Erwin Evans Smith, August 22, 1886-September 4, 1947
Artist-photographer Erwin Evans Smith, a Fannin County native, was enchanted as a youth with the culture and folklore of ranching in the southwest. He studied art in Chicago and Boston in hopes of becoming a western sculptor. For several summers in the early 1900s, he visited ranches to sketch and photograph cowboys at work and leisure. He never realized his dream of sculpting but left over 2000 photographs as a priceless record of life on the range.
Location: Oakwood Cemetery, Honey Grove
Erwin Evans Smith
Erwin Evans Smith, a unique artist of continuing international fame, was born in Honey Grove, Texas, on August 22, 1886. He died in Bonham, Texas, on September 4, 1947. His material great-grandparents reached Texas in 1837 and settled in what is now Honey Grove. A granddaughter, Nancy Alice Erwin, born in Honey Grove in 1864, married Albert Alexander Smith, who had come from Alabama, and Erwin was the first child of the marriage. When Erwin was about four, his father died suddenly.
Two years after the death of Erwin's father, Mrs. Smith was married to Percy Harmon White, a friends and associate of her first husband. Soon they moved to the county seat, Bonham, about fifteen miles away.
A precocious, sensitive boy, Erwin, already interested in photography, spent summers on ranches near Crowell, Texas, and in New Mexico, beginning when he was about eight, where he found himself exactly where he wanted to be. He fell in love with everything about the West; he learned quickly to ride well and, as he grew, to be accepted as one of the hands. Already sketching constantly, he had developed the desire to become a sculptor. He realized, as did the ranchers, that the entire life of the range was about to vanish. He set out with equipment then available to record in photographs the range life, unique to the Western United States. These pictures would be the base of his study in sculpturing. He did incredible things with his wet plates, his old-fashioned film, his unsophisticated lens and shutter, and he experimented with new methods of developing and printing.
When he was about eighteen, he did his first formal study in sculpture with Lorado Taft in Chicago. Later he went to Boston to work with Bela Lyon Pratt. His summers found him back on the Western ranches.
When he was not much past thirty, his stepfather died suddenly, leaving large investments and varied enterprises, and Smith went home to take over. But his head and his heart belonged to the West, in photography and sculpture.
He never did the sculpture he had wanted to do. But it is a comfort to us that this gifted, sensitive, generous, gentle man knew full well what he had accomplished. About 2,000 negatives are in the Library of Congress and also in the Nita Stewart Haley Memorial Library recently completed in Midland, Texas. The negatives have been given by Smith's half-sister, Mrs. L. M. Pettis, of Bonham. There is an exhibit, originally assembled for the Texas Centennial Celebration, in the Texas Memorial Museum on the campus of The University of Texas in Austin. Mrs. Pettis receives regularly large numbers of requests from the world around for use of her brother's pictures.
Erwin Smith did the best photography ever done of range life, said Tom Lea, the painter. Through Smith's commitment and genius, the West of the early twentieth century remains for all to see as it was, no matter where they may be in the world. Erwin Smith was extraordinary, and he made out of joy and inner compulsion, a record of a part of our heritage that we would only dimly and falsely know but for him. He added substantially to the beauty that man may look upon today to enlarge his soul.
- Robert C. Hammock