We have an undeniable human tendency to gloss over the grittier neighborhoods of history—to avoid its darkest corners—in order to glorify the past. The woes of “the good old days,” as so many refer back to decades long past, were immanently better than those of today, and many of these hazy flashbacks to those bygone times are sparked by the imagery that survives them; gleeful children, square-jawed men and dutiful house- wives remain frozen in time by artists like Norman Rockwell in his iconic series of Saturday Evening Post covers. Images like these have become what we commonly refer to as “Americana”—a collection of art and objects that defines our fragmented population as an entire nation and as a society. But for local artist Cedric Smith, the scope of Americana had excluded something very dear to him—the average African-American.
Growing up, Smith—who is as much an archivist as he is an artist—came across plenty of vintage advertisements and knickknacks portraying the stereotypical, derisive black face—bulbous lips parting to reveal an ignorant smile just waiting to utter ‘Yes, Massa,’ with unflinching compliance. With frustration, he says there were no relics that reflected the people he remembered from his youth. So, Smith set out to re-imagine loads of antique ephemera to include positive black imagery. “The angle is really trying to show America that things could have had black imagery back then in a positive way and it could have been Americana,” Smith explains. “When I started out, they would always put black artists’ work in ethnic or folk art or some [category] like that, and my way of doing it was to show that it is just as much Americana as Norman Rockwell’s work.”
Smith’s love of vintage aesthetics and Americana began at a young age. Born in Philadelphia but raised in both his mother’s hometown of Thomaston, Georgia, and Atlanta from the age of six, Smith stumbled across old Coca Cola and RC cola signs—the remnants of a store once owned by his grandmother while prowling the woods with his cousin. “I always remembered that vintage look, how they were worn, and I’ve always been fascinated by vintage or old looking things,” the artist explains. “From that, I started questioning myself, like, why don’t I see any black imagery in these pieces? And the ones I did see were these pickaninnies with the big lips. So that was the path I took… before then I didn’t have a focus.”
From elementary school on, Smith found himself attracted to art. “I wasn’t that good at sports like all the other guys, so [art] was my little niche,” he remembers. “I was doing graffiti on walls and stuff because that was my way of expressing myself.” Mostly self-taught, he never studied art formally because he had been long told that there was no way to make a living as an artist; he even received an art scholarship, but opted not to pursue it. Smith became a barber—another skill he taught himself—and was painting just to decorate his apartment and barbershop, until a customer told him that his work resembled that of painter William Tolliver. As fate would have it, Smith had been regularly cutting Tolliver’s hair and had never known who he was. It wasn’t until one day when he overheard a stranger talking on a phone in the barbershop mention a meeting at a studio that destiny intervened. Smith, who also dabbled in music at the time, assumed the man was talking about a recording studio and asked him what sort of music he made. The man, who turned out to be Tolliver, corrected him that it was an art studio, and invited Smith to visit his workspace. From that point on, he gave up the shears and adopted paintbrushes; with a newly discovered confidence and focus on creating positive black imagery, Smith set out to follow his love.
Inspired by a line from the Public Enemy song “Fight the Power,” wherein Chuck D proclaims, “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp,” Smith’s first cohesive body of work was a line of postage stamps. “That was the first series I did put- ting everyday black people on postage stamps, instead of athletes or whoever,” says Smith. “It could be the milkman, it could be the postman or the preacher—stuff like that.” Having successfully reclaimed the hallowed ground of iconic postage stamps, Smith blazed a trail across all sorts of media that had formerly been off limits to the average black face. “From the postage stamps, I went to dollar bills, then to magazine covers,” Smith explains. “I was really big on magazines. I would see Better Homes and Gardens, and I did a whole series called Better Shacks and Gardens. What I did was just show all the women I saw back in the day when I was a kid…I was just showing the other side of the tracks.”
