David L. Smith
Reflecting on my professor, mentor and friend after learning of his recent passing brought me back to a place and time that remains so important to me.
One word and a letter, they joined together and gave birth to generations of artists, and a community that thrives and nurtures a city trying to create a new identity.
It was a long somewhat narrow room in what was called the Crapo Building on the campus of Swain School of Design. A room where David L. Smith led a small troop of teaching artists through the trials and rewards of bringing excited classes of young people into the world of art. Some kicked and screamed and fought, while others absorbed, and adapted. Some earned degrees, and some earned attitude. Not every artist accepts guidance regardless of the sincerity of the offering. But I think what all of us found was the first short steps on a lifelong road that would lead us into countlessly varied careers and choices. Not all of us became professional artists, not all of us even create art, but oh so many of us do create.
I remember the intensity of mid-morning. The light would be coming in those large northern windows, augmented by some warm flood light focused on the curves and swells of a model in an almost still pose. Most of the time she was a young woman, one of three or four who showed up regularly, although now and again a new model would show up offering us a contrast to the classic poses of a trim, fit, attractive woman. The light would create deeper shadows and toned highlights. The model would remain alive, not still, under the scrutinizing gaze of maybe twenty fledgling artists, trying to please their mentor nearly as badly as they wanted to please themselves. Most times it seemed those goals were at odds with one another. It always seemed to me on the days I tried hardest to get my proportions correct, or the face just right, David Smith would be looking for rhythms and movements. And on those other days when I would work so hard to create energizing shapes and controlled space, Sig Haines would be looking for color and value relationships. Ben Martinez never seemed to see a finished painting, ever.
Mid-mornings, a full class of highly focused students worked to discover and express an idea that could not be defined or even clarified. The sounds of hard breathing could be heard. Scraping palette knives and rubbing brushes were all enhanced by a string of expletives muttered, hissed and often shouted. The model would shift a bit, her hand not quite were it had been at the start, someone says, “Shit,” while another whispers, “better.” And then without warning, David would drag the easel of one unsuspecting student, to the other side of the room and quietly say, “Okay, that’s better for you.”
As the day wore on, and focus waned or shifted altogether, you might realize that what paint you had applied to the canvas, had betrayed your sense of expression. It looked like nothing you intended, or in extreme cases, even recognized. Your head pounded from a combination of concentration and the heavy toxic fumes that floated above, around and through your head. The heart beating thunder would follow you from Studio D into the fresh air only to be cleared when someone looked at you with the same bewildered gazed and you both broke into unrestrained laughter.
At night it could become a dance hall, a mosh pit, a community center, or mostly all three. John Nieman would show up with his drum kit and his latest clutch of rockers. Someone would deliver the beer, and there were always young women and men looking to blow off steam at the least. The lights would be dim, the model, long gone. The heat of intense study would disappear with the toxic fumes and those first embers of a community that would span generations would glow. The flames they created would develop a legacy of artistic creativity that is unsurpassed. What happened in that room has affected the lives of more than those who spent time in it. Those affects radiate throughout our community, our state, and literally our country. And the only people who have heard of it have lived it.
The studio is gone, and as cliché as it sounds the spirit does live on in those of us who teach, create and remember. Studio D has become a way of life, an attitude, and yes a legacy. I for one am glad I live it.