Dwight Smith is a professional artist continuing to produce his abstract expressionist paintings, all the while teaching, curating many art exhibitions (some travel), and lecturing. Dwight's example shows us all how much we are capable of if we just do the work. Dwight lets us know that mentoring is important and in his case it was the artist/ educator Shirley Woodson, her husband, Edsel Reid, plus the mentorship of artist/educator/book author Jon Oney Lockard, who lit the fire and sustained him. He offers us a small glimpse into his world, from the very beginning of his art life and his current status.
Artist On The Cutting Edge: How are you Dwight Smith?
DWIGHT SMITH: I’m doing well.
AOTCE: What brought you into the arts?
DS. I started as an artist at a very early age. The public schools in Detroit had art classes for all of its students and I gravitated towards being creative. At Chadsey High School, I was in the art clubs and making art because I liked it. I had no clue that you could be a professional artist. I did not know of any artists who looked like me until I went to Highland Park Community College and met Shirley Woodson-Reid. That is when my life changed.
AOTCE: You say, “my life changed”, how and what impact did Shirley Woodson-Reid have on you and your art?
DS: Shirley Woodson-Reid changed my life. She and her husband, Edsel Reid, were my mentors and guides to being who I am. Jon Onye Lockard was another. Shirley was the art professor at Highland Park Community College. She was the first Black artist I had ever met, and she introduced me to the National Conference of Artists members in Detroit, and then I went to a NCA (National Conference of Artists) National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges and met hundreds of black artists. Of course, I lost my mind and was wandering around in a daze from the excitement of meeting so many famous Black artists. I think that is when I met Jon Onye Lockard who probably saw that I was overwhelmed, and he took me under his wing. Jon and Edsel Reid guided me through it all, which did not help much because they knew everyone. Lois Mailou Jones, Margrette Burroughs, Tom Feelings, Robert Stull, Varnette Honeywood and others. It was unbelievable.
The introduction to NCA through Edsel and Shirley helped ground me in the validity of Black Art. At Wayne State University, I, like many African American artists, found ourselves straddling two worlds. Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, I attended Wayne State University (WSU) and visited the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Academically, the abstractions of Paul Jenkins, Morris Lewis, Kenneth Noland, Emile Nolde, Helen Frankenthaler and certain color field painters were the inspirations for my work. The art culture in Detroit was dominated by white America, led by the DIA, WSU and followed by the white suburban galleries in the area. Their influences upheld those modern tropes (conventions) steeped in abstraction expressionism. African American art galleries were opening everywhere in the country and Detroit had eight major African American galleries, and the DIA had a strong Friends Of African Art and African American arts group that brought in speaker Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and many others. The NCA is an organization of African American artists, educators, scholars and museum curators who continuously debated the canons of Black art, had conferences devoted to African American Art and presented David C. Driskill, Mel Edwards, Betye Saar, Elizabeth Catlett, Howardena Pindell and may more lecturers. Scholarly research about Black artists was making its way into the world of art criticism through the efforts of Cedric Dover, James Porter, Samella Lewis, Ruth Wady, David C. Driskill and others. NCA helped me deal with racist or elitist attitudes of many the faculty and students. I had a place and group that accepted me. That helped me stay grounded in my culture.
AOTCE: Now it’s come full circle. Students, and many other artists are blown away when they meet “Dwight Smith”. Does that continuation bring a sort of satisfaction now that you have joined the ranks of such revered artists or is it even important to you?
DS: I don’t know about this. I don’t think many people know who I am. There are seven Dwight Smiths who are artists and people get confused as to who we are. But, I think I am just trying to continue the legacy of all the Black artists that have championed the cause and value of being a Black artists. If we as African Artists don’t continue to move the canon of African American art forward, it will get lost or reinterpreted by other people who will put their spin on my culture. I love learning about all of the art movements and artists, but I have a passion for my Black art and the artists who create this work.
AOTCE: What medium were you using to express this angst?
DS: I started out as a water colorist. I enjoyed the immediacy of the medium. In college at Wayne State University I discovered acrylic and oil painting. But I mainly did watercolor because the medium was compact, and I could shove my studio, which was my bedroom, under my bed when it was time to sleep. Now that I have the space, I work in everything. I am an abstract expressionist working in mixed media materials on canvas.
AOTCE: Can you describe in some detail, what is Abstract Expression?
