Artist Nesmith finds inspiration in return to Southeast Texas after travels
“You can’t go home again.”
The general philosophy behind this quote, the title of the 1940 novel by Thomas Wolfe, is that once we leave a place, it changes, so that what we return to is no longer the home we remember.
But what if we return to our roots and find that it didn’t change at all, but that we have changed, and “home” is exactly what we are looking for?
After more than a decade away, artist Mark Nesmith found his “Way Back Home,” in 2012 and found it inspired a new way of seeing and a new theme for his painting.
Nesmith will present “The Way Back Home,” an exhibition of his art, Oct. 4-25, at The Art Studio, Inc. The show opens with a free reception, 7-10 p.m., Oct. 4.
The Beaumont native graduated from Lamar University with a BFA in studio fine art in 1998 before, like many young artists, packing his things and heading to the big city, he said. He spent the next 14 years in or around Dallas.
“I had big visions when I left Southeast Texas of earning my MFA and living the life of an exhibiting artist,” he said. “My work was my passion. After starting off as a mainly figurative artist, I gravitated towards abstract, satellite inspired landscapes while taking graduate classes at the University of North Texas.”
However, Nesmith said that life intervened and he soon found himself married with three children (Ruby, now 14, and sons Benton and Samuel, 12 and 10) and he started teaching in the Dallas ISD.
“Over the years, the reality of earning a living and making a home for my family overshadowed my work as an artist,” he said. “For several years, my artwork virtually disappeared.”
Nesmith, who teaches at Port Neches middle school, said it is a common condition among schoolteachers.
“I’ve taught with many talented artists and musicians in three cities, but very few of them still produce their own work or perform with any regularity,” he said. “The day-to-day grind of teaching uses up a lot of the same creative energy needed for your own work.”
However, there is only so long an artist can deny his essential nature.
“Sometime around 2010, I started painting with a passion again,” Nesmith said. “I started doing small daily paintings, mostly of my surroundings, my family, and the landscapes near my home and the areas we vacationed together.
“I started a blog called ‘Paint Daily Texas’ to post my work, thoughts about art, and to auction off small 5×7 or 8×10 paintings. There’s a whole movement of daily painters spearheaded by people like Duane Keiser and Stephen Magsig.
“Getting into the habit of creating art on a daily basis really got the ball rolling again for me. Thoughts of style and the capital ‘A’ art world were gone. Painting was once again simply a reflection of my life, a visual diary of sorts. I’m a big believer in the idea that work begets work. The simple act of putting a brush to canvas starts a chain reaction and creates more inspiration and drives more work.”
Unfortunately, a year later life changed direction again.
“After I was really getting going painting again my world was turned upside down,” he said. “My marriage was at an end and I found myself having to start over. While I enjoyed my years in Dallas and had several good friends there, I always felt a little out of place in North Texas.
“They say you can’t go home again, but I think we never really leave. I think a part of us is always left behind. In 2012 I made one of the toughest choices in my life and moved back to Southeast Texas. Most of my immediate family still lives in the area, but many of my old friends had moved away. Like the prodigal son in the biblical story, I wasn’t sure how I would be received.”
Beaumont had changed in many ways over the years, but Nesmith turned to what he does best as a way to re-assimilate himself.
“I started painting and drawing the scenes and people around me as a way of getting my bearings,” he said. “It was a way of making me feel at home again.”
Nesmith was drawn to capture the sights of his old — now new — home. Visitors to the show will instantly recognize area landmarks. Nesmith’s mastery of technique is clear, and the way he uses color adds an atmospheric dimension to the paintings. As much as possible, he likes to work from nature, but time is often a factor.
“These days, with the full-time teaching schedule and demands of life in general, I find photographs are a life saver,” he said. “I’m always taking pictures of things I find interesting — places, people, lighting, cloud formations, anything really that pulls me in for a moment. When I work from photos there’s often more than one involved, and I usually do a lot of playing around with the picture, both by editing the photo itself on my computer and by the painting process.
“I treat photographs like working from life, meaning I pick and choose what to use. I often add or remove elements from the image, combine parts of other photos (i.e. the sky and lighting from a different photo with that location, etc.) Ultimately, it’s a jumping off point and somewhere along the way the reference disappears and I simply let memory and imagination take over and build on where the paint seems to lead me.”
Nesmith said he spent many years studying life drawing and many years painting landscapes outdoors.
“I think it’s important to have that experience to fall back on when working from photographs in order to be creative and not just make a flat, literal copy,” he said. “I’m not a photo-realist by any means. If I want it to look like a photograph, I’ll simply print a photo.
While he enjoys working from life, Nesmith said he does his best work in the studio in isolation.
“I find that I need some distance — both physically and emotionally — from the places I paint,” he said. “I need time to reflect, to distill my memories and focus on the aspects that truly affect me. I need time to paint with a sense of longing for the places I miss. I want the push and pull against realism, I want it to be recognizable and stir a memory or some kind of recognition in the viewer, but I also want the painting to be an object, full of texture and expression all by itself. I want my cake and to eat it too.”
