Lee N. Smith III sits at his small worktable staring at his sketchbook. Behind him the curtains are open and the bright, white lights of a tour boat cruising down the Seine briefly illuminate Notre Dame Cathedral and a pack of half-drunk, leather-jacketed Parisian teenagers who don’t seem to mind the winter wind as they tramp along the riverbank sidewalk singing a Madonna song. Smith doesn’t notice them. He is trying to figure out how he will translate the playing-card-sized image on the paper in front of him to a twenty-five- by thirty-foot exterior wall in the courtyard of the American Center’s offices a few blocks from Napoleon Ill’s magnificent opera house. Not a bad commission for a painter who grew up two houses from the Mesquite border in deepest East Dallas.
A few years ago, Smith and his wife Sue (a former flautist for the Richardson Symphony) bought a house near the elementary school he attended and proceeded to jackhammer the driveway out of existence to make way for the garden of their dreams. Ironically, their wonderful creation is the reason Smith decided to apply for a two-year residence at the Cite International des Arts. “I had to escape that garden,” he says. “Took up too much of my painting time. But I was so into it. obsessed with it, because it took me back to the source.”
The source, for Smith, is what he calls “digging in the dirt.” Smith’s work is about childhood, and the subjects of his paintings are East Dallas kids doing the things kids did in the suburbia of the Fifties and Sixties-digging tunnels and building Christmas tree forts, exploring vacant lots and nearby landfills, fighting dirt clod wars, creating rituals to bury dead birds or departed pets, camping out in the back yard. He renders these scenes in odd, almost Day-Glo colors that raise these memories of using imagination to escape suburban banality to the level of a personal mythology.
When kids dig in the dirt, in their own minds they are building the Pyramids as monuments to the Pharaohs they buried before lunch. They are reinforcing the walls of the Alamo for the terrible seige ahead that may last even past sunset and prime time, continuing into their dreams as they sleep safely in their bunk beds. Smith’s work revives an awareness of this way of being because he has maintained the passionate imagination of childhood.
Actually, he never grew out of it. For Smith, digging in the dirt is still moving the earth with monumental deeds. And moving paint on a canvas is only a more sophisticated way of building sandcastles in the back yard, of constructing dirt clod ramparts and toy soldier battle scenes that simultaneously depict and commemorate themselves- only now the adults call it Art and pay big dollars for it.
In a sense, all children are artists by virtue of the imagination they pour into their activities. But not every kid can draw the way Smith could when he was young. He was forever filling up sheets of Manila paper with Civil War battle scenes, astonishing in their detail, or dogfights featuring the perfectly painted model airplanes that hung from his bedroom ceiling on the most invisible of fishing line.
His obsession with contrived detail was further excited when he landed in the then-required (for boys only) drafting class at W.H. Gaston Junior High. He won a blue ribbon at the DISD’s Interdistrict Craft Fair for an amazingly rendered drawing of an obscure machine part. “I still don’t know what that thing was,” he says.
Smith became so interested in mechanical drawing that he exiled himself for a year from his classmates going on to Bryan Adams High and attended Crozier Tech downtown (where the hardcore hoods of the day went to learn advanced auto mechanics), There, he took drafting courses from a teacher who had worked in professional model building, another of Smith’s obsessions.
Never academically oriented, Smith didn’t pursue a college degree. During the Seventies, he played bass guitar in rock and country bands and held down low-paying jobs-sometimes as a short-order cook or an apprentice machinist, more often in some kind of low-grade commercial art production. He patterned the paint designs on lightweight Thermo-form plastic Santa Clauses, drew designs for gimme cap patches, and did the “production art” for silk-screened point-of-purchase advertising in grocery stores. Those Day-Glo greens and oranges on the “Buy today-Delicious Apples” signs have worked their way onto Lee Smith’s palette and into the skin tones of many of the kids he paints today.
Smith took up painting in 1974. Amazingly, in one of his first works, No Talking at Supper, he found the direction for a whole career. It’s a bilevel composition that depicts two boys sitting at a suburban kitchen table eating some undistinguishable brown goo from plastic bowls. Their mother stands at the stove, her back to the viewer. The detailed rendering of the stove and the facial expressions of the boys are the elements that display Smith’s trademark quirky sensibilities and his unique understanding of the internal world of childhood.
