The detail is in the dust for local artist and Pikeville High School art teacher, Paula Smith.
The dust is coal dust that is literally mixed into the paint that forms the details of Smith’s creations.
“I’m going to title it ‘The Faces and the Places,’” said Smith of her series of coal-themed paintings. “These are the places the miners lived. These are the places people grew up in, and so, to me, it’s the places and the faces of the ordinary people that kept the mining industry going.”
Smith said the Upper Big Branch mining disaster last April tugged at her heart in a way she couldn’t ignore.
“I was watching television and waiting for them to bring the miners’ bodies out, and looking at the faces of the people and thinking about their grief and how everybody’s connected,” she said. “I could feel what they were feeling, and I could empathize with them, and I just felt like I was a part of them.”
Smith said everyone involved with the mining community shares common ground.
“They were family to me. I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but they were family to me,” she said of those touched by the mining disaster.
Then these feelings of empathy sparked inspiration that may prove to be life-changing for Smith. She dug through some old pictures and found one of her grandfather — William Kendall — driving a mining motor.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to paint that in honor of those miners, and just in honor of my family and all the people that’s worked in the mines before,’” she said. “And then I got the idea, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if I could do something with coal?’”
An idea was born.
“I did this picture first, and it just really speaks to me because there’s my grandfather. Mom says he was probably around 17, 18 when he started in the mines, and so he looks like he’s determined and ready to get in there and work,” she said.
Smith began to experiment with different types of coal, which she would mix in with her paint and create various textures and shades for mining-themed pictures.
“You can see that blue tone in that and then the texture here and all these dark colors all have coal actually mixed into the paint, and I just wanted to do that, I guess to preserve a way of life,” she said, gesturing to the painting. “I’m a coal miner’s daughter — a true coal miner’s daughter. My grandfathers were miners, (and so were) my uncles, and so I’m just really rooted in the area.”
This being said, Smith explained that because coal is so ingrained in Kentucky culture, it only makes sense that it should also be ingrained into her paintings.
“It permeates our life; it permeates our history; it permeates our family,” she said. “I feel like that having the coal in the paint, was just part of it.”
Aside from the symbolic nature of the coal in the paintings, Smith said this mix is the only way to get the specific look, texture and coloring within the works of art.
“When you mix the coal, that’s the only way you can get that soft gray color,” she said.
Smith uses coal with different types of paint to create different shades and hues.
“This beautiful soft blue you see in here — that’s made by mixing coal dust into my water coloring, and this texture is all done with coal,” she said of a painting she did, depicting her work friend, Jeff Little and his two brothers in their yard playing, when they were younger.
Little said Smith has a rare and unbelievable talent.
“She’s a friend of mine, and I just think besides the friendship being there and her doing that, she’s just a wonderful artist as well,” Little said.
“Even though I’m a school teacher now, I used to work in the coal industry,” Little said, adding that nearly everyone in his family has some kind of connection to mining. “I guess that picture was probably taken in 1959. It’s kind of the way we grew up.”
Little said his family’s emotional reaction was priceless when he gave copies of the painting to his brothers for Christmas.
“I brought that out to them and my oldest brother the whole rest of the evening (stared) at it,” he said. “My oldest brother’s wife — she just gasped when she saw it. It was like it took her breath away.”
He said this picture was the perfect image of that point in childhood and said if anyone was to see his brothers and their children, they would see the same family facial features. He said that the children in the family were also intrigued by the painting, and now they each have one of their own.
“I got a lot of joy out of giving those pictures to my family,” Little said.
Also extraordinary, he said, was the way Smith brought color to a picture that was originally black and white and brought that moment back to life.
“I think it’s truly amazing the effects she’s got out of it. It’s phenomenal what she’s doing,” he said.
Smith plans to open her own local art gallery when she retires from teaching in a few years. She will call it Quail Ridge Studios, and has a goal to portray true Kentucky culture through her coal series and pictures of family life in general. She hopes people will continue to bring her photos to paint so she can add to her collection which will in the near future, fill a studio.
Smith’s philosophy is, “In every life there is a work of art.” She said she strives to find this work of art and to capture the beauty to represent the essence of who a person is, by catching “snapshots” of little moments in everyday life.
“If you paint a painting and people don’t feel emotion, I don’t think you’ve done your job as an artist,” she said.
Smith keeps these emotions flowing, through the nostalgic nature with which she brings memories to life.
Her artist name is P. Stewart. One reason for this name is because Stewart is her middle name, shared with her father. The other reason is to distinguish herself from the other Paula Smiths in the area. The beginnings of Quail Ridge Studios can be found on pstewartsmith.com. Smith has prints available and is always eager for the possibility to turn photos into paintings. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
The Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center is featuring P. Stewart Smith as its April artist in its regional artist’s gallery. The gallery is open during normal business hours, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.