Jon Smith spends most days in his home studio surrounded by the tools of his trade. Canvases in various stages of completion stand on easels or propped against walls. Jars, canisters and trays hold dozens of brushes, and a handmade table with a glass top serves as a palette. Globs of oil paint, still moist and ready to use, cover the glass. Smith's subjects are men, women and children portrayed viewing art in museums around the world. In a sense, someone who enjoys great art might see a bit of himself or herself in the paintings. "The purpose is for you to project yourself into the scene," said Smith. "There's a communication set up between the viewer and the piece."
One 16-by-20-inch canvas in his north Clearwater studio depicts a young woman in a Chicago museum standing between the works of great masters. Wearing a loose skirt and flip-flops, she faces a wall, eyeing a 19th century oil painting of a mother and child by Cecilia Beaux. On a tall pedestal behind the young visitor stands a Roman soldier chiseled in marble, the sculptor unknown. The painting conveys a sense of the timelessness of art.
"I got acquainted with the masters while studying at Aix en Provence," Smith said of his year in southern France in the mid 1970s, "and gained an appreciation for the time stream of art from the beginning of civilization until the present time."
In another painting, Smith depicts a group of tourists at the Prado Museum in Madrid, their eyes filled with wonder as they view an unseen painting. On a wall beside them hangs a meticulously rendered 17th century painting of a Spanish nobleman on horseback.
Smith says he leaves out details intentionally, such as what is drawing the tourists' eyes to an unseen wall. To look at the painting is to be filled with curiosity.
"I suggest details of people and the viewer's own eye must fill in the gap," he said.
Light also figures prominently in the artist's work. A painting set in the Louvre depicts Smith's wife, Mary, as she walks beneath the museum's ceiling arches. The sunlight is filtering through skylights and shining on her.
"I wanted the sensation of open space you get walking down that hallway," he said, "and all the aesthetic components I could get into the scene."
Smith's art did not always focus on people. That transition, he said, took place only in the last decade, since he began living in Florida. A native of Saluda, S.C., he graduated with a degree in fine arts from the University of South Carolina in 1973 and trained as a landscape artist. He continued that study in France, then moved to Boston in 1977.
There, Smith made use of his landscape training. Nine of his murals, all depicting scenes of Boston and its harbor, hang in the famed Union Oyster House in the city's historic North End. While in Boston, he also joined the Copley Society of Art, founded in 1879 and considered the oldest nonprofit art organization in the United States. After earning three major awards in juried art shows, he became a "Copley Master."
Shortly after Smith, his wife and two sons moved to Clearwater in 2000, he began entering more juried art shows, which accept only high-quality and original art.
In the last two years, he won five first-place awards at art festivals around the country. The most recent honor came in January 2010 when he won Best of Show at the Beaux Arts Festival in Miami.
Smith's paintings seem to draw crowds, and his commissioned work is increasing. Painting is a passion, he said.
"For every painting I do, I think of two or three more I want to do," he said. "I just need more time."