#61: Craig Marshall Smith
Painter Craig Marshall Smith was born in Flint, Michigan during the Truman administration. He attended UCLA, then taught drawing at three universities in three states over the course of thirty years. His opinion columns appear in a number of metro-Denver weekly newspapers. Smith chose to answer the questionnaire with a stream-of-consciousness essay that addresses some standard 100CC questions while also answering a few of his own. We chose to run it more or less as it was written. Enjoy.
Craig Marshall Smith: I write a weekly opinion column. One of my readers told me I was irrelevant because I don’t have a cell phone. Therefore, you may want to think twice about paying attention to any of this. I don’t have a cell phone, I am not on Facebook, and I wouldn’t know how to tweet. Also, I don’t own an automatic weapon or a wristwatch.
My lucky day was the day I walked into the UCLA art office in the fall of 1965 and saw Jan Stüssy’s paintings for the first time, on the walls behind the secretaries. I enrolled in his classes, I listened intently to his critiques, and I graduated quite brainwashed. If you later studied with me, you have him to thank — or to blame. He was in my head when I taught, and he is still in my head whenever I draw and paint. He despised a colleague of his, Richard Diebenkorn, calling what he did “tasteful arrangements of squares and rectangles.” However, my pictures now can be traced to both of them.
I fully acknowledge that I am an artistic sponge, but at least I have heeded what Jean Renoir said about finding “plump” mentors and muses.
I wrote a column about a wonderful, chimerical dinner party and my guests of honor. I would want my father to be there. If there is anything decent about me, it’s entirely because of him. Charles Dickens would be at the head. Raymond Chandler and Dorothy Parker. W. C. Fields and David Letterman. Anita Ekberg, Mozart and Pink Floyd. The Dark Side of the Moon was released in 1973. That was the year UCLA showed me the door, and the year I walked into a classroom to teach for the first time.
I am almost completely out of touch with the local arts community. At one time or another, I was linked with galleries you know of and galleries that are long forgotten. Alice Roosevelt Longworth said, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” I have some stories about local gallery directors, but I am going to keep it to myself. However, many of them would serve the arts community better if they were involved with Doberman Rescue instead.
Since I retired from teaching in 2003, I have rarely been seen in public. It works better that way, and I willingly leave the social aspects of the art world to others. I went to a First Friday, came right home, and sat in a corner with a wet towel on my head for days. I sometimes have an advanced case of laryngitis at my own receptions. Especially when I am asked about my meanings and my ideas.
I paint and I draw. There are no deep meanings, and there are no new ideas. I avoid making statements, and I avoid reading them — unless I am experiencing insomnia. Most statements sound like gobs of pretense made of lobster panties, softwood shavings and dog food.
Very few artists can write or speak objectively about their work without sounding like Irwin Corey. (By the way, a local editor told me I needed to explain my references or his readers wouldn’t know whom I was referring to. His readers. Christ. If you don’t know Irwin Corey, look him up.)
I am uninterested in trends. If I hear the words “cutting edge,” I excuse myself to go bowling. I appreciate anyone who can draw and paint and create without a frothy exegesis to take the place of absent friends like talent and skill. If someone sounds like an artist, they probably aren’t. If someone looks like an artist, they probably aren’t.
I made a decision two years ago to clear out my locker. I am about forty paintings into my final fifty paintings. Each one will be titled — somewhat randomly — after a state.
At the same time, I proposed an unusual exhibition to Cynthia Madden Leitner, director of the Museum of Outdoor Arts in Englewood. She accepted the proposal. Last year, I collaborated with twelve artists, including Stüssy and Diebenkorn. The others are good friends, a former classmate, and former students.
I can’t think of a better answer to the question about my favorite accomplishment. To start with, Cynthia Madden Leitner and Tim Vacca, MOA’s director of programs, are anomalies. They actually communicate. They respect artists. They are incomparably generous with their time. And — get this — they make eye contact. I have never seen anything like it.
I was represented in Denver by a well-known gallery. The director, Uriah Heep, said he couldn’t show my work until I “experienced success” with him. I said, “Is this a trick question?” and backed up a truck. (I don’t need to be reminded that museums and commercial galleries are different animals.)
The exhibition I proposed — Intersecting Formations — opens January 19. It will be up until March 30. The artists involved include Mark Friday and John McEnroe. Friday is one of Denver’s most important artists. For another thing, being around him is like being around Steven Wright: “Last year I went fishing with Salvador Dalí. He used a dotted line. He caught every other fish.”
Being around McEnroe is like being around someone who is in the trenches, like I was forty years ago. He’s purposeful and he’s dangerous. I gave him two fresh paintings, thinking he might pull the canvases, add to them and reassemble them. Instead, he stripped the canvases and tossed them away, and turned the stretcher bars into arthritic deck chairs. I don’t laugh — but when I saw them, I laughed.
Colorado is perfect. (Have you been to Ohio?) I have no plans to leave. I don’t ski, hike, bicycle or care about the Broncos. Mum’s the word. If it gets out, each of those is punishable. But I am allowed to be invisible — and visible at the same time.
My intention is to write. I am working on a novel (like everyone else) titled Sorry I Made You Pregnant. And I want to learn how to play “Sultans of Swing” for Jennifer on a red Stratocaster.
D. W. Winnicott said, “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” There you go. That’s me.
Intersecting Formations, an exhibit of collaborative works by Craig Marshall Smith — with Sharon Feder, Mark Friday, Brett Ganyard, Gretchen Goetz, Deborah Jang, Daniel House Kelly, John McEnroe, Amy Metier, Jennifer Meyerrose, James Robie and Greg Watts — opens on Friday January 19, with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m., at the Museum of Outdoor Arts, 1000 Englewood Parkway, and runs through March 30. Eight paintings from Smith’s "50 States" series are also currently on view in MOA’s Atrium Gallery through March 30. Learn more at MOA online.
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