Kansas City painter Seth Smith brings “paintings of places” to Sager Braudis Gallery this August - a series of works that manage to transcend the simple experience of viewing and tap into the other senses, hitting small but universal notes of memory: the warmth of a dry, sunny day on the skin; the low resonance of air conditioners and pool pumps; the salt-scent of sea mist; the glow of people awake at night. In this quick Q&A with Gallery Director Hannah Reeves, Smith tells us a bit more about himself, and how he does what he does so beautifully.
REEVES: Could you talk about what connects you to the scenes you depict in the series at Sager Braudis? Are these places from your memory?
SMITH: I grew up in the 80’s on 30 acres outside of Wichita, KS. I thought, like many, that the California skateboard scene was epitome of cool. But my gravel driveway and obvious lack of sidewalks gave me no opportunity to connect with the scene by skating myself. The best I could do was imagine getting in a van and heading west. That was the first time I used my imagination to escape a constraint. My work has always been a selfish way for me to escape to places that are beautiful or haunting, sublime and rapturous. It’s been a blessing and a curse to dangle that power in front of my reality sometimes, but it always gives me something to look forward to. I believe we all need hope, need to look forward to tomorrow. My paintings are bits and pieces, photos and fiction stitched together to make my perfect escape. Or at least the one I need that day.
REEVES: You have the opportunity to interact with many of your viewers and collectors when you present your own work at art fairs. What kinds of feedback or insights do you gain from that direct experience with your audience?
SMITH: What I never anticipated was the intense connection that people of a generation (or two) before mine associate with the era they see in my work. Most of my visual interest right now is drawn from 50’ and 60’s travel culture, motels and dives. People that actually lived in that era have an incredible sense of fondness and connection that they cannot hide when they approach me. The stories I have been able to hear have been one of the great honors of my life to be honest. My work has definitely been affected by years of strangers sharing personal stories and pivotal memories with me. It’s helped me get a more well-rounded understanding of the visual world I am trying to portray.
REEVES: How do you know when a piece is complete? Successful? Do you watch for it to cause some feeling or response for you?
SMITH: I usually try not to hold on too close and be too critical of my process. I try to make the variables the same every time and work until the playlist, gin, or energy are gone! If there are little moments in a painting that happen that I was unaware in the moment but now make me smile I usually call it a day. I try to work quickly and closely to that initial emotion or idea. If I don’t nail something in a few studio sessions I feel like it’s not meant to be and I move on! I try to remind myself why I am doing what I am doing and what I like about paintings in general…and the answers are to “escape” and gestural energetic unique marks and colors.
REEVES: Who and/or what are your influences?
SMITH: This question changes daily, like I’m sure it does for most artists. But right now I can say, David Byrne, Lake Superior, old travel brochures, The Graduate, making homemade biscuits, Michael Krueger, Nick Drake, and the anticipation of Autumn smells.
REEVES: I always like to ask: What is your studio quirk?
SMITH: Hmm. If I am stuck on a piece I turn on my huge heavy ass vintage hotel sign from the 20’s. It’s bright red neon and I paint in that light a while. It makes me smile and usually I get out of whatever funk I’m in!