Angry Young Artist Has Mellowed With Age
by Helen Cullinan
The Plain Dealer
September 30, 1993
Steven B. Smith made news at the first People's Art Show at the Cleveland State University Art Gallery in 1984 with photos of genitalia and the U.S. flag. His "American Ego" collage, named the show's "Most Outrageous" work by popular vote, was an impassioned anti-war statement.
Smith prided himself on his image as an angry young artist whose word and art had a razor edge. He could not have imagined himself - a mere decade later - creating children's art for a hospital setting.
Yet the work that Smith is proudest of today is an assemblage sculpture on a Mickey Mouse theme commissioned for the MetroHealth Ambulatory pediatrics unit.
"I don't think there's a negative vibe in the entire piece," said Smith, who pirated his Walt Disney memorabilia collection to create it. "I never did anything like it before. All I wanted to do was make the kids happy, and it works."
"Mouse Dreams" mirrors a monumental change of heart for Smith, arguably the area's premier bohemian artist/poet. He has an equal command of verbal and visual tools. Smith, who lives in Cleveland's Tremont area and is widely known as the publisher of ArtCrimes, a small edition journal of poetry and art, is on a creative roll with a fresh outlook. Though still the born critic of social injustice and organized thought, he describes himself as "nicer, art- and life-wise."
Smith, 47, feels that a switch to barfree living and a trip last year to Europe that he dreamed of all his life have changed his perspective. "I have never seen so much culture and art, or felt more at home with artists," he said. "Going to Europe freed me to do what I want on my own terms, and to know what I am doing is right."
"In the past year I have done over 150 pieces of new art, much of which resides among the gentle, humorous and pretty. The titles alone approach the poetic. Of course my usual somber, political and weird also abide. I am either protesting ruining the environment, religious hypocrisy, the government or the robber barons of corporations."
Visually, what others may find macabre, Smith often finds pretty. Shunning conventional materials, he loves working in found objects and debris ranging from broken mirrors and barbed wire to flags, crucifixes, bones, baubles and even dead birds. His work is usually thought provoking.
"My works are little moral fables, like my poems," he said. "I am not trying to offend people. I am trying to make them think. It is not surprising that many poets turn to assemblage, because it is the same thing. I started doing anti-organized-thought collages in the 1960s. I was one of the flower children."
Smith is filled with tales of youthful escapades in Washington state, where he grew up; at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he lasted three years; and at Loyola University in Baltimore, where he received a bachelor's degree in English and philosophy, with a 3.8 grade point average.
He lived in Baltimore and other cities before coming to Cleveland 17 years ago in a romantic pursuit. He moved into the Warehouse District in the 1980s - when it was a haven for artists and poets - and began merging the two art forms in ArtCrimes. He has always worked as a computer programmer analyst to support ArtCrimes and his art.
"ArtCrimes is as much a community of ideas as it is a publication," said William Busta, director of Little Italy's William Busta Gallery, where the journal is sold. "It is art and poetry that are part of a lifestyle rather than for mass consumption."
Cleveland print/book connoisseur and dealer Art Feldman said he was buying "these little ArtCrimes" before he met Smith. "How he ever does it I do not know, except that he is a computer genius and it is a labor of love," Feldman said. "He is a great talent."
Nearly 100 contributors are presented in the 14th ArtCrimes issue. Subtitled "The Book of Fools," it is printed on cards in a boxed format loosely based on the tarot. It is available for $10 at selected locations, including the Bookstore on West Twenty-Fifth Street, the Old Erie Street Bookstore and Mac's Backs in Coventry.
Smith shares a Tremont walk-up studio apartment, which resembles an environmental collage in its density of art materials, with his mother. Florence E. Smith, a tall woman known in art circles as Mother Dwarf, came from Las Vegas to join him at his insistence, when she was widowed in 1990. A former ceramist and quilter, she does assemblage art. Her stamp is brightly appealing narrative pieces with fairy tale themes.
Smith, who says that he has never been more productive or had fewer outlets for his art, shared a recent show of assemblage art with his mother at the Studio Gallery in Tremont. "There is almost nothing here that anyone can object to," he said proudly.
e mail smith at smithcrimes @-sign yahoo dot com