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This Kansas City Artist Paints To Make Black Men More Visible

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
Artist Harold Smith stands next to a painting in his Kansas City, Kansas, home.

"I don't like sanitized spaces," says artist Harold Smith, whose house in Kansas City, Kansas, doubles as his studio.

It's about a mile from where he grew up. 

"I like diversity," Smith says. "So just regular working class people."

Recently, Smith's paintings have gone from his home studio to the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, where they're now on view in an intimate glass-enclosed space called the Kansas Focus Gallery.

A series called "Man of Color" provides close-up views of faces in bright strokes of color.

Credit Laura R Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Harold Smith's 'Untitled (Man of Color series),' 2019, inside the Kansas Focus Gallery at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.

After doing missionary work in the South and in the Caribbean, Smith returned to Kansas City in the 1990s to help take care of his father, who had Alzheimer's disease. He'd always painted, but with more time at home, he started to experiment with different styles. 

"Trying to imitate what other artists did," Smith remembers. "Like most rappers, they learn by learning somebody else's song and then adding your own nuances until they find their own flow. I think it's the same way for visual art. For me, it is."

He learned he was "not an exact perfect placement guy," that he wasn't about drawing outlines and shadings.

"I realized I'm more of an expressionist," Smith says. "At this point, (I'm) just using the palette knife mostly instead of the brush."

Smith trained as a computer programmer and taught game design at the Manual Career and Technical Center. This year, after more than three decades of teaching, he's teaching art for the first time at Lincoln Middle School. 

"So I think it's good that I've been creating," he says. "I can bring something to the classroom."

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Stacks of canvases line a spare room in Harold Smith's Kansas City, Kansas, home.

A new series represents what Smith calls a "progression or a second chapter."

For the paintings in "Black on Black,"  he uses black paint and a palette knife to create textured, almost hidden, portraits.

"The 'Black on Black' pieces are about the invisibility of men of color in the community," Smith says. "Even, you know, letting blackness define itself instead of expecting black men to be defined by white standards."

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Harold D. Smith, Jr. 'The Five, Can you see us now?,' 2019

The wall labels for the Nerman show were written by Kansas City poet Glenn North, programming director at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. The two first collaborated in a 2011 exhibition at the American Jazz Museum, "Colors of Jazz," which paired Smith's art with North's poetry.

"About 10, 11 years ago, I discovered this style of poetry, or sub-genre of poetry, called ekphrastic poetry," North says, "which is simply poetry that's written in response to a visual image, most often visual art."

He describes the labels for Smith show as "little vignettes" that respond to the painter's work, informed by lengthy conversations they've had about the artist's philosophy and world view. 

Here, poet Glenn North reads 'A Portrait Speaks,' where he imagines what one of Harold Smith's portraits would say if it had the opportunity.

"I wanted it to be very clear to the visitors that I was not speaking from a scholarly perspective, as an art historian or as a curator, but just as a person who loves his art, and these are things that I glean from it," North says. "And I felt that perhaps in some way that would give visitors that are seeing the paintings another way to kind of interact with the work." 

He adds, "But definitely in deference to Harold and his vision."

And that vision is to make black men more visible. The paintings and poems at the Nerman are a start.

"Harold Smith, Jr.: Can You See Me?" runs through October 27 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Arton the Johnson County Community College campus, 12345 College Boulevard, Overland Park, Kansas, 913-469-8500. Artists Jarvis Boyland, Cara Romero, and Harold D. Smith, Jr. talk about their work at an exhibition reception and lecture, 6-8 p.m. Thursday, October 24.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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