Back roads and byways

Artist’s show reflects her travels, love of Chico

PLUM LOVELY Chico artist BB Smith with “…just a bowl of plums,” part of her exhibit now up at the Vagabond Rose.

PLUM LOVELY Chico artist BB Smith with “…just a bowl of plums,” part of her exhibit now up at the Vagabond Rose.

Photo By Tom Angel

Like many local artists, BB Smith has had to take the occasional “day job” to pay the bills. And it was while doing one of those jobs, caring for a 97-year-old woman, that she got the inspiration for two series of recent paintings now on display in the back room at the Vagabond Rose Gallery, in downtown Chico.

The woman liked to go for drives in the country, so last winter Smith spent many hours exploring the back roads around such towns as Durham and Nelson. On these forays she would bring a Polaroid camera, and she would stop now and then take snapshots of the orchards and the roads.

The pictures are small and weakly colored, and the trees were bare when photographed, so it’s interesting to see how she has applied imagination and painterly technique to transform these weak images into richly textured expressionistic nature studies bursting with color and light.

There are two series of several paintings each, one of the orchards, the other of the back roads, all done in strong, colorful acrylics on paper. There is just enough realism in these pieces to make them attractive for collectors interested in regional art, but ultimately they’re as much about the play of shapes, colors, textures and light as they are about content. The more abstract the better, I thought, but others will disagree.

In addition to these series, the exhibit includes other recent works, some of them products of her extensive traveling. After receiving her MFA degree in art (her specialty was printmaking) from Chico State University in 1973, Smith worked in the art history slide room for nine years, expanding her knowledge of art while saving some money. She lived and painted for a year on a small, isolated island between Italy and North Africa, then moved to Santa Cruz for several years, where she worked full time as an artist and in one year mounted seven shows.

In 1995, she moved back to Chico, which she loved especially for its natural surroundings, and got a teaching credential and worked a couple of years as a fine-arts teacher in the local schools until she was laid off. She’s been doing a variety of jobs since then, and traveling, while pursuing her art. As a child, she says, “I always wanted to grow up to be an artist. I never had any other goal.”

The current exhibit is a bit of a mish-mash, but that seems to fit the Vagabond Rose, in which all kinds of styles and media co-exist in a happy visual gallimaufry. Some of Smith’s best pieces here utilize plain rough-wood frames that Smith has colored in ways that make them part of the painting and give them a Mexican folk-art flavor. Some work better than others, but all evidence Smith’s maturity as an artist.

My personal favorite is “…just a bowl of plums,” a still life framed in panel wood. It shows, in the foreground, a bowl of purple fruit on a table next to a potted plant. The interior light is subdued, and the colors are rich and glowing. Smith isn’t afraid to scratch her paint surfaces to add texture and bring out light, and she has manipulated the planes of the surfaces in a cubistic way, destroying realism while enhancing the presence of the objects, especially the front-and-center plums.

But what really makes the picture work is a small window in the background that looks out over a sun-splashed field in green and light-blue. It’s as if the picture frame is the first window, opening onto the room with the table, plant and plums, and then there’s another window in the painting looking out on the world. The effect is delightful.