Sometime in 2002, after several successful years in the corporate technology sector Christopher D. Smith turned off his computer, got up and never looked back. From that day forward, Smith would stoke the flickering flame of interest into the raging blaze of passion; returning to school full time, studying art and making it’s creation his life’s work. How many lost souls tied to their desks and mobile devices -corn stalks in the vast field of a cubical farm- dream of a day when they can pull this off?
Fresh from a well-received solo show at The Ohio State University, Smith was kind enough to share his time with Bluestem and provided some insight into his process and working methods for the benefit of our readers.
Bluestem: I think one of the fascinating things about contemporary art, and simultaneously one of the things that’s hardest to wrap one’s head around, is the sheer diversity of approach and themes available to artist. In 2015, great art can be made about almost anything. What inspires you to make your work?
SMITH: The act of creating inspires me. You start out with nothing and when you’re done, you have something that never existed. When I was a kid, my grandfather would give me a model car every year as a Christmas gift. I would spend days painting all the small pieces and putting the car together. I would then admire my craftsmanship and custom paint job and wonder if there was a way I could better assemble the model next time or do a better paint job. I still have one of these model cars. A 1969 Camaro that I built probably 27 years ago. Occasionally, I look at it and think, ‘wow, I made that when I was a kid and it’s pretty damn cool.’ It’s that act of creating, looking back at what I’ve made and wondering how I will change it, make it different or make it better next time.
Bluestem: I would characterize your work as abstract, and yet because I think your works is so much more than “abstract” I’m aware of the limitations and implications of that description. What is it about your approach that appeals to you as a painter?
SMITH: There are so many things I can say about abstraction and I why I chose to paint the way I do. When I paint, I feel like I’m escaping reality for a small time and entering a visual world filled with endless possibilities and no absolute answers, restrictions or rules as to how I use color, form, composition, hard-edge lines, viscous gestures, and smooth or rough surfaces to navigate and communicate my experience to the viewer. Abstraction is a challenging, liberating and refreshing escape from reality.
Abstraction is also so generous and all encompassing. I love that I can feel peaceful in front of one Mark Rothko painting yet sad in front of another. I love that when I stand six inches away from the surface of a Jackson Pollock painting, I see juicy lines, drips, smudges and splatters of paint and when I stand six feet away I see a whimsical atmosphere as if the sun just pierced through storm clouds and illuminated colored streams of rain that were frozen in the sky.
Bluestem: Almost every artist I know has their own set of routines or rituals that accompany the process of making art. Could you describe a little bit about your studio practice?
SMITH: I wouldn’t really call myself a morning person but that’s when I like to go into the studio. I wash my face, brew some coffee and get to work. My mind is fresh in the morning and I can concentrate on the tasks at hand. Sound is important for me in the studio. I need something in the background – some Jazz or smooth R&B. Sometimes even news radio will work but silence can distract me. If I’m in a bad mood or I need something to get me going I’ll play some Eminem or Old-School Rap.
The evolution of a finished painting usually starts with a thumbnail sketch. I keep a couple of small notebooks around and sketch compositions when I’m idle or when inspiration demands. I’d guess that one in five or one in ten compositions/ideas actually turn into paintings. When I feel like starting a new painting, I’ll thumb through my notebooks and find a composition to work from – some are previously marked with asterisks or sticky notes. It’s rare, but when I’m feeling extra adventurous and crazy I’ll attack a painting with only an idea and no preliminary composition.
I always start the painting with a charcoal drawing and then work in layers of acrylic paint often editing the work with more charcoal, wet rags or sandpaper. I cherish the history or residue of previous marks, shapes and colors that editing leaves behind. I feel like revealing aspects of process in a painting is like exposing a scar, birthmark or memory to a close friend. The history or process of making the painting can become more and more important as the viewer develops a relationship with the finished work.
Bluestem: Despite the widely accepted importance of the arts to social vitality, the proliferation of galleries, museums and community art centers, I still get the sense that a lot of people are intimidated by contemporary art. How would you like the public to engage with your work?
SMITH: I don’t really have any expectations from the viewer. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about the viewer. Of course, I would like them to enjoy my work but I don’t expect the viewer to walk away with any specific and prescribed reaction. I have many friends and family members who don’t have an academic background in the arts and are, like you said, often intimidated by abstraction. They feel they should have some historical understanding of art history or abstract art in order to understand the work and speak about it knowledgeably. I just ask the viewer to take look, give it a second and see what happens.
As result, in part, of his working class, biracial (Puerto Rican) upbringing in Aurora, Illinois, Smith first entered the business world before committing himself to an art career. After receiving a Bachelor of Science in Operations Management and Information Systems from the College of Business at Northern Illinois University, Smith worked in corporate technology sector for several years. In 2002, he made the decision to forgo the self-imposed obligation of a traditionally “stable” job in favor of pursuing a lifelong predilection towards art making. To that end, Smith completed a BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MA at Eastern Illinois University. Recently, Smith was the Gallery Director of Linda Warren Projects in Chicago. Smith has served as guest lecturer for Chris Cosnowski of the American Academy of Art, Visiting Artist at Monmouth College and Juror for Governors State University Illinois Community College Juried Exhibition. Smith continues to exhibit his work in both academic and commercial venues nationwide.