Artist Paul Anthony Smith is riding the wave of early success. Just a few years after graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute, Smith was invited to do a one –person show at the ZieherSmith Gallery in New York. Recently, Smith was listed by the Huffington Post as one of America’s top 30 black artists under 40. His paintings take a fresh look at the lives of everyday people in his home country of Jamaica.
Smith's studio in the Crossroads Arts District is bare-bones: a couch, a chair and a desk. But the walls are nearly covered with canvases. These are his works in progress.
“I think of them as kids,” says Smith.
Paul Anthony Smith’s art often focuses on images of family, like the large painting of his late grandmother Icilda.
“I didn’t go to the funeral. It was in Jamaica and I didn’t have the means of going,” says Smith. “But you know, I do miss her. And that painting was a way of looking back at her, but at a time it was also meditative and it was commemorating her life.”
Politics, class struggles and history are also recurrent themes in Smith’s work. For example, his painting Norman Manley’s Cabinet is an homage to the men who established Jamaica’s first political party. They each wear a shiny balaclava, or ski mask. Manley led a hard-fought battle for Jamaica’s independence from Spain and Great Britain in 1962. He later became prime minister.
Smith says Jamaica’s history and the religious Rastafarian culture still influence people in Jamaica today.
“It was once a big tourism industry. I think the tourism industry has gone down since I left there back in the late 90s, and the economy is going down … and I always question should Jamaica have gained independence back in the 60s.”
Paul Anthony Smith grew up in a town called Port Antonio in Jamaica. He moved with his family to Miami when he was nine years old.
Smith credits his mother for recognizing his interest in art and nurturing it throughout his childhood.
“She supported me in those days,” he says. “You know if I needed some pencils, crayon or watercolor, whatever it was, my mom was always there if I asked her for it. She would get it for me because she know that’s what I wanted to do after school."
His father always wanted him to be an architect, but he ended up at the Kansas City Art Institute. Eager to show his dad what he was up to in art school, he sent him a print he had done of Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia who is revered in Jamaica as a symbol of Rastafarianism.
“You know my dad never really looked at my work,” says Smith. “And this was the one point I really wanted him to see--hey--I’m using something of his interest. The way how I work for this piece is that I somewhat deface the image, putting a balaclava ski mask over this guy’s face and mailing it to him. And he had a negative reaction to it and thought I was very disrespectful. But you know what? You have to do these things in life to get … their attention somehow. And this was my way of getting his attention because he’s kind of ignored my work for a number of years ... I just laugh at it at times.”
The Haile Selassie print features a signature technique that Smith uses in many of his pieces, called picotage. It’s an 18th century French technique of making holes through patterns on an image. He uses the technique to tear the surface of scanned photographs, making them glittery. They shimmer with an eerie sense of mystery. His piece Non Tourist Location features Jamaican men sitting on a curb, their faces and bodies glisten with picotage markings.
“I’m using a ceramic needle tool ….removing that surface layer of the paper…” says Smith. “It’s kind of like scarification and modifying the images that I’m picking away at.”
In addition to picotage, Smith is known for his ceramic sculptures. He has created large ceramic figures of tarmac workers, people who work near the runways at airports. Tarmac workers are reoccurring characters in his work. Smith uses them to say that the lives of everyday people, like the working class family he comes from, are significant.
“They make up the larger community that helps with the tourist coming into the community,” says Smith. “They [also] make up the infrastructure of the country’s economy. These people are ... overlooked but they’re always necessary for us to go and enjoy ourselves.”
Raechell Smith, executive director of the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, met Paul Anthony Smith early on as an art student.
“He’s very inspired by visual culture, and images that we find and see in the media," she says. "But I think he’s also interested in mining his own history and the history of his family and where they come from.”
She says these are concepts with which many contemporary artists are dealing, but Paul’s approach is innovative.
“I think Paul’s exploring those traditions but doing it with new materials and new ideas and that’s pretty exciting,” she says.
Examples of this are seen in works like Queen, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth. She was a prominent figure during Jamaica’s independence. Smith covers her face in a picotage pattern, leaving only her eyes.
And a porcelain-relief sculpture merges his face with political figures, called “ Paul Lincoln,” “ Paul Obama” and “ Paul McCain”.
“I made that during the 2008 presidential election,” says Paul Anthony Smith. “I think I was looking at the histories of the black people in America. Not African Americans in general. But just the black people and where we have come from as a nation ... In those pieces I created my face within them, to have a self-reflection of where I see myself in them.”
Smith is known for covering the faces of his subjects with masks like in his piece Ras (which means “king”). It features a mask from the Congo embellished with picotage and other decorations. Smith meticulously researches the ceremonial purpose of each mask. This piece interested curators at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College. They purchased it for the Nerman's collection.
“Masks disguise the figure allowing them to be free,” Smith says.
The freedom to create is what drives Paul Anthony Smith’s work. He says that there should be no limitations on how an artist expresses his ideas.
Smith is currently busy creating works for the Charlotte Street Foundation's Visual Artist Award Exhibition in November, and an upcoming show at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary gallery in Dallas.