Seth Smith loves the delicious irony. Right now, in a Key West fine art gallery, natives of the Sunshine State are buying Florida beach scenes painted by a man in his landlocked Prairie Village garage.
“The fact that I am pulling over that ruse on them means that this is actually something I can go forth with,” the 33-year-old artist says. “It really has validated it for me.”
OK, it’s not that much of a ruse. While Smith doesn’t live by the water, he does have a “couch to crash on” in Key West that he returns to once a year. And while he was born and raised on 27 acres outside of Wichita, he spent many early summers on the banks of Lake Superior watching 1,000-foot boats and sketching the swells of the water.
All of which means Smith’s beach scenes — clean, timeless oils tucked inside crisp, white borders — make sense. Forget the Kansas driver’s license. The beach is in his blood.
This weekend you can see Smith’s self-described “Vacation Polaroids” on display in booth No. 500 by the corner of the main stage at the Plaza Art Fair, his first time at the event. While most of his paintings show scenes that are on or near the water, others depict classic signs or motels along Route 66. All have a familiar feel. You’ve been there before, no matter where it was. And chances are you were happy.
And that’s the point.
“I like the idea that there’s a place in my mind that’s always on vacation,” Smith says. “That every night there’s a party. It’s like how people relive college or good moments in their lives. That’s essentially what I am doing, is trying to keep the crest of that wave going.”
His paintings are more than scenes from the beach and famous highways. One is of the iconic sign from the White Haven Motor Lodge in Overland Park that closed in 2010.
“I passed this sign forever,” he says. “And now I’m nostalgic for a time that I never lived. I love those old signs because vacation is the same no matter what time period it’s in — you know, escape your day-to-day life.”
The “Vacation Polaroids” are a change in course for Smith. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 2003 with a degree in painting and printmaking and painted abstracts for the first 10 years of his career, in addition to working as a curator at the Rice Gallery in south Overland Park.
He has sold abstract works to private clients and big corporations, including H&R Block in Kansas City. While he doesn’t want to name-drop, his work hangs on the walls of Hollywood actors, race car drivers and stand-up comedians.
But why, some may ask, did Smith change his style to what he terms “leisurely realism”?
It all goes back to Jon Bauer, a friend who urged Smith to examine what he liked, and why. The question fascinated the artist. After much thought he concluded that, almost more than anything, he loved the way he felt when he was happy and carefree on a relaxing vacation.
“When you’re on vacation you’re a different person,” he says. “A cup of coffee tastes different. The sun feels different. … And a (crummy) motel room is not a (crummy) motel room. It’s a palace in paradise.”
As he talks you can see it in his brown eyes. In his mind he’s there right now, strolling the soft, white sands of Key West or surfing off the coast of Malibu. He is relaxed. And all is right with the world.
While Smith may not live in the Florida Keys, he has done his best to bring the Keys to Kansas. The interior of his attached one-car garage, which serves as his studio, is painted sea-foam green. Several guitars hang on the wall, and a sheet covers the only window. There’s a rectangular painting on an easel and many more lying around the room. The music of Jimmy Buffett helps set the mood, along with a spray bottle of beach scent.
“I call it his island oasis,” says longtime friend and co-worker Andrew Helt. “I thought it was humorous until I saw it. But it really does put you in a different state of mind.”
The studio serves as a transporter of sorts.
“It’s like I can jump back and forth between the two places I love just by using a garage door,” says Smith, a night owl who often does his best work at 3 a.m. beside a pot of coffee. “Once I close it I don’t know where I am. Maybe I’m doing this because I want to be there. Like I said, I close that door and I get to go there!”
“What’s great about Seth is the guy is 100 percent genuine,” Helt says. “He paints what he loves. If he is painting an ocean wave, he is doing it because that turns him on. He’s not thinking ‘I wonder if this would sell, or if some art critic would love it.’ He’s doing it to keep himself going.”
As for people who would question why someone in Kansas would paint beach scenes?
“Certain people think where you’re from, or where you live, defines you,” Smith says. “That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to say, like, we’ve all lived other lives, but … I think your soul speaks. It yells. It screams for something. And you can’t help where you’re at. …
“I could turn that around and say, ‘What should I be painting? Do you want me to paint what’s right outside my garage? Do you want me to paint wheat fields? Where does your fence line stop?’ I don’t have those borders. But I get it. I live here. The closest body of water is my bathtub. I get it.”
That won’t stop him.
“Maybe I’ll never be able to live in these places,” he says. “Maybe I wasn’t born there. … But the quiet moments of vacation and leisure, and the simple sun hitting the motel — my palace. The hope of that I can capture with paint. And I can kind of take ownership of that, and I can live in that world all the time.
“And if I have clients who also want to buy these paintings, that’s a huge, added bonus.”
Smith will always have clients because he always is looking for a way to be better, says longtime friend Chandler Poore.
