Mike Smith may be a world-famous artist, but his studio, crowded with different projects, thank-you notes, golf balls and a Specialized mountain bike suggest a man with a plethora of passions.And that’s pretty much how he’s lived his life. In fact, Smith never planned on becoming an artist. He considers himself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time on any number of occasions.
For example, during an art show in Hawaii, a representative of the Winn-Devon Art Group happened to see a pastel horse Smith had painted. He asked Smith if he’d be interested in turning it into a poster. That was back in the late 1980s. The poster has been displayed in waiting rooms at children’s hospitals around the world, with millions sold.
Usually, professional artists describe their work as a calling, something they always envisioned themselves doing. However, Smith didn’t envision painting for a career.
“When I was in school, I was a good artist, to the point of winning state shows,” he said. “But honestly, I could have cared less. I was too busy playing baseball. I was planning to be a baseball coach and a high school teacher.”
After graduating from Hudson’s Bay High School in 1960, Smith went to Clark College, then joined the Army. After his tour of duty was complete, he used the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Portland, where he earned a degree in English literature.
Soon after, he became inspired to paint as a way to earn beer money.
“A friend and I would go down and drink beer every Friday, and we quickly learned the G.I. Bill wasn’t going to pay for that,” he joked. “So my friend suggested I paint something since I’d been a good artist as a kid. I did, and got permission to hang it up in the bar.”
The oil painting, of a small figure walking through a yellow field with big clouds and a vast landscape, sold the next day to a Portland doctor.
“We had beer money for four months after that,” Smith said.
After he landed a job as a writer for the University of Oregon medical school, Smith knew he wasn’t where he needed to be.
“Once I started writing, I realized I was painting with words, so I may as well just go back to painting,” he said. “My work started selling right away and I’ve done it ever since. My first watercolors I took to the Lawrence Gallery in Sheridan, and they sold on the floor before being juried.”
For several years, Smith worked all day, every day, painting whimsical scenes of horses and landscapes for galleries and shows in Japan, Europe, Hawaii and across the United States.
“Every show I had would sell out,” he said. “I was really lucky about the whole thing. People are born to do things, and although I didn’t realize it until later, I was born to do this.”
Smith still has a bit of awe in his voice when he describes how everything turned out.
“A friend of mine who was a fighter pilot in Vietnam, went on to earn the Silver Star and became one of the most successful pilots in the world. And I ended up being one of the most successful artists in the world. Yet, we barely made it through high school. You just never know what is going to happen to you. It’s all about making the right decisions at the right moments.”
The most rewarding aspect of being an artist is the freedom involved with it, according to Smith.
“I’m able to use my own ideas, and I’ve experimented with all kinds of things. I had my own printing press, did etchings and worked in bronze.”
The one thing Smith has never had, at least after military life, is a routine.
“If I have a show coming up, I need to make time to finish all the pieces, but I don’t have any particular routine,” he said. “Nowadays, I’d rather play golf.”
Due to smart financial decisions earlier in life, he is able to do that.
“I know some artists who work three jobs and still try to paint,” he said. “It’s a tough life.”
Of all the memorable moments in his career, a highlight is the thank-you notes from children, some of which are displayed in his studio.
“One little girl with cerebral palsy had to go in for surgeries a lot at Gillette Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, and she began writing little books about the animals in the posters,” Smith said. “Her grandma published them, so I donated a big cat bronze sculpture to the hospital. Some kids have to go through some really hard stuff. The highlight of my career is kids saying my work helped them.”