AN INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE "DEE" SMITH

Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with George "Dee" Smith.

3/31/24


What does Western artist George “Dee” Smith want you to know about him? Absolutely nothing. Like his name might imply, Dee says he prefers to remain unnoticed. Incognito. He wants his paintings to speak for themselves, like they have for the past six decades.

 

Born in 1944 and raised in Cody, Wyoming, Dee is happiest when he is on the back of one of his  beloved horses in the mountains, creating art, and letting his paintings do the heavy lifting for him.

 

“I have attempted all of my life to never have the phone ring, never have people know who I am or anything about me. I’ve only done three or four articles in my entire lifetime, and I have never invested one dime in … pushing myself with ads or anything like that,” he said. “A lot of people that live right here in Cody who have watched me grow don’t even know that I’m a painter, and I love it. And ‘George D. Smith.’ Now, if my name was something like ‘George D. Rattlesnake,’ I’d probably really be in there.”

 

Dee spent his boyhood and adolescence riding, working with horses, and drawing everything from Bugs Bunny to Donald Duck. After high school, he moved to Bozeman and enrolled in Montana State University’s School of Architecture, where he discovered his love of drawing and painting, not to mention his talent for it.

 

“I loved the rendering part of architecture. We drew everything back then. There were no machines and I just loved painting and doing all the presentations,” he said. 
 

And when a group of Montana architects visited the school and saw one of his projects, Dee’s career as a painter was, rather unexpectedly, launched.

 

“I was a junior and my renderings were so beautiful … and I was approached by a couple of them and asked if I would do renderings for them for some of their clients,” he said. “I made $15 a piece on them … and I did that for three years when I was in school, and that’s how I got started painting things for people. And then I just picked up an oil set one day and experimented with them, and all of a sudden I was an oil painter for life and didn’t even know it was going to take hold of me.” 
During his last two years at MSU, while still on the architecture track, Dee continued to paint, even doing a few shows as a student. After he graduated in 1967, Dee headed back to Cody to work as an architect but soon realized that his heart was not in it, so he put his effort into a career in painting. His work took off quickly and was shown in numerous galleries throughout the Southwest, as well as Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, some of which he has been in for 30 or more years. 
“I’m still in the business and still going as hard as I can. And I’ve actually been in the business about 60 years, and I’ve seen a lot of artists come and go, and I just hung right in there. I never got in the print business. I just stayed with my paintings and put them out for sale and let them do all of my work for me,” he said. 
 

While his work may have begun with architectural renderings and portraits, his art is now a fond and vibrant reflection of his entire life spent with horses and in the mountains. 
 

“I am a cowboy and that’s all I really, really am. And I’ve had horses all my life,” he said. “I spent my life on the back of a horse in the mountains. So, what I actually got to do was spend my life doing what I love the most, and that’s going to the mountains and painting, and I got to do both of them. Can’t beat that,” Dee said.

 

When he gets ready to put paint to canvas, Dee doesn’t use a photograph of his subject or even a plan in his mind. Dee says his paintings come out of his head and develop as he is painting them.

 

“I never know what the painting is going to be before I start it. I just start something on the canvas or the panel … and something starts to happen. And all of a sudden I have a painting going. And every decision I make, the painting makes for me as I’m painting. All of a sudden it’s got a direction and things are happening, and I have to try and stay in perspective,” he said. “And pretty soon I’ll look at it and think, ‘Well, this is a perfect painting for a big, old grizzly bear coming over a hill or something.’ And before you know it I have a grizzly going in there … and I keep painting and painting and I reach a point when it doesn’t look like I can do any more on the painting to make it any better. And that’s when it’s done.”

 

This seemingly effortless process does not come without struggle, he says. In fact, Dee says, one of the most important traits an oil painter should have is patience.

 

“When you got a painting going wrong, don’t try to fix it, wet into wet. Set it aside. Let it dry and get on something else. Then bring it back, and it will just fall into place for you without any work, and you can get right on again, just the way you were when you left it. And that’s the real secret. Patience is your greatest friend,” Dee said. 

 

Oil paint allows you the freedom to fix your mistakes, unlike watercolor, for example. But Dee says when those mistakes come in the form of a beautiful element created within a painting, sometimes the artist has to be ready to surrender it for the good of the whole piece. 
 

“It’s called crucifying your little darlings. You try not to have that happen, but every time you do a painting, at some point there’s something in there that is so nice and it’s so beautiful … And as you continue painting, all of a sudden maybe it’s something, and you’re out of perspective. It doesn’t work anymore. And so you have to crucify it. And when you do, and you put that paint on top of it you can never get it back. The only memory of it is what you saw. Nobody else got to see it,” he said. 

