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Nostalgic for What Wasn't

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Most of the African-American figures in Cedric Smith's paintings at Gallery Guichard are depicted as if in product packaging or ads: Smith remembers his uncles talking about caddying for whites and using their earnings to buy Cokes, so Coca Cola shows a black boy standing by a golf bag. The weathered-looking red background is inspired by the decrepit signs in his grandmother's ruined general store, where he played as a child. Smith cut the boy's image out of an old photo, then collaged it into the work and painted over most of it. In Coop's Ice Cream the typeface is copied from an ice cream container, but the white boy and girl in the original are replaced by a photo of a black girl. Smith thought she looked forceful, determined, and centered. All the paintings are intensely colored, and there's a romantic nostalgia to their tactile surfaces.

Growing up without a father in the 70s and 80s, first in Philadelphia and later in an Atlanta suburb, Smith noticed the effect of having, or not having, male role models: boys without them tended to hang together while boys with them had more discipline and structure in their lives. Interested in art in grade school, he painted theater backdrops, but since he only knew of white artists, he figured the field was closed to blacks. While in high school he was arrested with a group of friends that, unbeknownst to him, had committed a robbery; even though they all said he wasn't involved, he was still sent to a juvenile detention center for a year. Once he got out and passed the GED, he worked as a cook and then in a factory before apprenticing as a barber. He didn't make art, he says, because "I didn't think nothing could come of it."

One day, after Smith had been cutting hair for about five years, he heard a client talking on his cell phone. "He told someone to meet him at his studio. I asked what kind of music he did, and he said, 'I'm a painter.' When I visited his studio, his work just floored me. I loved the bold and bright colors." The client was William Tolliver, known for his semiabstract landscapes and figurative work. After seeing that a black man could be an artist, Smith started painting rural scenes inspired by childhood memories of summers with his grandmother in Thomaston, Georgia. He hung them in the barbershop, and a few sold; a gallery owner saw one, which led to more sales. Then he started a series of paintings inspired by a line in a Public Enemy song: "Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps." Smith's postage-stamp designs honored everyday African-Americans--a postal worker, a preacher.

A few years after meeting Tolliver, in about 2000, Smith started painting full-time. Now he's so successful he attracts imitators. (One, a former neighbor, would come by and ask about Smith's methods--and soon Smith got a call from a gallery about work it had received from the guy that was "almost exactly what I do," he says.) Smith's collaged-on fabric elements pay tribute to his quilter grandmother, and he puts a drawing of a church with stick figures on the back of each painting to honor her as a church usher. He's also been taking photographs for five years, usually documenting African-American life in Georgia, and has used a few in his paintings. But most come from antique shops and shows. "Those are not cheap," he says, "because blacks were less affluent than whites, so photos of blacks are rare. If there's an old photo of a white kid selling for $2, the same photo of a black kid would be $30 or $60."

Smith sometimes likes to have fun with his subjects. One day he was in an upscale cigar shop and heard other men talking about how a woman shouldn't tell a man what to do. "The first thing I thought of," he says, "was 'real men smoke cigars'"--the words he painted on Real Men, which shows a well-dressed man smoking. "I was just being funny," says Smith. "You're all 'real men' talking about your wives when they're not around."

Cedric Smith

When: Through 6/11

Where: Gallery Guichard, 3521 S. King Dr.

Info: 773-373-8000

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.

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