Art Notes: Lebanon Resident’s Book Memorializes Pioneering Jewelry Designer’s Legacy

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2016
T he jeweler Art hur George Smith may not be a household name , but he is considered o ne of the leading mid-century American modernists, with a bold, sculptural style that drew on both the 20th century European avant-garde and American art of the post-war period

A new book by Lebanon resident Charles Russell, who was for many years Smith’s partner, looks at the jeweler’s legacy, which was recognized in a solo retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from 2008 to 2011. Smith’s work is in the collections of Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, the Hood Museum in Hanover, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Brooklyn Museum.

R ussell wrote Art as Adornment: The Life and Work of Arthur George Smith (Outskirts Press) because, he said in an interview, “I thought it important that there be a record of who he was and what he did.”

Smith was born in Cuba in 1917 to James and Mary Smith, who left rural Jamaica in search of opportunity. The Smiths immigrated to the U.S. in 1920, and took up residence in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“There were so many forces preventing (Smith) from being the entrepreneur he wanted to be,” Russell said. As a gay man, and an African-American, Smith dedicated his life to “overcoming the obstacles,” Russell said.

Art Smith’s father was a follower of the charismatic and influential Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born leader who moved to New York in 1916 and, as a founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, advocated economic, social and legal equality for peoples of the African diaspora; he also supported a movement in which blacks from the Americas and the Caribbean would return to Africa.

The Smiths’ marriage foundered and James Smith eventually left the family and went back to Jamaica, leaving his wife to care for their son. (They never saw him again.) Art Smith showed artistic inclinations from a young age and went on to study architecture and sculpture at Cooper Union before turning to jewelry.

Smith was influenced by Alexander Calder, who is best known for his sculptural mobiles, but who also tried his hand at jewelry. Unlike Smith, Russell said, “Calder didn’t have the notion of jewelry fitting the body,” which made his pieces difficult to wear. Smith knew how to make sculptural jewelry that nonetheless molded to the body, and moved with it. “Biomorphism,” the art movement that looked toward spherical, vaguely natural shapes, was another pull for Smith.

Russell still retains some Smith pieces, which he pulled out during the interview. They’re dramatic and theatrical works that seem to carve out space, whether they are brooches, rings, pendants or necklaces. Their lines are sinuous and seem eternally in motion, folding back in on themselves.

Russell recalled that he and Smith made a trip to a beach one day, where Smith was fascinated by the ebb and flow of the waves. Every time the tide retreated, it revealed new patterns in the sand, which drew Smith’s attention. Those kinds of natural patterns often found their way into Smith’s work, Russell said. But Smith was never literal, Russell said.

“He would suggest rather than imitate,” Russell said. Smith would never hammer out something that looked exactly like a frog, Russell said, but if you looked at it long enough and thought hard enough, the shape might suggest a frog.

Russell, who grew up in the Georges Mills section of Sunapee, graduated from Dartmouth in 1951, with a degree in botany. He went into the insurance business and met Smith in the mid- 1970s in New York City. By that time Smith was well established as a jeweler: his work had been seen in the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar , he had a contract with Bloomingdale’s department store and had attracted distinguished clientele, including Duke Ellington’s sister Ruth

Smith had also been invited into the upper echelon of black intellectual and artistic life in the city, where, as part of a salon, he became acquainted with James Baldwin, Lena Horne, Billy Strayhorn (Ellington’s frequent collaborator) and choreographer Talley Beatty, among others.

Smith experienced overt racism when he moved into his first storefront studio in a then-Italian section of Greenwich Village, where he endured hurled insults and the store, repeated vandalism. When he moved into the heart of the gay Village, on West 4th Street, those physical attacks subsided. But there were the subtler barriers put in his way, as well. The prejudice he experienced as an African-American man was only compounded by the fact that he was also gay, Russell said.

Russell said that he thought Smith had been basically happy with the arc of his career, in terms of what he achieved artistically. “But he was never quite making enough money. He felt his effort wasn’t always rewarded,” Russell said.

Smith died in 1982 from heart disease, at the age of 65. Since then his reputation has only been burnished within the circles of modern American design. Russell noted that one of his most famous pieces, Diminishing Spiral , which was priced well under $100 when it was first made in the 1950s, was bought last year by the Milwaulkee Museum of Art for $22,000.

Art as Adornment: The Life and Work of Arthur George Smith by Charles Russell is available at the Norwich Bookstore.

Openings and Receptions

Painter Joan Hoffmann celebrates the National Park Service Centennial with an exhibition of works at Tunbridge Public Library focused on such national treasures as the Point Reyes National Seashore in California, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado and Capitol Reef in Utah. There will be an opening reception at the library Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. The show continues through May 12.