“As he’s grown as a person, his art has grown and changed with him,” Poore says. “He’s always been open to trying new things.”
But Smith understands that painting in this new style, after painting abstracts for most of his career, is a risk.
“This could be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I don’t know if people here are going to relate.”
One painting in his studio shows an outside view of several pastel-colored motel-room doors. You can almost feel the dampness of the hot towel that has been flung over the white iron railing to dry. You can practically smell the sea in the air as it blows into an open door to cool it on a sweltering summer day.
No, he doesn’t live at the beach. But …
“I’m a daydreamer,” he says. “I’ll sit at stoplights and the light will turn green, and I’m still staring ahead. I mean, I’m there. But I’m not there. You know?”
Smith began traveling to Florida about six years ago.
“Peggy, the owner of the Rice Gallery, had a place in Marathon in the middle of the Keys,” he says. “The vibe I got when I drove (there) was very similar to what I’ve known in the Midwest. The people are polite, friendly and nice. … And when I was there I kind of got the feeling that everybody else was on vacation, too.”
Little things like that have a profound effect on Smith.
“He’s a very sentimental guy,” Helt says. “He could go on for hours about one moment in his life. Whether it’s a smell or something he saw or felt. It could be the simplest of things. But it’s always something that means something to him. That’s one reason why I have respected Seth and gotten along with him.
“Cause if you’re having a bad day he can bring up something and just help you have a better day. And I think that’s really what his paintings are about.”
Smith knows art can change people’s lives. But so can an inspiring quote. He still remembers the one that changed his life from motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia. As a boy he memorized it for a speech he gave to the Wichita Optimists Club. It read:
“The majority of us lead quiet, unheralded lives as we pass through this world. There will most likely be no ticker-tape parades for us, no monuments created in our honor. But that does not lessen our possible impact, for there are scores of people waiting for someone just like us to come along; people who will appreciate our compassion, our unique talents. Someone who will live a happier life merely because we took the time to share what we had to give.”
He pauses to let the memory wash over him.
“I know some artists and some writers think that their body of work — their oeuvre — is just so important that it needs to be seen, and it needs to be understood, and it’s going to change the world. I guess I look at it like … if there is one person (who likes my art), and it brought them a moment of happiness in their day by hanging it up in their home … that is incredible to me!
“I just want to make people’s lives better. I’m very sensitive to people being kind to one another … or complimenting their shoes, or saying, ‘Hey, I like what you said.’”
Smith’s generosity has made many people’s lives better. Every year he donates paintings to the Big Slick charity auction to benefit Children’s Mercy Hospital. He donates paintings to many other causes as well.
Smith’s own life has gotten immeasurably better in the last two years. First he married his wife, Joy. Then they had their son Casper, now 11 months old. Smith calls him “My greatest work of art.”
But beyond the art, what kind of a person is Smith, really?
Friends describe him as a unique man who loves sports and reading as much as he does traveling and daydreaming. And if left unchecked, they say, his creativity can swerve into some odd places.
“We had this running joke that my dad was a mobster,” Helt says. “Seth was always talking about it at school. It finally got to the point where he had created such a persona that teachers were starting to hear about it
“I actually got called in by my high school counselor, who said, ‘I heard your dad might be involved in organized crime.’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ Seth had created this whole myth that my dad was this guy named ‘The Blade.’
“After that, when he came over to my house, my dad would pull a knife on him — just as a joke. It was beautiful, man. That’s Seth right there. He’s a character.”
He’s also sensitive and caring, says Bauer, who notes that Smith was going to be the best man at his wedding before something unexpected happened.
“I got married in May on the same day as his sister, and he had to miss my wedding,” Bauer says. “I, of course, understood. But he apologized a hundred times. Instead, my brother-in-law, John, was my best man. But Seth arranged for John to read a toast at the rehearsal dinner. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“If I had to come up with words to describe him it would be kind and genuine friend — and a very thoughtful guy.”
Bauer is flying up from Florida to see Smith’s paintings at the Plaza Art Fair.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he says. “We’re not going to miss this.”
As for Smith, he’s still floored that people pay him for doing what he loves.
“I still can’t wrap myself around that,” he says. “When I get to meet clients, it’s such an honor! You know? To know that I’m going to affect their mood? That something I did is going to help them live a happier life, for even 30 seconds out of their day? That’s incredible to me.”
We all have something to give, he says. That’s why he’s so passionate about arts education.
“Everyone can find that thing that gives them that happiness and that buzz,” he says. “I hear people every day say, ‘I can’t draw. I just draw stick figures.’ OK, maybe so. But maybe you could play the saxophone like a savant. But you’ll never know if you don’t get that opportunity.”
Even in a garage in Prairie Village, Kansas.
To reach James A. Fussell call 816.234.4460 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.