The desire to capture a fleeting scene is a common enough artistic inspiration. Lately, though, Will Smith has found himself compelled to literally preserve the memory of a landscape. That’s because the subject of his
latest series of paintings is rapidly disappearing at the ragged end of the Louisiana coast, in an area just south
of and startlingly close to New Orleans.
“I call this collection ‘poem meets police report,’” Smith says. “It’s a document of what’s going on there. These areas are going away. Every storm, there’s less of them left.”
Smith has titled his most recent work the “Ustabe” series, from the phrase “used to be,” which he heard constantly from locals while navigating the dissolving wetlands around the town of Lafitte. He set off in a small boat to travel through such areas as Spoonbill Bay and Manilla Village, which “ustabe” much more robust. Back in his New Orleans studio,
Smith portrayed the teetering camps and tattered settlements in stark realism, while around them the beauty of resilient marsh and trees divides luminescent sky and restless water.
The settings that inspire Smith today seem a world away from his hometown of Natchez, Miss., though that’s where he got a very early artistic start. Even as a boy he was fascinated with the town’s historic architecture, and by the time he was 10, his parents’ friends were commissioning house portraits from the budding artist. He later studied architecture and explored a career in theater, but his passion for art always won out.
Smith moved to New Orleans in1999 and soon established a style of whimsical architectural portraits in watercolor and pen and ink. The playful approach caught on, and his renditions of landmark buildings, cemeteries and festival scenes sold well at local art markets. While he was earning a living with this, however, Smith knew he wanted to do something different. He turned his attention to oil on canvas and soon zeroed in on his imperiled subject matter.
“Growing up, we were always coming to New Orleans, but I always wanted to go farther south to land’s end, to the places where people lived on the water,” he says. “I decided Ihad to do this, and I had to do thisnow because this all might not behere much longer.”
You can see Smith’s work at Jean Bragg Gallery and the Cake Café
See more online at www.wmsjr.com.