Portraits of American Poets

The seven American poets luminously evoked here in oil portraits by American artist Jack Smith are drawn from an ensemble of thirty paintings scheduled to tour the United States in 2009.


Smith grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in western Michigan, where as a young man he enjoyed the mentorship of two esteemed poets, Jim Harrison and Dan Gerber. They encouraged Smith’s love of poetry, and later, in 2004, during an afternoon visit with Gerber, Smith was impressed by the way the light gathered in Gerber’s face as he read his poems aloud. Smith re-created this impression by painting with black oil, a mixture favored by the Dutch masters and made from raw linseed oil, white beeswax, and lead salts, which Smith mixed on his kitchen stove. Applied to copper, pigments suspended in black oil produce washes of color, like light on skin.

Smith spent three years traveling across the United States to the homes and studios of poets he admires. He spent time with each poet, took photographs, and sketched, before going back to his Taos, New Mexico, studio to paint. For the portraits here, Smith provided his notes on the experience of meeting each poet, and we formed his notes into short interpretative biographies. Each portrait is also accompanied by a signal work from the poet.

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