itself in endless motion, giving
energy and requiring the same."
It is sometimes difficult for Roderick to know if he has gone deep
enough into that cauldron or if he will find his way back out.
"There are moments when in this strange convection you are
set free and you rise above the morass of your endeavor and watch
the creative spirit working outside yourself," he said. "It
is indeed quite rare. You are riding in the slipstream of your own
Saving the day
Then there are the times when, sooner or later, Roderick overreaches
in an effort to control and maintain usually when the inspiration
behind a painting vanishes.
"Technique and effect try to save the day but the hand only
gets heavier and the eye narrower, the vision begins to fade,"
he said. "One painting in particular crashed on its own reef.
I froze up inside. I mourned its passing for 24 hours and sent the
gallery a note to say it wouldn't be coming to the show."
No sooner had Roderick sent the note than he felt set free. There
was no longer anything to protect. He walked up to the painting
and, with a wide brush, reshaped it within minutes.
"I was awed by the transformation, as I always am," he
said. "It's what I am looking for and never can remember how
to find. The paintings in the studio now are sailing merrily along,
but I know that danger lurks."
This month Roderick is showing at Portland's Broderick Gallery,
814 SW First Avenue. The show includes 30 oils drawn from his travels
during the past two years to Southern California, Mexico and in
"They are exuberant oils that celebrate the urban and natural
world with a rhythmic energy that is emotionally and physically
palpable," he said.
at the Wash"
Summer of content
In 1961 Roderick and his family sailed from Gibraltar to New York;
he was 10 years old. His mother was pregnant and wanted her fourth
child to be born in her Pennsylvania hometown.
"I was in the glory of my childhood and that summer would
become etched in my mind as a time of great joy and happiness,"
he said. "My grandmother's large and eclectic home was a bastion
of romance and adventure."
His grandmother loved Shakespeare and could recite entire plays.
She had been a summer playhouse theater producer and director; the
forest in the back yard was the natural backdrop for a stage where
actors played their parts.
By that summer the stage had long been abandoned and Roderick's
grandmother had moved on to the painting arts.
"My bedroom was her enchanted studio," he said. "Here
I first laid eyes on the tools and artifacts of a real painter.
"Still-life objects of everything imaginable were strewn on
tables and stacked on shelves. Canvases were piled against the walls;
some finished, some just begun. Vases holding brushes, jars filled
with odd liquids, books everywhere. Bonnard, Cézanne, Braque,
Matisse and Robert Henri's 'The Art Spirit,' the very first book
on art I can ever remember reading."
Returning to Spain in the fall, Roderick's mother gave him his
first oil painting set. He was thrilled and made copies of very
old, small Spanish works his mother found in the back street markets
"We traveled extensively and she kept the art game alive by
appointing me 'expedition artist,'" he said. "I took my
drawing seriously and, from Toledo to Lisbon to Lucerne, I dutifully
sketched the fountains and castles along the way."
Embracing the unknown
In 1973 Roderick graduated with his BFA from Rochester Institute
of Technology and worked in commercial design for three years. In
1977 he journeyed to Alaska.
"I'd been inspired by the artist and illustrator, Rockwell
Kent," he said. "My mother had given me a signed copy
of the lavishly illustrated book 'Wilderness in Alaska,' the story
of a man and his son on a lonely island working as artists while
embracing the unknown together. I was hooked and ended up going
to Alaska every summer for the next five years, working on fishing
This afforded Roderick the opportunity to travel during winters,
until 1980 when he returned to New York to continue his studies
at the Art Students League.
"The floodgates suddenly opened," he said. "I was
studio-painting mornings and nights and roaming the galleries of
the Metropolitan Museum every afternoon."
He spent the following winter studying drawing and painting at
the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
In 1981 Roderick moved to Portland and settled down with his wife,
doll artist Linda Miller. It wasn't long before they had a thriving
doll company called Cadena Studios. For the next 10 years dolls
consumed Roderick's creative energy. Along the way a curious fascination
with marionettes appeared.
