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Faraway Asian art at home in Clearwater woman's heart

CLEARWATER — The beauty of Asia fills the compact Clearwater home of artist Linda Smith.

Black ink drawings, enhanced by vibrant watercolors, dot the walls and stand on small easels. Painted on rice paper or silk, arched bridges stretch under overhanging branches and birds peek out from lush leaves.

"Oriental art is supposed to make you laugh, cry or dream," Smith said. "It pulls you in."

In one painting, kimono-clad geisha girls cast a sideways glance, their faces not fully visible.

"They reveal feelings in body language," she said of the subjects. "You don't see their attitude in their faces but in their posture."

Smith's talent in conveying the subtle beauty of Asian art has reached fruition in recent years, after a long artistic journey that dates back to her childhood, when Smith began painting.

Some 30 years ago, a chance discovery drew her to what would become a passion. Smith, an accountant at the time, spotted an ad for sumi-e brush painting, a black ink drawing technique, offered at a community college.

"That's where it all started," said Smith, 66.

Mastering this unique brush painting was no small task.

Smith had to learn to use the four "treasures" of sumi-e art: brushes, ink, an ink stone and special paper. Each of these is an art form in itself, Smith said.

The materials in her workplace just off the kitchen provide evidence of the range and beauty of her tools.

The inks are distinctive: bottled ink poured into decorative slate dishes; imported Chinese ink shaped in blocks; and rectangular shaped ink sticks, all beautifully decorated, made from pine soot.

"You dip the ink stick into the water in a small well in the ink stone," Smith said, "and then grind it into a paste against the stone."

In one corner stands a tall, cylindrical container laden with imported Chinese and Japanese scrolls, assorted rice paper, fan-shaped paper, rolls of paper brocade used for background or accent pieces and delicate silk.

"Silk is difficult to paint on because it soaks up the ink," Smith said, "but it gives a crisp, clear line."

It started all in fun after Smith retired eight years ago.

"I had no intention of selling my work at first," she said. "I'd get up in the morning, make the bed, do the dishes and get out my ink and paints."

Within a few years, a series of workshops and several private instructors changed her thinking.

In 2006, a month-long trip to China and Japan convinced Smith that her brushwork accurately reflected the reality of those countries.

"I spent the whole month emotionally charged by the beauty I saw," she said, "the gardens, the countryside, the water and the little homes with their red and gold lanterns."

The success she now enjoys at bay area art shows also began unexpectedly.

One night, a short time after retiring, Smith and her husband, Herb, were strolling on Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach. There they saw people painting and drawing sketches of passers-by. Music and the sound of the gulf provided accompaniment.

"I thought this was different from anything I'd done in my life," she said, "selling art on the beach."

Smith contacted the pier manager, who looked at samples of her ink drawings and gave her the go-ahead.

"Each weekend we took sandwiches, a table and lights and set up my art wherever we could," she said.

Soon Smith began exhibiting at numerous art shows, including those in Dunedin, St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs.

The couple bought a secondhand tent and launched Smith's first two-day art show in 2003, at Art Arbor in Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg. They also purchased a trailer to carry equipment to show sites.

Smith said she credits her husband for framing and matting paintings, building shelves in the trailer and providing the muscle to carry supplies and set up each show. He also functions as her chief critic.

"I can give her some honest answers," he said. "I can tell her if I think a picture will sell or won't sell and why."

Paintings do sell — and they win awards. In the last five years, Smith has won first and second place as well as honorable mention in a number of exhibitions. Several prizes were awarded by the Fu Sang Artists' Guild of Dunedin, established by artist Anne Brewer in 1989 for those who paint Asian art, or just enjoy it. The guild also offers classes in brush painting.

"Linda has mastered the spiritual side of the art," guild president Dana Garlick said. "Her art reflects her meditative qualities."

The artist takes pleasure knowing so many others share her love.

"I chose to paint in the oriental manner because I love it," Smith said. "It is an affirmation of the beauty of life and an enrichment of the spirit."

Elaine Markowitz is a freelance writer in Palm Harbor. She can be reached at bmarkow2@tampabay.rr.com or c/o LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

Faraway Asian art at home in Clearwater woman's heart 06/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 22, 2009 4:30am]

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