Tony Smith . . . from page 1
Maybe someday someone will write a book on the famed painter who took up cartooning after he retired from a long teaching career. Oh, wait. Someone did . . . Tony! Titled Fuck You! FINALLY a Book About Me, the self-published effort is, as I wrote in a 2013 review for 15 Bytes, “irreverent, wicked, sly, laugh-out-loud funny . . . and an absorbing read about the development of an artist and a man” (yeah, I liked it a lot).
In the book, 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.” R. Crumb is a major influence on Smith’s cartooning; Chris Ware another, though he isn’t ever funny at all so doesn’t get Smith’s most enthusiastic vote of approval. Remember this stuff when you go to the library.
Smith earned a BFA at the U in 1961, an MFA in 1964 and began teaching there in 1966 after a stint at Wayne State University in Detroit. Fifty years ago, he was Phillips Gallery’s only sale for their first year in business on 9th and 9th and went on to become nationally known as one of the top illusionist artists working in the country. His work is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D. C.; The Denver Art Museum; in Paris; Geneva; New York City; Salt Lake City (the UMFA, Utah State Collection, etc.) and elsewhere.
He quit his very lucrative painting career when he retired from the U. some 13 years ago because he felt like he was working in an auto body shop—all that masking and taping up of patterns that he cut out, and then using the air brush to get clean lines. “It made me a lot of money, and it made me famous, but at the end of the day it wasn’t very satisfying,” he recalls.
He remains inspired by his Down syndrome son Willie, however, and the world he inhabits, and still uses paint to depict that from many perspectives. Another son, Evan, teaches high school in Salt Lake City.
As a child himself, Smith was a “real pain in the ass” whose typical Catholic boyhood in Mormon country was interrupted by rheumatic fever at age 10. That gave him enough bored and lonely time to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, listen to radio comedies and dramas, and develop the kind of imagination that led to his first drawing. He realized then that he could create a world of his own design.
Later, he would attend parochial schools all the way through high school, serve as a medic in the Army, drop acid, lead protests against the Vietnam war, get a ticket near Springville in his hippie days for “littering” when he thought a fence in a field was much improved when hung with one of his paintings, hit a hole in one, take up smoking expensive cigars and work on the first Star Trek movie.
The witty and often tongue-in-cheek attitude of the U professor emeritus is legendary. His former students have told me that he was a mean sonofabitch. Others say he was the best teacher they ever had. Still others swear he was a mean sonofabitch and the best teacher they ever had.
Some have it that Smith would arrive at class with a pan of white paint and a roller to cover up any portions of a student’s painting he didn’t like. Or that he would throw all someone’s stuff into the hallway when he didn’t think they were working hard enough, yelling, “Get OUT! I don’t want you in my class!” Someone even said he regretted being a mean sonofabitch. All legends, of course.
At one point, Smith decided to paint just like Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth, and he did that, very handily—maybe twice.
He learned to paint landscapes because he was teaching landscape painting at the Helper workshops and figured if he was teaching the process he should probably know how to do it. Problem was, “They expect a tree to look like a fucking TREE!” he exclaims in some exasperation. “And I like to paint more the spirit of a tree. So that didn’t last.” In his 2013 spotlight on the artist in 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter reports that while teaching in Helper Smith, instead of giving the usual walk-by instructions, drove by, shouting out his window, “More alizarin,” or “too much ultramarine.” So he might not have lasted there, even if they had let the spirit move him.
And even if Tony Smith is a legend.
The Big Tiny: A Drawing by Tony Smith
Gallery Spotlight: Salt Lake City
Mart Becomes Art
Terence K. Stephens Art270 Gallery on Main
It took a lot of moxie to even consider turning AJ’s Kwik Mart into a decent art gallery, but Terence K. Stephens has done just that – even creating a “nice urban lofty kind of thing,” as he describes his elegant upstairs quarters, to reside in with his dog, Cougie. And he did all the renovation long distance. The pair moved to Salt Lake City from San Francisco (where Stephens’ gallery dreams were “too prohibitive”) in November 2014 and Art270 opened in December of that year.
Located on Main Street (270, natch) just south of City Weekly’s offices and Sam Weller’s former home, the entire building is only about 15 feet wide, making the gallery narrow but quite workable, with a piece of Stephen’s contemporary sculpture greeting visitors at the door and art hung on stark white walls along both sides. There’s a bar in a small room at the back used for private openings and parties and plenty of space for tables to seat students during art classes held there. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, 1- 5 p.m.
When Stephens bought the building, windows were broken, there was no flooring or subflooring and the carpeting was shag (shudder). Now, he awakens to the Walker Bank sign directly across from his sky-high bedroom windows announcing what the weather will be (more or less precisely), his late Great Aunt Mary Judge’s building across the street from the living room, his dream gallery just downstairs and a basement studio to create in.
The artist grew up in Salt Lake City. “I left when I was 18 and came back several times. I would move away and come back,” he says with a laugh. He has a few relatives still living here: his great-grandmother was Jenny Judge Kearns, wife of the Utah senator who was an owner of Park City’s Silver King Mine and The Salt Lake Tribune.
Response to Art270 “has been fast and slow and fast and slow,” says Stephens. “Most people still don’t know it’s here.”
When he has events, though, it fills up. Repertory Dance Theatre held something there; the Utah Film Center did an event for Damn These Heels; there was a Canines for a Cause event; some classical Spanish guitarists do concerts there. He has an animal show for a local animal charity once a year.
“In April, I’m having an MFA show for the U of U about food addiction. In October we’ll do a mask show and have mask-making classes. [Classes, by various teachers, are always related to the show that is up.] Women who train dogs for the veterans gave a lecture. I’m just creating as I go, basically,” he says, “doing whatever I can to get people in here.”
“I advertise in City Weekly and Pets in the City and the Gallery Stroll brochure. I have several regulars who seem to come with friends. Little by little, in an organic process, things are developing,” Stephens observes.
There are public and private openings for shows, generally on Gallery Stroll night. Stephens has expanded from exhibiting just his own artwork to now having a show with over 30 local artists including Pilar Pobil, Judith Romney Wolbach, Grant Fuhst (who also is opening at the Art Barn this month), Anne Albaugh.
The Face Off will also include a number of emerging artists. “Some drive diesel trucks or work in factories,” says Stephens of the artists involved. “Corey Ponder is a quadriplegic who was delighted to have a gallery show his work”; Gunter Radinger runs The Oxford Shop; Jude Robinson is a psychic; Abbas Mathlum a Kurdish taxi driver. It's an appropriately eclectic mix of backgrounds for a gallery located right in the heart of Salt Lake City.