In the studio with Zack Smithey

To refer to St. Louis artist Zack Smithey as a Renaissance Man would be an understatement. He started painting under his grandmother’s guise as a child, played the viola for a decade, has painted sets at the Muny, taught high school art, owns a restaurant with his wife, is the general contractor on his new “shipping container” home and, well, is a full time artist. I was introduced to his work while wandering thru Kit + Ace last month and fell in love with his over-sized, bold-colored swirls of paint, which Smithey refers to as his Vibrations series.  Then I ran into Smithey again at Wall Ball, where I got to see first hand the technique he uses to create the Vibrations pieces (for the record, it’s enamel paint drizzled, dripped, swirled or pooled on masonite). After that, I was hooked. So I made a visit to his studio last week to see where the magic happens.

Smithey was trained to draw from an early age by his grandmother, also an artist. They would work on still-life pastel drawings in the kitchen for hours, then critique each others work. It wasn’t until he was getting his BFA in Studio Art at Lindenwood University, years later, that he realized those early critiques were more like college level discussions than your typical elementary level studies. But his passion for art was born and Smithey went on to pursue art in college and then taught art to high schoolers, as a means of paying off student loans. He continued his art full time, even while teaching. After a few years of doing both, he realized he could no longer afford to teach, so he stopped teaching to focus on his painting.

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Smithey at work in his St. Charles studio.

While the work in Smithey‘s studio ranges from a very detailed black and white India ink portrait (my favorite), to large abstract pieces done with acrylics, to painted 3 dimensional busts and skulls, he is perhaps best knows for the Vibrations series I mention above and also his portraits of Mark Twain. When asked why Twain became the subject for so many (over 200 to be exact) paintings, Smithey explains, “He has roots in St. Louis, is an interesting historical figure, I like his work and I love old photographs, particularly this one of Twain.” Even though he has painted the same portrait so many times, no two are alike- all use different techniques and mediums to portray the same image.  As such, Smithey continually mentioned the “process” during our talk- he is not only concerned with the final product, but also with how a painting got there, the path it took to completion.

If you’re on Facebook and you’re local, you’ve probably heard the Smithey name because of an Easter Art Hunt he’s hosted in and around St. Louis for the past two years. Originally done in response to the Ferguson riots of August 2014, he felt the city needed a moral boost and a unifying cause to rally around. In an attempt to help, he made and then hid 1,000 pieces of art around St. Louis (Ferguson included), leaving clues as to their whereabouts on Facebook.  The art was hidden in or near small businesses or charities and non-profits. In exchange for the art, he asked that people buy something at the business or make a donation (in the amount of their choosing) to said charity. This year the “event” raised over $10,000 for local charities and non-profits. Pretty amazing.

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The Vibrations series is not limited to paintings on masonite, Smithey also adorns busts and skulls with his signature swirls.

Smithey paints full time, but when not in the studio he is also the general contractor on his latest brainchild, St. Louis’ first shipping container house- the building of which is going to be documented on a major television network (but he’s not allowed to say which one until construction is finished).  The crew landed last week and will have someone on the ground in St. Louis until the house is completed in mid July. Made out of 8 shipping containers, it will be the Smithey residence until something else peaks his interest and he moves on, literally and figuratively.

Smithey‘s work is currently on display at the Houska Gallery in St. Louis’ Central West End, 4728 McPherson, until May 19th.

Top Images: Pieces from Smithey’s Vibrations Series, images courtesy of http://www.zacksmithey.com

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