Tucker Smith’s Painting, The Refuge, Has Taken to the Road

The Refuge Tucker Smith
Tucker Smith, The Refuge, 1994, oil on canvas, 36 x 120 inches, JKM Collection©, National Museum of Wildlife Art (Image cropped to fit)

by Brooke Chilvers

One of the most important paintings in the collection of the National Museum of Wildlife Art has been traveling since September 2020.  It is now on view, until August 22, at the National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

This monumental masterpiece is the highlight of the exhibition, Tucker Smith: A Celebration of Nature, dedicated to his lifework.  Organized by and first exhibited at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, and guest-curated by B. Byron Price, Director of Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West, it then spent much of the winter at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.  

After Middleburg – from September 11, 2021 to January 2, 2022 – the show of 86 original oils moves to the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia.

At home in Jackson Hole, The Refuge serves to welcome museum visitors, forming their first impression of the wonders to come.  Facing the National Elk Refuge, the iconic and majestic painting reflects the scene in winter as large numbers of wapiti gather in the Refuge.

When Smith was commissioned by now Chairman Emeritus of the NMWA, Bill Kerr, to paint The Refuge in 1994, in time for the opening of the new museum, it was the largest work the artist had produced.  “The pressure was on and there were days when I wanted to scrap the whole painting.”  But Smith and his wife, Jean, delivered the 36 x 120-inch work on time – one day before the inauguration – in their four-horse trailer.  

When you see it with your own eyes, you appreciate the dedication and effort it requires to move this eye-opener from one venue to another.  When The Refuge arrived in Middleburg, still under the constraints of Covid-19 and a minimally staffed museum, Curator Claudia Pfeiffer explained to me that it took six art handlers to hang the work in its well-chosen spot.

Tucker, born in 1940 in St. Paul, Minnesota, lived most of his earliest years on a small lakeside farm.  But his dreams of the West were fulfilled when, in 1952, the family moved to tiny Pinedale, Wyoming, at the foot of the Wind River mountains.  Summers he spent working on local ranches and horse packing into those rugged mountains, expanding his knowledge further while laboring as trail crew for the U.S. Forest Service during university holidays. 

Marriage and a degree in mathematics (with a minor in art) sent the then computer programmer and systems analyst to Helena, Montana, where the Smiths bought a 180-acre “horse and malamute” homestead, raising two sons there.  

But always Smith continued to paint the landscapes around him and beyond.  Eight years later, in 1971, he turned full-time to art when galleries in Helena and Denver helped  launch his career.  This included taking his work to Greenwich Workshop, which expanded his audience through limited-edition prints.  

Smith exhibited at the National Academy of Western Art for the first time in 1979; by 1990 he’d won his first of many NAWA awards, along with many others, including the Bob Kuhn Wildlife Award.  Simply put, Tucker Smith is a living legend.  

Meanwhile, in 1988, Smith began making annual horse-pack trips into the Wind River mountains, employing Irv Lozier as outfitter and guide.  In 1895, Irv’s grandfather outfitted artist Carl Rungius (1869–1959) during the six months he spent living off the land, hunting and painting pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and elk. “Rungius would return to Wyoming for the next 20 years,” says Smith, who has literally walked in his mentor’s footsteps.  

Deeply, primordially affected by the landscapes of this bewitching country, in 1993, the Smiths bought land 30 miles north of Pinedale on Hoback Rim, on the southern boundary of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where they built a house, barn, and studio.  

Today, while responding to yet another of my emails in preparation for a future column about him, Tucker Smith told me there was a moose outside his window, just waiting to be painted.

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Brooke Chilvers thanks the Deputy Director and George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator Claudia Pfeiffer for her enlightening personal tour of the Middleburg exhibit.