Despite these sacrifices, Dee’s finished paintings are vivid, captivating depictions of everything from horses and cowboys to bears and buffaloes. Landscapes, though, are his favorite subjects. 
 

“I just fell in love with the mountains around Yellowstone, and they’re my favorite. I love painting cowboys. I love painting horses. I love painting buffalo. I’ve done hundreds of grizzly bear paintings. I love to paint cabins and things like that, or homesteads. But my favorite is just a really great landscape that is something like nobody’s ever experienced. But no matter how you paint them and what you have in the end, somebody will walk by that landscape and say to themselves, ‘I’ve seen that kind of thing in my life,’” he said.

 

Dee believes that for many viewers who experience that moment, the painting will “haunt” them, meaning that they can’t stop thinking about it, and eventually they have to come back and buy it. And because of this, Dee doesn’t mind if his paintings don’t sell right away, because it allows more people to see them and provides the opportunity for a buyer to think about his work and then come back for it.

 

“All [those viewers] can talk about is, ‘We should have bought that painting,’ so [they] get back to [the gallery] and the painting is still there. It hasn’t sold and there it is. And [they] buy it and [they’ve] got [their] treasure piece forever,” he said. “I don’t mind having a painting sit on the wall in a gallery and not sell for a period of time, because that’s the way people get to see it.” 
 

Dee finds much meaning in the placement of his paintings after they are finished, whether they hang in an overseas villa, a gallery, or even a modest home. One of his favorite painting placements involved a man who was father to a number of children and was not in a financial position to buy one of his pieces outright. The man had seen one of Dee’s paintings in a show near Cody and inquired about it. Dee offered to sell it to him for half of what he had it marked and agreed to receive payment in installments.

 

“He told me he’d pay $100 a month. And he did. Right on time for 10 months. And he had that painting. And he wanted that painting so that he could have something hanging on his wall for his kids to look at; to know what a really great piece of art looked like. And that’s amazing,” Dee said. “And that painting down in Powell here, right close to Cody, to that little Mexican family, that was great placement.”

 

Dee’s paintings have hung in a number of galleries over the years, including Montana Trails Gallery, which he joined when it was Legacy Gallery, prior to MTG taking over the downtown location. And Bozeman, Dee says, is a very different place than it was when he went to school and didn’t realize the impact it would have on his career. 
 

“It’s amazing that I went to school at Montana State in Bozeman. We’d go down to the Ellen Theater. There were only 8,000 people in the city then and 3,100 of them were students, and [Bozeman] only had four places to eat in the whole town. … I never realized, going to movies and things there in college, that I would end up making my living in a place right next to the Ellen,” Dee said.

 

Sydney Weeks of Montana Trails Gallery says that Dee has always been a staff favorite, and his beautiful work remains a key part of their artistic offerings at the gallery. 

 

“I just love working with Dee. Not only is he a talented, prolific artist, but he’s fun to chat with. He always has a story and a kind word,” she said. “His pieces are truly timeless and continue to depict the traditions of the West in a brilliant and fresh way.”

 

Over his lifetime, Dee has seen the West and, more specifically, the cowboy lifestyle change from a rugged, austere existence to more of a mechanized, refined industry. But, he says, the spirit remains and is a testament to the West and to our country as a whole.

 

“The cowboy spirit is the backbone of America. Always has been. Always will be. It’s not those pin stripe guys in Washington. It’s none of that … The backbone of America is still the spirit of the American cowboy. That’s all there is to it,” Dee said.

 

Dee has sat on the back of a horse and ridden in the mountains every day since he was a boy, and it still is and has always been his favorite place to be. He speaks with tender affection for his horses and the life he has spent with them.

 

“There’s nothing in life I love more than a horse and a dog … And horses are like dogs. People don’t know that 99 percent of the horses that are alive – even if they’re quitters, even if they’re mankillers -- 99 percent of them are looking for a friend. And that’s the truth,” he said. “And I never sold a horse in my lifetime. I kept every horse I ever owned and put it down myself. The only responsibility I owed that horse was to do my damnedest to see if that horse could die of old age. And that’s a hell of a responsibility.” 
 

Dee also understands that as a painter and portrayer of the American West, he has a responsibility to leave a legacy after he is gone. And though he feels like he has achieved that in his lifetime, he is happy to continue to paint as long as he can and ultimately and be remembered for his work, and only for his work.

 

“To be remembered by my work and not by anything else is about all I’d ever ask for.” 

 

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