‘Bird of Passage’ revisited

Posted 12/10/10

Littleton’s most prevalent resident waterfowl was well-recognized 27 years ago in a floor-to-ceiling mural at Bemis Library in Littleton, “Bird …

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‘Bird of Passage’ revisited


Littleton’s most prevalent resident waterfowl was well-recognized 27 years ago in a floor-to-ceiling mural at Bemis Library in Littleton, “Bird of Passage” by artist Craig Marshall Smith.

Actually , one sees a collection of 25 individual paintings of a goose in flight. (Plus a pair in a 2001 painting near the circulation desk, “going the other way” Smith advises).

“If I were doing it now, I might turn the heads toward you,” Smith said in a revisit to the wall. Since five birds on a diagonal have their beaks open, a viewer can pretty much hear them honking anyhow.

It started with an early 1980s Littleton Fine Arts Committee competition for a mural on Bemis Library’s two story wall. Craig Marshall Smith, then a professor of drawing at Metropolitan State College, entered a concept for birds on the wing, which the committee chose to commission. His initial idea was to depict pelicans, a particularly interesting bird.

But, he says Margery Smith, who just retired as library director, pointed out that pelicans were not local. He walked outside the library and was surrounded by feathered ancestors of today’s flocks of Canada geese, grazing and honking. The project was under way.

“It was one of those things in life. It happened, and years later it is somewhat difficult to imagine that it happened ….Of course I never saw it until it was on the wall. It was 25 individually drawn birds. Eventually they were all on a wall in Littleton. I didn’t have a chance to redesign them. They either worked — or did not…

“It consumed a year and I constantly revised it.”

At one point, he completely re-did them all, bringing each image to the edge of the picture plane. He remembers working in a spare 8-foot-by-10-foot bedroom in a rented house in Aurora, creating one at a time, then taking it to the framer.

Installation required some engineering assistance from an architect who “devised a scheme on the wall,” based on location of beams. “They were never composed until they were up. I was not sure of the order. I didn’t want any two to look alike in the sanctuary of the library… Now, I’m like an architect looking at a 27 year old building. I’d make some changes… Now I would do a more sequential (placement). It would have been lovely to do it on the wall, although more difficult. That’s the teacher in me.”

He says he had five basic templates, then drew variations within them. All are drawn with china markers on a painted background. The lighter lines were removed with an eraser or rag soaked in solvent.

“I was adamant about being a drawing artist. I was into animal imagery, liked to leave little gifts.”

Look for a rabbit, for the skeleton beneath the wings, for a tribute to Eadweard Muybridge,” an English photographer (1830-1904) who used multiple cameras to catch animal motion, a forerunner of motion pictures. Muybridge’s pioneering work served as an inspiration to Smith and other contemporary artists.

Another animal image in a public place is “Rodger,” a life-sized red horse that now is stabled at the top of the stairs leading to the Museum of Outdoor Arts in Englewood Civic Center.

Smith’s artwork has evolved into abstract expressionist painting in recent years. “An abstract image has more life that a realistic image. Perhaps that’s because I’m a more prolific painter, with more shows of new work.” A November show at Core New Arts Space in the Santa Fe Arts District is the most recent.

Does he ever revisit and change a painting? “I try not to show one more than twice in Denver.” They have a shelf life at home and then I may rework them.”

Now retired, he paints in a large, light-filled studio in his Highlands Ranch home, careful not to step on a short canine buddy named Smitty.

His art is in local and national corporate and private collections and he wonders about his wisdom in taking on the Littleton project.

“What was I thinking? I received $10,000 for 25 paintings. Half of that went to materials, scaffolding, frames…”

But, he’s smiling.


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