Artist Kathleen Swift, who uses such Japanese techniques as sumi-e (brushpainting), suminagashi (marbling), and tarashikomi ( adding a second application of paint while the first is still wet ), is the focus of an exhibition opening today at Long River Gallery and Gifts in Lyme. There will be a reception this evening from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The show will run through May 1.

A show of photographs by Mary Gerakeris has opened at the Norwich Public Library . Gerakeris, who lives in Canaan, specializes in intimate portraits of nature. The exhibition continues through Apr il 29.

Sculptor Margaret Jacobs, who is also the exhibition coordinator at the AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, exhibits her work in the show “Impermanence” at Flynndog Gallery in Burlington. Previously, Jacobs has shown her work at ArtisTree in Pomfret and a gallery in New Mexico. Justin O’Rourke is also exhibiting drawings as part of the show. There will be an opening reception on Friday, March 18, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Yes, it’s time once again for the roller derby league Twin State Derby at the Main Street Museum of Art ! Never reluctant to throw a really good party, the museum holds its fourth annual Derbytante Ball Saturday from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Costumes are encouraged. Admission is $10, or pay $15 for admission, plus a ticket to the first home match on May 7.

Paintings by David Nelson, a Dublin, N.H. artist, are on view in the exhibition “Art is Visual Philosophy,” which opens today at the John D. Bennet Atrium Gallery at the Claremont Opera House . The show runs through Apr il 30.

Of Note

AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon holds what is becoming an annual event: its special silent auction of framed vintage posters from the collection of Alfred T. Quirk. The auction takes place on Saturday, April 2 from 5:30 to 8 p.m.

But previews of the sale begin today and run through April 2. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. There are extended days and hours on Monday March 14, 21 and 28 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday, March 31, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The poster show is a prelude to AVA’s gala Silent Auction show and party, which also concludes on April 2 with a party and final bidding. Admission to the Silent Auction Party is $25 for members; $35 for nonmembers; or $50 at the door. There is free admission, however, for early-bird bidding. For the larger Silent Auction, early bidding starts March 26.


Arabella ,Windsor. The gallery exhibits works by local artists and artisans in a variety of media including jewelry, oils, acrylics, photography, watercolors, pastels and textiles.

Big Town Gallery , Rochester, Vt. “Director’s Choice,” an exhibition featuring artists Varujan Boghosian, Pat dipaula Klein, Helen Matteson, Ira Matteson, Nicholas Santoro, Hugh Townley and John Udvardy, continues through July 9.

Chandler Gallery , Randolph. “Salvage,” an exhibition featuring 20 Vermont artists working with found material, runs through March 19.

Converse Free Library , Lyme. The paintings of Matthew Greenway are on view until March 31.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center , Lebanon. The photographs of Elliott Burg are on view, as well as works by the Cardigan Mountain Art Association, Greg Hubbard, Wayne King, Jean Gerber and Pamela Tarbell. The works on view can be seen through March.

Hood Museum of Art , Hanover. The Hood Museum closes after this weekend in preparation for its expansion. All shows currently on exhibit, including “Contemporary Abstraction,” a show of works from the museum’s permanent collection: paintings by Vermont artist Eric Aho; and “Inventory: New Works and Conversations Around African Art” end after the museum closes Sunday.

Hopkins Center , Dartmouth College. A Visiting Faculty exhibition continues in the Strauss Gallery while the Jaffe-Friede Ga llery exhibits the sculpture of current artist-in-residence Mia Westerlund Roosen. Both exhibitions end Saturday.

Howe Library , Hanover. “Route 66 in Oklahoma — What Once Was As it is Now,” a show of photographs by Rich Perry, runs through April 27.

Kilton Public Library , West Lebanon. Art work by Lebanon Middle School students is on view through March 31.

Library Arts Center , Newport. “Selections: Winners from the 2015 Juried Regional Exhibit” runs through Apr il 15.

OSHER@Dartmouth , Hanover. The street photographs of Jim Lustenader are on view through March. The office is open Monday through Thurs day , 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Friday 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Royalton Memorial Library , South Royalton. The art of 36 students from South Royalton School is on view through Apr il 2.

Scavenger Gallery , White River Junction. Works by Toby Bartles, Lois Beatty and Ria Blaas are on view.

White River Gallery , South Royalton. “Lynn Newcomb’s Etchings: The Power of Black Ink; Two Decades of Printmaking” is on view through April.

Zollikofer Gallery , White River Junction. “Everything But ...,” an exhibition of art by students at the Center for Cartoon Studies, runs through March 23.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.