We live in an incredibly diverse area, Nesmith said, with all the trappings of a modern, urban area — malls, restaurants, museums and cultural attractions such as theater, live music, and more.
“At the other end of the spectrum, we’re just a step away from the rural old South,” he said. “You can get a glimpse of what it was like years ago, horizons dotted with the relics of old farming equipment, barns, silos, rusty trucks, old houses and dirt roads. It’s like a memory or dream in solid form. You can even wander the deep woods of the Big Thicket, or the along the Neches or the bayous, and feel like you’ve been transported to a land before time, before man walked the earth. It’s all right here within a short drive. Whatever your interest, whatever your passion, there’s something here for everyone.
“It’s all held together by this intense, southern light that rakes across the landscape. Landscape artists have always loved the light of the Golden Hour, that time early in the morning after sunrise or shortly before sunset, when the light takes on an almost magical quality and drags lazily across the landscape leaving long, lazy shadows and unifying everything with a warm glow. That time seems to be more pronounced here.”
Nesmith said he has heard painters bemoan the lack of a real change of season here.
“There’s not much in the way of fall foliage for a painter, but for me the history and the swampy atmosphere more than makes up for that, and I think we have some of the most amazing sunsets you’ll ever see,” he said. “Maybe it’s all the petrochemicals in the air, but the skies are simply gorgeous and saturated in a way that never ceases to amaze and inspire me.”
The exhibition will feature a variety of subjects that will present a visual overview of what it’s like living in this part of the world — kind of a hodge-podge of the people, places, and things that make up life in SE Texas, Nesmith said.
“There are a few landscapes I’m planning for the show that are of the cypress sloughs of the Big Thicket,” he said. “These are a throwback to a more primordial world, seemingly devoid of humans, but most of the landscapes in this show include the signs of mankind that surround us, from the Rainbow Bridge to oil wells, silos, and rice dryers. I’ve always been attracted to places like that. I view them kind of like the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome. These are our artifacts. In many cases they’re part of a way of life that’s slowly dying out of existence in most places, but is alive and strong around Beaumont.”
While he said he has never been much of a still life painter, Nesmith has a few that focus on things he encounters on his day-to-day travels around town.
“Some of these wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a traditional still life,” he said. “For instance, I’m working on a painting of a giant pot of boiled crawfish. Since I’ve been back in Beaumont I’ve had several wonderful evenings spent with good friends with a bucket of crawfish and a cold Shiner Bock.”
Nesmith originally planned to major in music and now performs regularly at local venues, as well as in Galveston and Houston. This other part of his life will also make an appearance in the exhibition.
“I’m working on a few figurative ideas, mainly portraits of people I know or musicians in the area,” he said. “Since moving back to Beaumont I’ve been overwhelmed by the talent and diversity of our local music scene. I’ve made several good friends and had the opportunity to jam with lots of the local acts. I think people who haven’t spent much time out of the area might take it for granted how incredible our local music scene really is.”
It is clear that Nesmith’s art is more than just a chronicle of Southeast Texas. One gets the sense that he wants viewers to see the area with the same reverence he feels — one that, perhaps, one can get only by spending time away.
“I want people to feel like they’re at home,” he said. “I want to stir their memories. I want them to come away with a fresh vision of the beauty that surrounds us in Southeast Texas daily. I want them to feel like they’re a part of my life and vice versa.
“I think there’s a little record of my life in every painting I’ve ever done. What I was feeling at the time, my thoughts and emotions, wrapped up in a brush stroke. It’s a spiritual and meditative thing for me, and I hope that people come away with a sense of wonder and a sense that they were actually a part of something and not just a viewer.”
Nesmith said that taken collectively, his art speaks to his values.
“I’m a fairly simple guy,” he said. “I love life, I love my family and friends, and I love the world we live in.”
He said that Elizabeth, his girlfriend, calls him a diehard romantic.
“In a lot of ways I am,” he said. “At this point in my life, I’m just grateful for every moment and every opportunity I have. I’ve been at the other end of the spectrum. I’ve had bitter years and hopeless times. Art and music — creating in any way — that’s my therapy. I tell my students that art is my anti-drug. It keeps me centered.
“I paint a lot. I have a work ethic involved, but not because I’m punching a time clock or necessarily collecting a paycheck. It’s wonderful when people appreciate my work and want to make one of my paintings part of their life, but I’m going to be painting whether or not I ever sell anything. It’s my way of connecting with the world around me and maybe understanding a little bit about life and myself. Painting is when I feel most spiritually connected and in tune with God.
“I think if you look for the bad in life, that’s all you’ll see. But if you look for the good, if you look for beauty, you’ll find it all around you. I hear a lot of people badmouth Beaumont, but if you look around with fresh eyes this is an amazing place to live.”
The Art Studio, Inc. is located at 720 Franklin in downtown Beaumont.
Story and photos by Andy Coughlan