Roy Smith lives in a trailer on a patch of land he calls Royville outside of Saguache in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. He arrived there on a circuitous route that began years ago when he was a boy in Mississippi, witness to the atrocities perpetrated against black citizens by white ones. Smith left Mississippi on a railroad car and took to the life of a hobo; he later became an itinerant cowboy and blues musician and eventually found himself mining in Gilpin County, where he successfully sued the county over civil-rights violations.
Every bit of the way, he’s suffered bigotry and violence, but now settled in the valley with friends in town who look out for him, he collects things and turns them into folk-art assemblages. With help from artists Alex DeCarli and Adrienne Garbini of the Range in Saguache, Smith has found some recognition for his artwork, currently on view in Denver through the end of December at Peralta Projects (details below), in collaboration with the Range. Many thanks to Esteban Peralta, who took the time to conduct the Colorado Creatives interview verbally with Smith. Read on to learn more about Smith’s outlook and life story.
Westword: What’s your story? How did you get to be where you are?
Roy Smith: I started out as a hobo…and I became a hobo when I got to the camp. My mama told me to go down to the railways. There’s a lot of guys, a lot of gentlemans there, and they take care of people like me, and she was worried about me getting killed and being a Mississippi kid, because the place I was in, they didn't put up with my kind too much. They just as soon to kill ya than to look at ya.
I went down to the railroad first, and then I went to the section house, and some people that lived there sheltered me. I’d slip out of the house at night, while they were all asleep, and I’d go to sleep under the bridge with the hobos. I’d get up about four at night, and I’d sneak in the window and be back in there when I got up in the morning. Then I was sleepin’ with hobos all night, and they didn't know about it. They never did learn about it.
I became a good cowboy after I left the railroad, then from the cowboy to the gold mine — those things put me anywhere I wanted to be. In bein’ a cowboy, I’d travel around and do cowboy stuff, actin’ like a cowboy. I done been a real cowboy a long time in a lot of places, and I just wanted to continue even if I wasn't on a ranch. I wanted to wear my hat and my chaps and feel like I was still there. I did come back over and over. I worked for a lot of ranches. I done everything that I think a human wanted to do. I wasn't phony; I was the real thing.
So that’s how I got started from a hobo. I can't mention all the things I did, but it was nothing that would get you in trouble. I got a good record with the law.
How did art find you, and what do you think it takes to be a good artist?
Art found me because some of the hobos started me in making it. They'd take rocks and things they found along the railroad and make art out of it. I grew up with it hangin’ always over my shoulder. I got serious about it here recently, with help from Adrienne [Garbini] and Alex [DeCarli].
I’d been doing some all along, but I was not too deep into it, so mostly it was my own idea. I enjoyed myself. When I got with them, things started gettin’ real. They helped me. They'd give things to me to do art, because they liked what I was doing.
What (or who) is your creative muse?
I look to my Lord, God. He even helps me with art. He tells me things that nobody would ever believe if I told ya — how to be right and honest in life and follow him. I’ll be a decent person. I’ll go through life, and I’ll have trials and tribulations like other peoples. He knows what they is. I don't go around talking about it like those white supremacists doing bad things to me.
I could have been out waiting for those guys and kill ’em, but I ain't about that. I'm about serving him, and he's my guy. That makes me a better artist, because I'm not only an artist, I'm a decent, good person. Yeah, you gotta have some decency. If you go around doing evil, what kind of artist are you gonna be?
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to hang out with on the porch?
Adrienne, Alex and Tony. Tony is a friend of mine who used to be a mechanic. He had a shop in Saguache. He’s a popular person that people respect and look up to, and he's an honest person. He stands by me, and he don't like nobody to do nothing to hurt me. There’s another lady, Wendy, so it’s the four of them: They are the people that I follow, peoples I trust that would tell me the right thing and not fill my head with jive.
What would make the San Luis Valley a better place to live — or is it perfect as it is?
No, it used to be perfect. A lot of people coming in now, you don't know what to think of ’em. But a lot of them are on my side. When they first came, they used to see me unconscious, lying on the road because the white supremacists knock me out and left me layin’. They told me it ain't gonna happen anymore. They said, “Leave that man alone. He don't hurt nobody. You beat him up because you didn't like him being here.”
What’s your dream project?
I don't really know how to put it on a limb. I got a lot of things in my head. I would do that if I had somebody to stand by me and be there. I’d have to be sure that they would come by and stop by to check on me and see how I'm doin’. That would relieve me. I'm scared every time I get free that I’ll get hurt by the peoples I was tellin’ you about. I would invent new art — art inventions. I got a lot of art inventions.
If you died tomorrow, what or whom would you come back as?
I don't know about comin' back. I’m gonna be goin’ home with my lord Jesus. I wanna stay close to him, and if I ever get that chance, I'm gonna be there. I just want the name of doin’ right, but I don't want it free. I want to make sure I did do right on Earth, and I wanna be represented as someone trying to do right.
You’ve come this far in life. What’s still on your bucket list?
I’d like to do a little more more singin’ around where I live at. I don't want to go on the road no more. I want to keep doin’ nice art and unusual things I can't hardly put into words. I want to do art the rest of my life to the best of my ability, but I want to sing, too. That’s why I got all these movie chairs I want to set up and start singin’ again if I can. Maybe I can get some of those popular musicians to come out and get me started.
What are you working on, now and in the coming year?
I'm just not sure what to do with it. I don’t know how it’s gonna turn out with this president we’ve got. I’ll try to continue to do some great art and some singin’. I got them chairs all lined up, and I need some hog-wire to fence it up so the dogs don't get in there and tear things up. I’d put my music stand together real good and start singing about the art I do and how I came about the thought of doing it. A lot of people want to do art, but they don't know how to go about it. But maybe if I share with them my heart, maybe they'll have a better idea about how to do theirs.
See artwork by Roy Smith at Ramblin' Roy: An Exhibition, on Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., through December 30 at Peralta Projects, 747 Elati Street. Smith’s new art book, Last Train for Freedom Leavin’ Town, is available for $30 at whatnothingpress.com.