‘Billy the Kid was someone I had grown up with. The myth and reality didn’t really come together until later on’
For all the stories and legends about Billy the Kid, the event that really propelled the young outlaw into the national consciousness happened on April 28, 1881—“as bold a deed as those versed in the annals of crime can recall,” the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican reported. That’s when the Kid escaped from the courthouse/jail in Lincoln, New Mexico Territory, after killing deputies James Bell and Bob Olinger. “When he rode off, he went on a walk,” an eyewitness wrote, “and every act, from beginning to end, seemed to have been planned and executed with the coolest deliberation.”
Utah artist Gary Ernest Smith captures that cool deliberation in Billy Leaves Town, a 36-by-48-inch oil painting high on historical accuracy, down to the lone staircase in front of the courthouse (a second set of stairs was added later). “Billy the Kid was someone I had grown up with,” Smith said during a recent break from plein air painting in southern Utah. “The myth and reality didn’t really come together until later on.”
The painting, and others dealing with Billy the Kid and Lincoln County, came about in spring 2009 when Smith accompanied friends and fellow artists Ed Mell and Bob Boze Bell, the latter also a Western historian and executive editor of True West magazine, on a painting and research trip to well-preserved Lincoln.
It was a bit of a departure for Smith, who, despite having grown up on a cattle ranch in the heart of Oregon Trail country near Baker City, Ore., usually paints more contemporary scenes. “It wasn’t my focus at the time, but from time to time I experimented with paintings dealing with Old West subject matter,” explains the artist, who was born in 1942. “My dad was a real fan of the Western novels of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. It was all in my background, my culture, growing up. That was a big focus. I rode horses, herded cattle, packed guns.”
A passion for art pulled him in other directions.
“I was interested in it from the very beginning,” says Smith. “My mother had drawings she saved when I was 3 years old, so it was a big part of my life. I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t know to what degree or extent that meant exactly, but I had just always painted.”
His passion took Smith to Eastern Oregon College and Brigham Young University, where he earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in fine arts. His art then took him on the 1986–88 “Third Western States Traveling Exhibit,” sponsored by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the 1990–92 traveling exhibit “Journeys in Search of Lost Images.” Finally his art drew him to Highland, Utah, in the mountains near Bull River, where he lives with wife Judy, a professional musician, and paints at his home studio.
“I’m a morning person,” Smith says. “I get up early, do a little exercise, then hit the studio. I’ll spend sometimes eight to 12 hour a day in the studio.”
He’s always looking for new subject matter, doing plein air painting, “finding things that I find interesting and that I’d like to paint or develop into paintings.” Smith’s style is hard to categorize, though he has been compared to Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and Maynard Dixon.
“I minimize detail and go for the form of things, let the form establish the design of the paintings,” he says. “I don’t go into detail. I like the form and colors to be the vehicle that carries the messages. I guess it’s somewhere between traditional contemporary style, with a minimalist quality to it.”
Would he render another historical Western subject? “It depends on where my head is,” he says. “I love the West, I read a lot of history that gets into real life, real situations, things that go beyond what Hollywood has gone into on the West. I enjoy the truth of the American West.”
He lets his art direct him.
“I come from a generation of people who were not conquerors of the West but tamers, who cultivated the land, built America. My paintings, by and large, don’t deal specifically with the West, though some of them do. A lot of them deal with my own time and culture of people I knew and remembered, so that I can make iconic images of those people, what it really took to pursue making a living off the land.”
He describes the result as “a travelogue of my life.”
“It’s almost as if I’ve kept a diary visually, and those paintings you see reflect where I was at the time.”
To see more of Smith’s work visit Overland Gallery online.