Byron Smith’s paintings explore relationships among people, places, and historical identity

This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Missouri Life magazine.

Byron Smith’s family has lived in Boone County near Columbia for generations, and his landscapes express not only the beauty of the local architecture and countryside, but also the artist’s strong ancestral connections.

Byron welcomes me at the door, and as I enter the communal space shared by the artists at Columbia’s Orr Street Studio, I see one of his paintings in the current exhibition. It is an image of the trees and wild vegetation growing along the Hinkson Creek watershed. Byron is acutely aware of the intimate relationships between the community and the life-sustaining land and water resources that surround it.

The artist ushers me into his studio. Finished and unfinished pictures hang on and lean against the walls. Byron apologizes for not having more to show me, but I am amazed by what I see. There are numerous figure paintings featuring local people and models, as well as landscapes depicting houses, barns, woods, and waterways

Byron Smith shares the story behind Pear Trees in Memory of Ollie Bass. Photos—Joan Stack

Like Byron, I was born and raised in mid-Missouri, and many of these places and people are familiar to me. I feel at home among these paintings.

Soon after the end of the Civil War, Byron’s ancestors obtained farmland near what is now the Columbia Regional Airport, in the historic rural black community of Englewood. His relatives continued to acquire and work the land over successive generations there and in other parts of the county over the years.

Those places have great significance to Bryon, who says, “When I do a landscape of houses or farms that I knew as a kid, it strengthens the connections I have to these places.”

Byron’s work came to my attention years ago when he had a one-man show at the Boone County History and Culture Center. Byron called the exhibit Places I Know, and the show consisted of everyday Missouri landscapes painted with unusual tenderness and sensitivity. Today one of the pictures from that show hangs on the wall over the artist’s drawing board. It is a striking watercolor representing an early twentieth-century farmhouse that Byron says is no longer standing.

I am reminded of the watercolors of Edward Hopper as I look at this painting. It has character, one might even say personality. Byron went to this house often as a boy to visit his paternal grandparents, and he says the roof was covered by blue-green tiles.

In the painting, the surface of the tiles is illuminated by sunlight, giving them an arresting aqua tone. The white of the paper represents the whitewashed exterior of the house, as Byron captures the beautifully subtle colors of the violet and cobalt shadows that play across the structure. A propane tank near the front door reminds the viewer that this is a tangible place, where a real rural family lived, worked, and used propane to power their home.

Like many of his landscapes, this picture’s meaning depends on the perspective of the spectator. Many viewers will see a pleasant pastoral scene that brings to mind their personal memories of rural places. Byron wants each viewer to personalize his pictures.

Even so, as the artist, he maintains profound relationships with the imagery. Many were painted on property near this old farm. Byron points out that a painting entitled Remembering depicts a rural lane that used to lead to the old farmhouse.

Byron spent happy childhood days at his grandparents’ farm, and although the house is no longer standing, he has preserved the memory of it through a watercolor painting.

“When I look at that picture, I know where the house used to be in relation to the road,” he says. “I know what was once in front of me and what was behind me.”

Byron employed the wet-on-wet watercolor technique beautifully in this picture, allowing the colors that represent the highlights and shadows of the verdant foliage to blend together. The layers of tone suggest both the hot, humid atmosphere of the treelined road in a mid-Missouri summer, and the idea of the hazy nature of memory.

“We all have relationships with places,” Byron says. “Although the farmhouse has gone, the road to it remains.”

Byron often writes notes on the back of his pictures recording his personal relationships with the places he paints. He hopes these notes provide a better understanding of the image for those who own and care for these pictures in the future.

Even as a youngster, Byron dreamed of becoming an artist. Reproductions of famous paintings hung in his home, and he remembers being especially intrigued by Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. Byron wanted to paint pictures like the painters of old, and he got in trouble for adding his own signature to one of his parents’ reproductions. In school, he and his friends competed to “outdraw” each other, and his teachers and relatives encouraged him to paint. Byron progressed rapidly.

After high school, he studied art at the University of Missouri, where he excelled in painting, drawing, and printmaking. At MU, he also established lifelong relationships with professors and fellow artists in Columbia and has since become established as one of the community’s leading painters.

After visiting Byron’s studio, we stop by the State Historical Society of Missouri (SHSMO) to see an artwork that he painted in the 1990s and that has received acclaim over the years. The painting, Pear Trees in Memory of Ollie Bass, has been shown at the Boone County History and Culture Center and MU’s Ellis Library, Museum of Art and Archaeology, and Jesse Hall. The picture hung for several years in the chancellor’s residence on the MU campus. Now housed at SHSMO, this beautiful watercolor depicts three trees in an open landscape.

Byron tells me that the title refers to pear trees that stood on a farm owned by his ancestor, Minor Bass Jr., who was born enslaved. After emancipation, Minor became an important local farmer, purchasing land in southeast Boone County that he cleared himself with a pickax. Upon the birth of his free-born daughter, Ollie, Minor planted four pear trees on his farm, shaping the landscape to reflect his personal history and his family’s life story.

Byron heard the tale of the trees as it was passed down through the family, and he often visited the pear grove and ate the fruit. One of the trees was destroyed by a tornado, so only three were left when Byron decided to make them the subject of a watercolor. The painting thus participates in the ongoing history of his family and their land, a physical manifestation of the pain of slavery and the joy of freedom for one family that resonates with many audiences.

As we step into the State Historical Society of Missouri’s art gallery, we see a more recent painting that relates to Byron’s love of place and history. The Center of Missouri Studies from Peace Park was commissioned for the opening of SHSMO’s new home at 605 Elm Street in 2019. Picturing the striking south facade of the building as seen from the park across the street, Byron places this repository of Missouri’s heritage in the historical setting of Peace Park, a campus green space that acquired its name during the peace protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The artist shows the landscape of the park reflected in the mirror-like windows of the facade and it seems a fitting subject for an artist so intimately aware of how art and history intertwine.

Examples of Byron Smith’s artwork are on display in Columbia at the Boone County Regional Library and the State Historical Society of Missouri’s art gallery. His work is also found in the collections of the Boone County History and Culture Center, MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology, and Fayette’s Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art.