Throughout the Seventies and early Eighties, Smith painted canvas after canvas, sometimes attaching constructed elements that add a third dimension to the work-a scale model diorama of a battlefield imagined by the children in the painting; a drive-in movie speaker pole jutting out of a scene of kids mounting a daylight invasion of an outdoor theater; a huge alligator gar swimming beneath the bow of a boat above a painting of an early morning fishing expedition.
Smith’s work was odd, different from everyone else’s, and decidedly removed from the currents of the officially recognized Art World. But people noticed. Bill Jordan, former chairman of the SMU Art Department (currently deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum), was one of the first to see Smith’s work and to encourage him to continue painting.
In 1978 and ’79, Smith’s work was first shown in solo exhibitions at Eastfield and Mountain View Community Colleges and at The University of Texas at Arlington. In 1980 he had his gallery showcase at Dallas’s DW Gallery, the gallery that continued to represent him until it closed last September. (He is now represented by Texas Gallery in Houston.) Later in 1980 he was selected for the prestigious Triennial show at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Smith received his first international attention in 1984, when his work was chosen for the “Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained” show in the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The Smiths went directly from their wedding reception to D/FW to fly to Italy for the exhibition’s opening. “In Italy, seeing the art up close that I’d only seen in books-it opened up a whole new world of inspiration,” Smith says. “I knew I had to get back to Europe as soon as possible and spend a lot of time in museums.”
Since arriving in France in December of 1987, the Smiths have revisited the great art sites of Italy and have traveled extensively throughout Europe, going to museums and galleries, seeing every kind of art from the oldest to the very newest, meeting other artists and comparing notes. Smith is not reluctant to acknowledge the effects of this cultural immersion. “I would have to say I’ve grown more as an artist in the last twelve months than I had in the last twelve years,” he says.
Smith has completed seventeen new paintings in Paris, and each one shows a continuously evolving style. Comparing these works to the Smith painting that the Dallas Museum of Art owns (Fire and The Ice, 1984), it is apparent that the artist is experimenting with a thicker surface texture as a way of achieving a more visceral expression of emotion. Fire and The Ice, a highly popular painting depicting a Boy Scout campout initiation/hazing stunt, has the smooth, thin, glazed surface associated with Old Master and some photorealistic painting styles. In one of Smith’s new works. Danger Alley, a large red dog terrorizes a boy riding a bicycle down a narrow, surreally colored alley. The red paint on the dog has been thickly applied with a knife, creating a texture that jumps off the canvas at the viewer. One can feel the danger in that red surface.
In Blocks and Sticks (sent from Paris to be shown at DW Gallery’s closing exhibition), Smith achieves a more impressive solidity and weight by the thickly applied paint on the clay block that the boys are attempting to move with stick levers. Aside from the gains he’s making on the canvases themselves, Smith also has personal reasons for his evolving style. “I’m sure the thicker paint has an effect, but I’m mostly experimenting because it’s fun. I need to keep the level of fun up, so I’m totally involved in the process of painting, not getting bored and inattentive while I’m working.”
Smith has been anything but bored in Paris, He finished the American Center’s mural a few days before Christmas and left for a brief holiday in southern France with Sue and a visiting Dallas artist, Tracy Harris. After six days of rigorous sightseeing and experiences (including Christmas midnight Mass at the 14th-century Palace of the Popes in Avignon), he has returned to Paris to see his work for the first time unobscured by the fifteen-foot-tall scaffolding that workmen have removed during his absence.
When Smith steps out into the courtyard,a smile crosses his face. Boys eight feet tallare putting the finishing touches on their gigantic lookout tower topped by a Texas flag.They are receiving written notes from theircomrades in the clubhouse below via aclothesline and pulley message deliverysystem. They don’t seem aware that they areresiding in Paris, France, rather than for EastDallas. They are having the time of theirlives. And so is their creator.