I Knew the Life Wouldn't Wait
Bonham Daily Favorite, May 29, 1994
Erwin Smith's arrival in Boston has been described by one writer in terms of curiosity exhibited by the normally very proper Bostonians, "He cut quite a figure as he waled down the streets of Boston, his lanky six foot frame topped off with a big hat from under which an obtruding shock of heavy black hair threatened to fall in confusion across the bridge of his prominent nose."
Smith felt that his collection of more than two thousand photographs which he selected to bring with him would serve as the nucleus of his work as he learned to model and cast these western figures in bronze. He enrolled at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for a three year course of study.
His mentor at the institute was Bella Lyon Pratt, who recognized in the young raw boned Texas a talent which could not be held within the constraints of a formal course in sculpting so he encouraged Smith to depart from these standard forms. Among his first work was a bust, modeled from memory of American Horse, a Sioux Indian. Smith tasted success early for this piece won a prize and recognition when it was placed in competition at the Boston Art Institute.
As Smith was working on the piece, Pratt received a commission for the design of an Indian profile for a newly designed coin, the American nickle or later more popularly known as the "buffalo nickle." Despite his vast experience Pratt was generally unfamiliar with American Indians. In passing he mentioned his lack of knowledge to his pupil whereupon Smith Hauled out dozens of Indian studies from his photographic collection. After examination and reexamination of the collection, the two men finally reached the decision that Pratt's design should be a composite, a montage of six or more of the Indian chiefs and braves. Pratt chose to use Fighting Bear, Black Thunder, Blue Horse, Iron Shell, Low Cedar, and Yellow Elk. Smith later stated that if any one Indian was the most dominant it would have to be Yellow Elk, a South Dakota Sioux.
These Indian photographs along with other studies Smith used in his sculpture created quite a stir among Boston art students and faculty. In time he was asked to present a select group at the Boston art center showing. Among the attendees at the showing was a young Canadian writer, George Patulle, who was Sunday editor of the Boston Herald.
Like others before him, Patullo was struck by the forcefulness, the style, and the beauty of Smith's photographic work. Immediately, Patullo began production on a full page lay-out in the Sunday paper featuring the young Texas artist and his work. The feature was a major success in the Boston publishing circles and Smith's fame began to grow.
His boyhood friend from Bonham, Harry Payton Steger, was then working as an editor at Doubleday Publishers in New York. In October of 1908 Steger wrote to his friend Roy Bedichek back in Texas, "Do you remember a boy at Bonham - Erwin Smith by name - who played cowboy all the time? He is making an artistic record with the camera of cowboy life that I believe will be of prime value. I go up to Boston where he is now an art student - this week to go over his material."
When he saw the incomparable artistry of his old friend's work, Steger was galvanized into action to help promote Smith's body of work. Steger authored a long, detailed article on the importance of his friend's work photographic a rapidly disappearing way of life. In a portion of the article entitled, "Photography the Cowboy as He Disappears," Steger said, "In a collection of more than two thousand photographs that have cost him twenty years of work and patience, Mr. Erwin E. Smith has recorded the cowboy of yesterday and today. From this material it will be possible, at a time when the last ranch is sold up into small farms, to reconstruct any moving incident of the old West. Each photograph that he has taken permanently pictures something that will serve in later years as material for heroic canvases and bronzes - which he hopes himself to ultimately execute. He is now a student in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts carrying out in study the second step in his plan to make himself a final and full authority in art on the passing West. 'I knew that the life wouldn't wait," he says, "and that the techniques would. So I put off Boston as long as I could.'
Mr. Smith's claim to attention at present, however, lies in what he has already accomplished. Until less than two years ago, his life has been almost entirely that of a cowboy. Before he knew how to use a camera he was thoroughly familiar with the life of the prairies from having lived it. Everything that a cowboy does he has done in regular employment.
Of late years he has traveled all over the cattle districts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, and Old Mexico in search of material of historical and artistic value." Steger's article appeared in the January, 1909 issue of World's Work Magazine.
George Patullo began to suffer from some health problems and upon advice of his physician decided to seek out a different climate. His enthusiastic approval of everything photographed by Smith provide to forge a strong bond between the two men and the next summer found the two of them out west among the cowboys.
Erwin Smith was in his element and George Patullo was in his new found element. All summer the two roamed throughout the region, Smith adding to his already impressive portfolio of western life, and Patullo gathering reams of material which would later be turned into stories and articles for the popular magazine market. In the fall they returned to Boston and shared quarters at trinity Court. Through the fall and winter Smith sketched, sculpured, took his classes, and reveled in his celebrity. Patullo turned out story after story and richly detailed articles which often were illustrated with Smith's pictures.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas