By Milenko Budimir
Photograph by Milenko Budimir
Northern Ohio Live
Later this year, Cleveland will lose one of its most eccentric, creative and melodic voices, as Steven B. Smith sets off on the latest adventure in a life that has been nothing but adventurous.
Artist, poet and all-around agent provocateur Smith – founder and editor of the classic Cleveland underground ’zine ArtCrimes – is moving on.
With the last issue of ArtCrimes due out in June, Smith and his wife, Lady, are selling their possessions, including the Tremont condo he’s called home for over 20 years, and will head to Europe to begin a new life as wandering artists. If all goes well, Cleveland’s first couple of underground art will be on a plane bound for Spain this fall, going wherever the road takes them afterward.
“It’s the closing of one chapter in our lives and the start of a new one,” says Lady, the one concerned about getting everything taken care of in time. “I don’t worry about things like that,” says Steve. Together, they’ve overcome a lot lately. Steve’s bout with throat cancer, for instance, which made his voice faint and raspy, slowed his poetry-reading schedule – though now he’s back, stronger than ever. “Reality really seems to like me,” says a bemused Smith. “I’ve got to be the luckiest person in the world.”
In a long line of local troubadours that stretches from d.a. levy in the 1960s through the late Daniel Thompson, Smith is a freestyling, freewheeling word- and image-smith. However, you won’t find his work in the respectable literary quarterlies. He’s not anti-academic, but he’d probably agree with Groucho Marx that he doesn’t really care to join a club that would have him for a member. While his work is definitely not academic, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Even when it’s dark, a lilting frivolity keeps it from being oppressive.
His modus operandi is the collage, the cut-up of reality, where nothing is what it seems. His poems and collages are filled with jarring juxtapositions, political commentary and imagery not for the timid or prudish – a fact that’s gotten his work censored more than a few times.
Now, after 20 years and 21 issues of ArtCrimes, Smith says he’s had enough.
Over the years, ArtCrimes became an underground Cleveland institution, turning Smith into the ultimate insider of outsider art. How did he come up with the name? “I have no idea,” he says. “Probably comes from my outlaw attitude.” But there’s no question about why he started the ’zine. “The reason I did ArtCrimes was that I was involved with the city’s leading poets and visual artists, and saw that nobody was combining the two.”
Smith was one of a handful of pioneering artists living in the Bradley Building in the Warehouse District in the early and mid-1980s. His 3,000-square-foot apartment above the former location of SPACES Gallery was home base for raucous parties, as well as a fertile arena for local artists and poets to exchange ideas.
One look at an issue of ArtCrimes reveals a coming together of visual art and poetry, the mixing of words and images. The entire collection is a record of expression for the city’s artists and poets, both well-known and underground. Production runs were usually small, limited to a few hundred or so, and issues were given away to artists or friends. “The process of putting together an issue was very selective,” says Smith, who used contributions from poets and visual artists he admired. Issues would be put together and printed on no set schedule, but more or less when the spirit moved him or when he’d gathered enough material.
To mix things up a bit, Smith would periodically hand over editing duties to other poets or artists. The best guest editors had a sensibility for both the written word and the image. Local poet Jim Lang was perfect, Smith emphasizes, because “as a photographer, he had the visual artist’s eye for making a page look good.” The guest editor trick increased the pool of contributors, because editors would bring in people that Smith had never heard of.
Over the years, contributors have included everyone from Charles Bukowski and Jack Micheline to a 12-year-old child and a dog that contributed a paw print. Local poets Daniel Thompson, Maj Ragain, Amy Bracken Sparks, Ben Gulyas, Chris Franke and a host of others added their voices as well, as did visual artists, including Harvey Pekar, illustrator Gary Dumm, Masumi Hayashi and Ken Nevadomi.
Bukowski once said that being a writer grants you large spans of time, and if you don’t know how to handle large spans of time, you’re in trouble. For those who can handle it and even revel in it, Europe beckons. Hand in hand, the Agent of Chaos and his beloved Lady are answering the call.
You can visit the orderly world of the Agent of Chaos by checking out his all-encompassing, self-explanatory website www.agentofchaos.com. This explains it all: his childhood and early life, teenage petty crimes, expulsion from the Navy for drug use, and his fascinating list of jobs and careers. You’ll also find Smith’s art and poetry, and Lady’s poetry, as well as some past issues of ArtCrimes.
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