Feminine Wiles

Linda Kyser Smith finds endless fascination
in portraying the inner thoughts and outer charms of women

A haughty, beautiful woman, chin tilted ever so slightly upward, long black silk opera gloves worn with utter self-confidence—she inspires a range of responses, from envy to indifference. But to painter Linda Kyser Smith, she is a perfect model.

“I love drama and I like haughty women. It’s like, hey, you’re strong, you can be haughty,” the artist laughs, her own sense of confidence infused with warmth and humor and not a trace of snobbery. “I love to pose models in ways that are whimsical, somewhat dramatic, and fun—something that makes people smile when they look at the painting. I try to bring out the vast array of charms in women, from the pensive to the piquant.”

Often the women in Kyser Smith’s art are portrayed in relaxed settings—a café, bistro, or lounging on a cushy couch—either with friends or alone. They may be raising a glass and laughing, deep in thought, or furtively stealing a glance at someone of interest across the room. This is a world where high style meets casual ease, where inner grace, impishness, or a hint of vulnerability reveals itself in faces, gestures, and body language.

Kyser Smith has been creating award-winning paintings of women, as well as children and portraits of all types, for more than 25 years. Her work has earned the National Arts Club’s Visual Arts Award, the National Portrait Society’s Special Recognition Award, and a Gold Medal for Oil at the Knickerbocker Artists’ 45th Grand International Classic, among others. With an international following, her paintings are in the collections of celebrities Whoopi Goldberg, Carol Burnett, and Sir Anthony Hopkins—who purchased a piece depicting a “really pretty young blonde,” the artist reveals with a smile. Kyser Smith’s art is also in the permanent collections of a number of museums, including the Musée de la Grande Vigne in Dinan, France, and the National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame in Ft. Worth, TX.

The painter has lived in New Mexico for the past 20 years, first in Ruidoso—where she went for a workshop and met her husband, architect and artist David Smith—and now Santa Fe. But Texas was her first home, and the Lone Star State still lingers in her voice. Raised in Irving, she was an only child, an experience she believes led her to become a natural observer of people and faces. It also inclined her to remain slightly withheld as an artist, at least until she realized that wasn’t the best approach when painting from life.

“I was taking a class with Bettina Steinke and she said, ‘Linda, you’re very talented, but you need to be 70 percent over there with the model and 30 percent over here at the easel,’” she recalls. “It made me aware I was pulled back. My theory is that an only child has a natural tendency to be a little solitary, even though you want to connect.”

Kyser Smith connected with art early on. She remembers copying Gilbert Stuart’s famous unfinished portrait of George Washington while in grade school and admits it “kind of even looked like him.” Her love of painting women in fine clothes has roots in time spent with her grandmother, a seamstress and clothing designer with whom young Linda stayed every day after school while her parents worked.

Some of the actual dresses and accessories her models wear today were inherited from her grandmother, including a lovely 1920s-era ivory satin gown created for Kyser Smith’s aunt, although for unknown reasons the aunt never wore it. The gown has appeared in a series of works, including Tea and Satin, which received an honorable mention from the National Portrait Society.

Linda Kyser Smith

Linda Kyser Smith
Joie de Vivre

Kyser Smith majored in French and English at North Texas State University, where she also studied art. She never lost interest in painting but kept it on the back burner for a few years while teaching in the public schools. Married for the first time before college, she had three children, and after leaving the teaching field worked in the Dallas area in pharmaceutical sales.

Then, in 1982, a trip to the East Coast suddenly brought Kyser Smith’s artistic passion into focus and changed her direction in life. A friend in New York City called and urged her to visit so the two could attend a John Singer Sargent retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was the first time the Texas artist had seen, in person, the work of the American master.

“I walked in and was just totally spellbound by the beauty of every painting,” she remembers. “The color, the liveliness, the grace, the perception that you were actually looking at the subjects and seeing them.” She pulls a dog-eared copy of the retrospective’s catalogue from a bookshelf and pages through it to find the image of Doctor Pozzi at Home. “Look at this,” she urges, gazing at the portrait of a tall, dark-haired figure in a red dressing gown. “To me his hands are as beautiful as any woman’s, and it looks completely appropriate. Sargent had such passion for beauty. He was an amazing, amazing painter.”

After visiting the show twice, Kyser Smith made a pivotal decision. “You reach a point where you think: If I have this talent, when I have one foot in the grave, I’m going to be really dissatisfied if I haven’t tried to go for it,” she relates. “My decision was this: I wanted to be a professional artist and I would learn as much as I could from the artists I most admired. I would chase them down if I had to, since some of them don’t teach much.”

Bettina Steinke became an important mentor, generously giving her time to periodically critique Kyser Smith’s work. Everett Raymond Kinstler was another mentor, one of three presidential portraitists with whom Kyser Smith studied. She also took classes and workshops from such renowned painters as Burton Silverman, Harley Brown, Ned Jacob, and Milt Kobayashi. Kobayashi, in particular, showed her “how to push the gesture, how to exaggerate it a little,” she notes, adding, “After you’ve learned accuracy, you’re free to take it where you want it to go.”

Linda Kyser Smith

Linda Kyser Smith
Waiting and Watching

She once limited herself, for a few years, to using a simple four-color palette (alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, cadmium orange, and cadmium yellow light, along with white) to create paintings imbued with harmonious, jewel-toned hues. Crossing to the kitchen area of her light-filled, ingeniously designed studio in Santa Fe’s Canyon Road art district, the artist pulls a paper plate from the freezer. It is dotted with bright blobs of paint. “I’ve got some colors here that I scraped off the palette,” she explains. “It looks like a birthday cake! It’s just fabulous.” She notes that the four colors she uses are especially effective for capturing the subtleties of children’s skin tones.

While Kyser Smith is fluent in portraits of all types of people and occasionally also paints still lifes and landscapes, women and children are her favorite subjects. “When I first started painting these women, I was thinking we, as women, are finally getting our due,” she recounts. “There’s been poetry written about women for thousands of years, but the poetic visual image of women seemed to be missing. There were the French Impressionists, of course. They, and French culture, have influenced my work quite a bit.”

Kyser Smith happily soaked up that culture during a month-long painting fellowship in the French coastal region of Brittany in 1999. An arts group in Dinan each year selects a single artist from an international roster of candidates for the coveted fellowship, which allows the artist to live and work in the home of painter Yvonne Jean-Haffen (1895-1993), owned by Dinan’s Musée de la Grande Vigne.
French women make especially suitable painting models, Kyser Smith notes, because “they have such high style. I love their self-confidence, their self-satisfied look.” Back in this country the artist is always on the lookout for attractive young women to sit as models. She often finds her subjects in waitresses, whose loveliness and ease around people shines through on the canvas. As for children, “they’re so flawless, dewy, and beautiful, and their skin tones are absolutely stunning,” she points out.

Virtually every aspect of Kyser Smith’s life these days revolves around art. She travels internationally and paints wherever she goes. (To be able to do this more, she’s thinking of selling her studio and seeking house-swap situations in France and Italy.) She teaches at the Scottsdale Artists’ School, Andreeva Portrait Academy in Santa Fe, and in her studio. And she enjoys another form of art as a jazz and blues singer with a couple of CDs under her belt. But her favorite activity is standing at her easel with a model across the room. “I love painting from life, because a photograph is not the person,” she reflects. “From life—that’s where the excitement is. That’s where the real beauty is.”

Santa Fe-based Gussie Fauntleroy also writes for Art & Antiques, New Mexico Magazine, Native Peoples, and the Santa Fean

Originally appeared in Southwest Art - March 2008

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