"I found that I could make dolls move and thereby create 'serious'
theater," he said. "This opened many new doors."
It wasn't until 1994, at an art festival in Miami Beach, that his
interest in painting would reignite. In seven days he did 148 charcoal
drawings of people on the boardwalk.
"My hands were ablaze. It came out of nowhere. I returned
to Portland distracted and convinced that yet another page had turned,"
he said. "I buried myself in drawing the human form.
"Drawing gave way to painting and in 1999 I had my first one-man
show in charcoal and watercolor that featured dancers and musicians
and circus performers all done from 'live' sketches."
at El Chorro"
The following year he continued the theme in oil with a show entitled
He had now moved from static dolls, to moving puppets, to two-dimensional
worlds of characters from theater and the performing arts.
"The fire burned brightly but the heat nearly consumed me.
By the spring of 2000 the muse had vanished," he said.
"It's often been said that the root of art lies in nature.
I was tired of the circus, fatigued by chasing psychological dramas
Wanting to be set free, yet seemingly trapped, Roderick found himself
in an art store in front of a stack of watercolor paper. He bought
the lot while thinking to himself, "I'm going to destroy these
sheets one by one and I'm going to do it in the natural world where
only the weather and the light will guide my hand." And he
"The landscape became a kind of chapel," he said. "I
found myself in a call-and-response with nature. I found a dance
partner. I set up a rickety easel and stood behind it and let myself
go. Charcoal lines flying over the motif. Watercolor creating form.
"I was drawing again but now it was more like drawing water
from the well. The charcoal stick became a magic ladle, opening
a whole new way to explore the world around me. I could take from
the motif and not feel obligated to put it back the way I found
it. It was a revelation."
Roderick was reinspired. He gathered his paints and journeyed forth
into the world of plein air painting.
For the next four years he plied the landscape with oil paint,
through all the seasons, in all manner of weather. One painting
after another. Some would reveal the lucidity of the moment, others
would explode into chaos.
"The ghosts of Pissarro and Monet jostled with the Fauves
for the balance of light and emotion. Abstraction was kept at bay
by a strong need to dance with the seen world. I was held captive
by the play between the known subject and the raw data from the
painted stroke that created it," he said.
"It reminded me of the puppet theater. In one moment I could
see a tree and in the next the wild fusion of tangled brush strokes
that created it up close an abstract suggestion and as you
move away a picture emerges. This created a perpetual animation
and I found that paintings could resonate with captured energy."
Nothing to lose
On a hot day in L.A.'s Griffith Park, Roderick hauled an 18"x36"
canvas up a trail in an attempt to capture the sunset. He had worked
the composition for hours in preparation for the advancing light
but was dismayed to find he'd lost his way.
"I just stood there, not knowing where to go as the sun turned
orange and the shadows glazed into that deep violet blue,"
he said. "Eventually, an Italian man strolled up the trail
and caught me at the crux of the painting, that point where what
you have established comes in conflict with that which you had hoped
for. He told me of a painting he had just purchased with what little
extra money he had as a struggling actor: a small old California
painting of a sunset with trees and yellows and oranges. It wasn't
that well done; in fact, the canvas had been stitched together to
create a panel large enough to paint on, and on the back was a painting
of a woman. He identified with the struggling artist in the artifact
of this old canvas, so he bought it."
Looking at Roderick's painting reminded the stranger of an acting
class lesson where his teacher gave the advice: "When you learn
a part, learn everything, believe everything, feel everything, see
everything and when you come to the stage be prepared to throw it
all away, tear up the script, enter naked."
"He told me I was stagestruck," Roderick said. "I
was trapped in my own knowledge that was fearful of letting what
I had worked so hard for go, and so that I had fallen into a trap.
"He left and I stepped back to the canvas with nothing to
lose and everything to gain."