A month ago this week, the Art Department lost a dear colleague and friend, BJ Smith. Smith retired in 1994, but even for someone as new to Oklahoma State as I am, his was a familiar face. Smith was a regular at Art Department events and Gardiner Gallery exhibition openings — which isn’t surprising, given that for almost thirty years, he ran the Gardiner Gallery’s exhibition program singlehandedly.
Smith’s love of Oklahoma State was evident to all who knew him, and was multifaceted: over the course of his career, you were as likely to run into him at an athletics event as you were at an opening. Throughout it all, he maintained a prolific studio practice. Smith retired in 1994, and in 1996 the Art Department dedicated the BJ Smith Seminar Room, honoring his service to the department and the community. A dozen of Smith’s paintings hang in the seminar room, the only permanent display of art in the Bartlett Center. Smith’s paintings have been touchstones for classroom discussion, fond memories, and aesthetic contemplation for the past fourteen years.
It should come as no surprise that Smith wanted to continue giving to the department that had already received so much of his energy, personally and professionally. When Art Department head Chris Ramsay contacted me to say that Smith had left his collection to the Art Department—and to the museum, to the extent that it would be appropriate—I knew it was a gesture in keeping with Smith’s sincere belief in the value of the Gardiner Gallery and art’s role in education more generally.
Thanks to Smith’s generosity, we have added about thirty new works to the OSU Art Collection. Some are by BJ himself, many are from former Art Department faculty, and several are by well-known contemporary artists. Selections from Smith’s bequest are featured in this post, along with brief descriptions of their significance to our collection and to BJ.
Smith’s paintings hover between abstraction, descriptive realism, and surrealism. In this untitled work, a street lamp frames an ominous, purple cloud hovering over an apparently innocuous suburban street.
As an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University, Smith was a student of Doel Reed. Later in life, Smith would recall Reed’s teaching with a mixture of appreciation and amusement as a somewhat autocratic experience. This print by the student offers visual evidence of Reed’s approach: exactly like the teacher’s aquatints in style and subject, it reveals Reed’s belief that students should copy his work directly in order to learn his techniques.
Nick Bormann taught graphic design in the Art Department for over thirty years, including while Smith worked as Gallery Director. Bormann was department head from 1998 until 2005. In this silkscreen photo transfer, Bormann gives an old family photo a contemporary—and slightly disquieting—edge.
One of the United States’ most important printmakers, Leonard Baskin was also a prolific book designer and publisher. He developed several signature iconographic elements over the course of his lifetime, one of which, the raptor, is seen in this print. Like Smith’s own work, Baskin’s print hovers between descriptive realism and a more surreal symbolism. It isn’t hard to imagine why this print hung prominently in Smith’s front hall.
Sieg was one of a group of artists at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, known as the “Ada Trio.” Emerging in the 1960s as part of Oklahoma’s avant-garde, the Ada Trio experimented with a variety of modernist modes. This small assemblage combines found materials including a hinge and doorknob with worn, salvaged wood to create a piece whose forward-looking abstraction is in tension with its nostalgic materiality.
Smith’s brother, Lindell, collected porcelain, small sculpture, and prints from China and other parts of Asia. When he passed away, Smith brought his brother’s collection to Stillwater. Much of the collection is twentieth-century production produced in traditional styles, intended for the export market—as, for example, is this pair of celadon vases.