An Interview with Arvie Smith
Alumni and professor Arvie Smith shares stories and wisdom from 25+ years of teaching, painting, and pushing for social change.
Arvie Smith ’84, Associate Professor in Foundation and Painting + Drawing, has taught at PNCA in the Painting Department since 1993. As a professional artist for the past 25+ years, Smith’s work transforms the history of oppressed and stereotyped segments of the American experience into lyrical two-dimensional masterworks, which represent Smith’s lifelong search for and advocacy of beauty, meaning, and equality. His work is edgy and often presents powerful themes of injustice and the will to resist and survive.
Smith spent his childhood in rural Texas and South Central and Watts, Los Angeles, California. He received his BFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art in 1984 and his MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art, Hoffberger School of Painting under Grace Hartigan in 1992. During a sojourn to Italy, Smith studied at Il Bisonte and SACI in Florence in 1983. From 1998 to the present, he has traveled extensively through Ghana, Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso, West Africa.
Last year, we sat down with Smith in the second-floor painting studio of his NE Portland home. The room was brightly colored, with masks and other artifacts collected from a lifetime of travel on the walls and shelves. Jazz played lightly in the background.
Smith retired from the PNCA faculty this spring. He was named Professor Emeritus at commencement on May 25 by President Tom Manley, acting on behalf of the Faculty Senate and the Board of Governors of the College. On the occasion of his retirement, we offer you the interview below. It was a fascinating conversation, ranging from racial segregation and social activism to the craft of painting and the joys of teaching. Throughout it, Smith was warm and welcoming, leavening the serious conversation with humor and, more importantly, hope.
Arvie Smith: A lot of my work has to do with oppressed people and underserved communities. what I’m working with now is about the period after reconstruction, after 1876, when people wouldn’t hire African Americans. And it was a new form of slavery, but some people just wouldn’t buy into it. They would just hang around at the train stations, on corners. People called them cigarette dudes. And for the women, you were either a Mamie or a Jezebel. So this body of work that I’m working on right now is called Cigarette Dudes and Jezebels.
Killeen Hanson: Where do you begin a project like this? Does this require an enormous amount of research?
AS: Yeah. I did research at Shoenberg College / University. A lot of reading books like Slavery by Another Name, by Douglas A. Blackmon. There’s a lot on the subject. I did a show in Baltimore – At Freedom’s Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture – maybe three years ago, and it was around slavery in Baltimore, slavery in morning. The show was hailed by the art magazines as “the show of the year” in Maryland. So a lot of my research came from that project.
In grad school at MICA, I did some volunteer work for… I’m blanking on this guy’s name because we didn’t quite get along. The problem with the project was, after we did it, he tried to tell me what I could paint and I couldn’t paint. He was talking to the wrong guy. So we had some difficulties. [laughs] The project was about confronting slavery, confronting racism. It was an interesting project, and that’s what my work has been about for… forever.
KH: Was it in grad school that you found this question that you kept exploring through your work? Or was it before then?
AS: Before then. It was before that. My grandfather – I grew up with my grandparents for my formative years, in Texas, in the “Deep South” – he was a history professor at Prairie View College. He used to talk about some of these issues and so it kind of just stuck with me. You know, you don’t know what’s going to stick with you, but it was . . . you know, I only truly understand it now, what he was talking about.
KH: When did you start working at PNCA?
AS: Well, I was doing a show in New York right after grad school and the director of PNCA walked in and said, “Oh, Arvie, do you want a job?” And I said, “What the heck!” This was back in 1994, something like that. In the early 90’s. And I’ve been working here ever since.
KH: What was it like to return to PNCA? You did your undergrad here.
AS: Well, I was doing really well in New York and in Baltimore, and Grace [Hartigan] said, “You’re making a BIG mistake, going back to Oregon.”
And it was different. Is different. You’ve got to understand, Oregon was organized, conceived as an all-white state. And it’s still pretty much that way. So people of color are at a real disadvantage here.
The images that I’m working on now are images that white people have constructed to talk about black people. And if you pound people with these images long enough, they’ll adopt these images and internalize them. Part of my work is saying, “I understand what you’re doing. And it needs to stop.” But sometimes people don’t quite get that part of the edge.
KH: Do you often talk about your work at the same time as showing it?
AS: Yeah, that’s basically what I talk about. Stokely Carmichael was an activist in the 60’s. And one of the things he talked about was that black people need to stop being ashamed of who they are. That’s one of the things I talk about. It’s difficult because we’ve had centuries, I mean centuries, of oppression. And it’s insidious.
KH: How do you teach young men and women to talk about themselves without shame? How do you teach young men and women to start that conversation?
AS: You have to consider where you are. I will tell a black student that this is not going to be easy for them. I’ll say that. At some point, we have to educate our kids that change is going to be difficult. The fact that we have a black president doesn’t mean that things are all better. The fact that we had a Martin Luther King, doesn’t mean that things are all better. Because right after Martin Luther King, and I suspect right after Obama, you’re going to see a backlash. Just as we’ve seen it with other African American leaders who have been either gunned down or marginalized.
KH: That’s a hard thing to think forward to.
