15 Bytes | Visual Arts

Tony Smith Rides Again

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Legend has it . . .

Tony Smith would arrive at class with a pan of white paint and a roller, ready to cover up all the portions of a student’s paintings he didn’t like.

He would throw a student’s materials into the hallway, yelling “Get Out! I don’t want you in my class!” when he didn’t think they were working hard enough.

A student would walk in with twenty paintings they had sweated over for months and Tony’s response would be, “‘Well, if you want to keep working like this you can take it down to the State Fair, but I won’t work with you anymore.”

Teaching at one of the Helper plein air workshops, instead of the usual walk-by instructions, Tony drove by, shouting out his window, “More alizarin,” or “too much ultramarine.”

Anecdotes like these about Tony Smith usually come secondhand. They are passed around, possibly embellished, as bits of urban folklore. But what all of Smith’s former students seem to agree on is that “The Shredder,” as he was known while teaching at the University of Utah, had a cutting wit and no-nonsense critique style. And they loved him for it.

You can get a sense of Smith’s razor-sharp tongue-in-cheek attitude by taking a look at the art book he published last year. A glance at the title would suffice — Fuck You! FINALLY a Book About Me. Ann Poore, reviewing the book in 15 Bytes, said, “It’s irreverent, wicked, sly, laugh-out-loud funny, a little consumed with mortality issues, a lot consumed with family, and an absorbing read about the development of an artist and a man.”

What you might not catch in the book — because despite the title it’s not all braggadocio — is Smith’s outstanding reputation as a teacher (despite, or maybe because of, the legends).

“He was a break-through teacher for me in terms of freedom to say what I wanted to say,” says painter Carolyn Coalson. “The Foundation program was delineating. Tony’s classes put the onus on the students to think! But then, not to think! just draw your chosen object for a quarter.”

Coalson said classes would begin with meditation exercises that lasted 10-15 minutes, using a mantra from a choice of several. “Supposedly to get students centered (which it did) and secondly to minimize competition,” says Coalson. “Which it did until Tony asked students to tack their ‘stuff’ up on the walls in the art dept. Then all hell broke loose to get the best spot to staple it.”

Don’t be fooled by the meditation exercises, however. Smith wasn’t one to coddle. He was famous for telling his foundation students how few of them would continue working. Of the 250 freshman in his Foundation seminar, he would point out only 50 would still be in the Art Department at graduation. “I don’t know what the other 200 of you will be doing in three years, or what you’re going to do with all those charcoal drawings,” he would say.

“By the end of the statistics, he would basically have whittled those 50 students down to the statement, ‘In 10 years, statistically, only 2 people in this auditorium will be doing anything that is related to art,’ says Brad Slaugh, who has been taught by and taught with Smith.
“Now I have absolutely no idea whether that was even true, and someone could take that as a huge downer, like ‘Give it up, kids.’ Or, the person could have the reaction that Charley Snow told me he had when he heard it, which was to look around the room thinking, ‘Cool. I wonder who the other person is.'”

Slaugh says that Smith was like “one of the Zen Masters that DT Suzuki wrote about, whose tactics sometimes seemed surprising but then 5 years down the road you’re like, ‘Oh, THAT’S what he was talking about.’ Can’t tell you how many times that happened to me with something I learned from Tony.”

Going on like this, one might think the artist is dead and this a memorial service. To which one can hear Smith say, “Hell no, you’re not done with me yet.” Though retired, Smith is alive and well and still in demand. Gretchen Reynolds, a former student, has organized a Masters Class with the artists at the Dunce School for the Arts in Sugar House. “It took me two months to work up the courage to ask him and when he said yes, a week to recover,” says Reynolds.

On May 10th and 11th, Smith will teach his new method of working with markers at the Dunce School. In our review of his book, Ann Poore writes, “He describes drawing as a game he plays with himself, first setting up parameters like a crazy outline or tough angles then going in with markers ‘and trying to make the whole thing feel dimensional and bumpy. In the process I discover imagery like guns, heads, genitalia, dirt holes, crosses, knives, oil lamps, faces, people doing weird things, it’s all like a kind of wakeful dreaming.’ Smith exhibited some of these new works at Poor Yorick’s most recent open house.

While working on our new Utah’s 15 program, those of us at 15 Bytes have been thinking a lot about influence lately. And we know that art professors exert an influence long after they leave the university. Their artistic DNA remains, in whatever evolved or mutated form, in the work of their students. And frequently their students’ students. The interesting thing about Tony Smith is you wouldn’t be able to pick out his students in a lineup. Many of them may have tried their hand at one of his hyperreal airbrush acid trip paintings from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. The smart ones have destroyed these knockoffs. The good ones have gone on to create mature styles of their own, frequently unrecognizable as offspring of “The Shredder.” But they did inherit a freedom, a joy of exploration and an attitude that won’t settle for mediocre.

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Tony Smith Master Class @ Dunce School for the Arts in Salt Lake City, will take place May 10th, 5-8pm and May 11th, 9am-4pm. Class size is limited. Visit www.dunceart.com for more information and to register.

UTAH’S ART MAGAZINE SINCE 2001, 15 Bytes is published by Artists of Utah, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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