Lining the walls of Smith’s spacious Ardsley Park home is a mixture of his own paintings and detritus from the segregated South; an antique sign reading “Colored Entrance Only” hangs above his sunroom, and a mishmash of well-preserved salvage store relics like candy jars and a scale sit on display, proudly showing their age. Whoever told Smith he couldn’t make it as an artist should feel like a fool; since 1997, his work has appeared at galleries and venues from the New York Historical Society to Miami’s Dillon Gallery. Smith the collector has spent countless hours scouring flea markets and old barns rescuing obscure treasures from certain rusty deaths. Some of his favorite found items are antique photographs, and his collection of historic portraits is what would help usher in the most successful phase of his career as an artist—an ongoing series of mixed media advertisements integrating paintings with these century-old faces.
“I tried to think like an advertiser: What draws people to advertising?” Smith explains. “I put pictures of faces because I thought there was some kind of mystery to it—that looks like my grandfather, or that could be my neighbor or something like that. That’s why you see the photographs rather than just painting faces.” For Smith, the added element of mystery from the photographs could be traced back to the eyes, which, in many cases, seem to follow the viewer, speaking across time. “It’s almost like [the faces are] drawing you in,” he says. “They say you can tell a lot by people’s eyes, though a lot of photographs from back then, because the cameras were so slow, people might start out smiling but by the time the camera shoots, they drop the smile. So a lot of my stuff looks like the people are sad.”
The series of advertisement paintings have shown and sold in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and around the country; several hang locally in the venerable Chroma Gallery on Barnard Street. Featuring girls selling pralines or babies resting on a cotton blossom, the paintings are drenched in the Southern vernacular—some- thing that has alternately helped and hurt the reception of his work with buyers and critics. To some, especially ex-patriate Southerners living up North, the South in Smith’s work has a magnetic appeal. “A lot of people that I talk to say it reminds them of home because there are a lot of people from the South, or there is a certain romanticism to [the paintings],” says Smith. “People in New York say that through all the hustle and bustle up there, it’s nice to come home to something relaxing, something that takes their mind off things. Down here, it’s something they relate to, but in other places, it gives people a piece of mind.”
Some art critics, however, have not been quite as welcoming, mistaking Smith’s aesthetic and subject matter for a lack of substance. “My other work is hard for critics to write about because they think that it’s bubble gum or something,” he says. “But I think I’m doing similar to what Warhol was doing, taking an everyday thing around us but in a more pop iconic way. I’m doing it in a pop iconic way, but I’m just getting black with it.” He contends that perhaps some critics are not seeing beyond the surface of his work. “When critics see my work, they just think that it’s a girl with pink lemonade. They’re not thinking about the fact that she had a pink lemonade stand, that she is an entrepreneur…that it is Americana…and it’s some- thing positive—that’s all the elements I’m trying to bring about, but I don’t force it on people. I let them ask me, because I don’t want to run anybody off.”
One series of paintings that has won Smith critical acclaim is his series dealing with slavery. Pieces like “Runaway” received heavy praise and were among several of his works included in exhibitions at the New York Historical Society and written about by the New York Times. The series integrates Smith’s signature mixture of historical photos and worn, antique painting aesthetic with slave ads found in newspapers of the 19th century, one of the other things he began collecting along with photos. “The man that’s in the ad isn’t the man that’s in the painting,” Smith explains. “But those are actual ads. That comes from me and a lot of people not knowing that they ran those ads in the paper.”
While his work simultaneously celebrates and criticizes the Old South, Smith is adamant that he is not trying to attack anyone, just to present a different take on the body of Americana that has forgotten the America that he knew growing up. “It’s nothing against anyone else,” he says. “I’m just wondering, if as a kid, I saw more positive [imagery] of blacks, would that have re-routed me from doing the negative stuff that I’ve done? I’m wondering if we had more positive role models or examples, would we all be different than what we are today?” While he doesn’t elaborate on what he might have done differently, the art world should be glad that he has become who he has, because the unique vision within his work captures something essentially Southern, while also attempting to address one of its biggest mistakes.