AS: It’s even harder if you’re a person of color. It’s much harder. And it’s got to stop. It’s got to stop. At some point, the hate has to go away. And I don’t know when that’s going to happen. Because it works. It works to keep you and I fighting each other while someone else is reaping all the profits. And as long as you and I are going head to head, we don’t really notice what’s going on around us.
So. The work. Take this piece right here. [Left: “We be lovin’ it”] I just see things and they just sort of jog what I’m talking about. I was passing by McDonald’s and . . . things are kind of hidden, but if you really know what you’re looking at, you kind of see it. One of their advertisements had a guy looking something like this. And I said, “Wow. That’s Buckwheat.” With the hair . . . So I did Buckwheat with Edvard Munch’s The Scream. That’s how you feel sometimes. Sometimes you just feel like screaming, “This has got to stop.”
KH: What’s a normal day in your studio like? Do you come in, turn on your music…
AS: I’m a night worker. At school, you kind of give it all away at school.
KH: Energy-wise, you mean?
AS: Yeah. And you come home and are sort of exhausted. It’s a mental exhaustion. And then rest a while and then I’ll come and work until whenever. It depends on whether I have a show or whether I’m just gliding along with my work.
Painting is a process that’s really kind of mysterious. Sometimes people look at a painting and say, “Oh! What’s that over there?” And there will be a figure over there that I’d never even noticed was there. Because you’re in a different reality when you’re working, when you’re seriously engaged. Things just sort of happen. Sometimes I’ll look up and just see my hand doing stuff. It’s kind of interesting. Very interesting actually, because then you start coming back to reality.
KH: There’s intelligence in the hand?
AS: Yeah, because you can’t fool the hand. You can fool the eye, but you can’t fool the hand.
KH: Was there a moment when you decided you wanted to commit to doing this thing? This art thing?
AS: It was before high school. I think we all have this teacher. Mine was Miss Brenner. I was in middle school. I had just gotten to Los Angeles from the south and she took an interest in me. But before that, I lived on a farm with my grandparents and they were both educators. My grandmother was the principal, chief cook, and bottle washer for the separate but equal school, and my grandfather taught at the college. And so there were always artists around. I did a copper tooling of my horse and I gave it to my great grandmother and she went all gaga over it and I thought, “Hmm. There might be something here!” [laughs]
I enjoyed doing it. And there was a competition too going on with my younger brother who was much better than I was, and so as the older brother, I had to be better. I had a reputation to uphold. So now I’m the artist and he’s the actor.
I was really good in high school. Or I thought I was really good. My painting teacher said – I was painting all these white people – he said, paint the people outside that window. Paint the people you see out there. And I didn’t know what he was talking about. I’m just learning how to draw, learning how to paint.
I think there are a lot of stereotypes that we have to deal with. So sometimes we don’t get the kind of credit that we deserve as artists. You can’t be an artist. You have to be a black artist. You have to add that little caveat. And I think that I’m very very good at what I do. A long time ago, I wanted to just be an artist. Then I realized that this world was not going to let me be just be an artist. I have to be a black artist. So I said, “Why not? Why not talk about the things that are important to me?”
KH: What do you tell your students now when they ask you for advice?
AS: Work hard. Make beautiful paintings. But basically, I tell them, this is hard work.
Everyone has different learning styles. I just encourage them to be honest with themselves. Sometimes that’s tough. Because you’re being exposed to all these different media in a very short time. So you have to go from one thing to the next thing to the next thing. So I just tell them, do your best. I expect the best from them. And they deliver.
But I think if your expectations are low, the work is going to suffer. I try to cultivate a friendly caring atmosphere in the classroom where they’re going to be safe. I mean, how do you talk to people about their art? It’s very very personal. I think you can tell people what they need to know about the work without them running out of the room screaming and crying.
KH: Can you tell me a little about Project Hope at the Donald E. Long Center, your mural project at the Donald E. Long Center?
AS: I was doing some murals with some kinds in Juvenile Hall. [Project Hope] And all the kids are people of color. All these kids, blacks and Latinos, committed all the crimes in Portland? That can’t be right.
It just breaks my heart to see that. These are kids. One kid gets a break, the other kid goes to prison. And his life is ruined. Because he made a mistake at 13 years old or 14 years old. It’s not right. But it happens. And it’s not coincidence. Fathers are taken out of the home, communities are depressed, and one way of assuring that a family is going to be poor is to have a single mother. And then these kids don’t have the guidance and they do something silly, or something serious, and it’s game over. And we know that’s what’s going to happen. And we keep doing it.
Then the generations start over and over. Generation after generation…. and then “Johnny, why can’t you read?” They know why Johnny can’t read, because they didn’t give Johnny a chance to get a proper education. So I see these kids in JDH and they’re kind of like my kids. They call me “Old School.” [laughs]
KH: Have you returned to the Donald E. Long home again?
AS: I can’t even go see the murals. I’ll go one day. But the project was great. Those kids are great. It was a privilege to be apart of the project. The “Old School” thing? Okay, I’ll deal with it. [laughs] It was just a blast. And some of those kids were just really neat young men. But it’s difficult because the injustice is right there, in your face. When you’re faced with it day in and day out, you can’t get away from it. It’s all in your face. So when you come back, you put it on the canvas.
But I like to celebrate life. I like my life. And I’d like to see people of color have a much better life.