DS: Abstract expressionist art is generally abstract in style and expresses an emotional content. Typically, abstract expressionist artists have either a dynamic style characterized by energetic movement or a more serene, cerebral one using large color fields. These artists generally explore the potential of color. My favorite artists in this are Mark Bradford, Norman Lewis, Raymond Saunders, and Romare Bearden’s early work. There are several others, but these are the artists I look at.
AOTCE: What took you to Fayetteville, North Carolina after being in Detroit for so long?
DS: What took me to Fayetteville. Well actually 27 inches of snow. We lived on Chicago Blvd., in Detroit in the 1990s on a corner lot, which was a quarter acre lot. I can’t remember the year, but we got 27 inches that we had to shovel the front walks, the sidewalks, the drive ways and street. That was it. We sold the house with its seven bathrooms and moved into a condo. Our best friends had relocated to Fayetteville and we visited them several times. I liked the weather, the location and had never lived anywhere but Detroit, so why not. We moved.
AOTCE: How does being from Detroit inform your artistry and work in Fayetteville?
DS: OMG!!! This was really a cultural wasteland for Black artists or any artist of any color when I got here. If I had been by myself and not with my family, I would not be here. It has come a song way from where it was here in Fayetteville, NC. What is great about this area is that the Fort Bragg military base has been responsible for the cosmopolitan flare of the area. It is still the old south in many respect, but Fayetteville has become a very different place that it was in the 1990s and earlier. It still has a long way to go, and I think we have helped to make a difference with the Ellington-White Contemporary art gallery and our programs. There are now several black galleries in the area. Remember I grew up in the Detroit of Coleman Young and that cultural base of Black empowerment so that helped me deal with a lot of the madness that can crop up in this area.
AOTCE: Are you still in the arts as a creator or in other capacities?
DS: Am I still in the ARTS!!! I’m laughing to myself at how crazy my art life is. Well, here goes. I am currently an Assistant Professor of Visual Arts at Fayetteville State University an (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) HBCU. I teach all of the painting courses, Advanced Drawing, Color theory, Ancient to Medieval and Renaissance to Modern Art Histories along with African American and African Art Courses. All of these are scheduled over the spa of three terms and then repeated. I run the Ellington-White CDC and Contemporary Art gallery here in Fayetteville with my husband and partner of 50 years. I exhibit and work on my visual art practice as much as possible, which is why I am drawing and making collage paintings a lot. I am on several boards, mainly as a national board member of the National Conference of Artists and an NCA Michigan Chapter Board member. I currently became a Board member of the National Alliance of Artists from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (NAAHBCU).
AOTCE: When you moved did you already have your position at FSU ready and waiting for your arrival?
DS: This is a funny story. I was enjoying my retirement here in Fayetteville and I was getting a little bored with it. My husband called me one day in 2007 and asked me to come to the gallery where he was working and meet someone who liked a painting that I had exhibited in a local competition. I told him no, that I was not going anywhere, and he told me that if I did not get my *&^&$^&%$%# down here it was not going to be pleasant. I went to the gallery and met Soni Martin. I had no idea who she was, but liked that she liked my work…we talked for about an hour or so, and I enjoyed the conversation, not knowing that I was being interviewed for a job at Fayetteville State. She offered me a one semester contract and I have been there for ten years. I went to Lesley University AIB in Boston for my MFA and later applied for the tenure track position and got it.
AOTCE: Do you have any art shows or curatorial projects coming up?
DS: I just finished a solo exhibition in Hibbing Community College in Hibbing, MN. Several of my works are on exhibition at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama and will move to the Civil Rights Museum there. David Driskell purchased two of my works for the Driskell Center in Maryland which were purchased from the exhibition he and I had together at the NCA Gallery in Detroit, this year. I have several shows coming up that I need to prepare for. My resume will list everything.
AOTCE: If you could summarize your experience as an artist and/or tell young aspiring artists, what advice would you give?
DS: Find a mentor, find a mentor, or find a group to mentor you. You have to bounce your ideas and thoughts about making art off someone or in a group of some people who think like your or have arrived at a place where you want to go. Once you find that person, who you respect, and they respect you, LISTEN to THEM. If it is a group of artists, LISTEN to THEM and communicate your ideas. Jon Onye Lockard and I would talk off and on. He would listen to me and challenge my ideas, and praise my ideas, and sometimes he would say, “Dwight, don’t ever repeat that, and here is why”. I miss him and his council a lot.
PROFESSOR of ART at FAYETTEVILLE STATE UNIVERSITY, NC
Dwight Smith, Professor of Art, Fayetteville State Colllege