Sometimes you meet someone in one context and then rediscover them in a different one and it’s almost as if the Heaven’s part and light shines down on them. I met Dwight Smith through his impeccable volunteer work with the Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra, which goes to show how deeply he cares about his chosen community of Fayetteville, since his hometown is Detroit. But in researching and talking with him about his painting, teaching at Fayetteville State University, and curation for Ellington-White Contemporary Art Gallery, it became much clearer why Smith is such a Guiding Light for his students, his audience, and all of us lucky enough to be blessed by his art and his wisdom.
What does success mean to you? “I’m the kind of person that always makes a plan. I always tell my students that you’ll never be successful if you don’t have a plan and then you implement those plans. And once complete that plan, that’s success. Then I make another plan for myself. I think that in making those plans, I’m moderately successful because I simply have enjoyed all the things that have happened to me in this creative journey.” Smith has traveled the world thanks to his art–trips to France, Senegal, Surinam, and China are especially memorable–and been able to meet and work with many of the artists he admires.
“I think I have a relatively successful career in life and I think it will just get even better. You never, never stop. You just keep working. You keep planning, you keep setting goals and you keep implementing and trying to make things happen that you want to see happen. Sometimes you have to do it for yourself. And sometimes there are other people who will see that you’re moving in a positive direction and they will help you do the kinds of things that you want to do.”
How have you constructed the bridges of your career? A successful career in Detroit, a myriad of solo or group shows, a well-respected gallery, an assistant professor-ship, even being a guest at a White House reception to honor ten Black American Art Masters: are some of the high points of Smith’s career. He jokes, “I never thought that my artworks would be in some of the collections that they’re in, so I’m very humbled about that, and I’m just very surprised. I’ll be honest: I’m surprised. Wait, how did I get here?”
“When you make a plan, you have to also say, okay, what do I need to accomplish to get to this goal, achieve the success. Sometimes those successes come to you because you’ve already done the preparation and you can then handle whatever comes. I belong to an organization called the National Conference of Artists, which is a national African-American art organization that I’m trying to get a chapter started here in North Carolina, and working with them and doing conferences and projects and planning, I have met so many artists, the people that I read about in books: David Driscoll, Elizabeth Catlett, Richmond Barthe, Samella Lewis, all these artists that we all look up to, I’ve met them all, sat down and had conversations with them. So it’s being prepared and being the kind of person that you understand your craft or learning about your craft, developing your craft, and you’re open to experiencing and receiving the information from those artists you look up to.”
Who is in your artistic cohort?
Smith looked up to and learned from several mentors, other artists who “when they see you in a crowd, they point to you and say, hey, how are you doing, what’s going on and catching up. Sometimes you may not see them for a year, and then you’ve not lost the beat when you see them again.” Black art history legend Shirley Woodson Reid who was just named the 2021 Kresge Eminent Artist. Jon Onye Lockard, who Smith said was “the kind of mentor that would tell you “That’s really good. Or Dwight don’t tell that to anybody else anymore.” Jon was very special to me.” Willis Bing Davis in Dayton, Ohio. Dr. David Driscoll, who passed away in 2020. Then there are artists he still wants to meet, like Mark Bradford, “who is just phenomenal in his abstraction and the work that he’s doing. So I have those people that I really like and have those people that I’d like to meet. Hopefully the universe will take me in that direction.”
Smith curated an exhibition currently at the Arts Council and at Ellington-White Contemporary Art Gallery called Roots of Change, featuring 60 works by twenty-nine artists from a group he’s a member of called the National Alliance of Artists from HBCUs. “My ability to be able to create this exhibition with all of those wonderful artists is about being involved in these organizations. Becoming an associate professor at Fayetteville State University opened up avenues to these other historically black colleges and universities to continue to build my career and to help them build their careers. I am the kind of person where I will build you up while I’m building me up too. I never liked to do anything by myself. I like to take a group.”
What change do you seek to make with your art, and how has that changed over time, if it has? “Well, when I started out, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I just had the desire to make art. While I was at Wayne State University, it was steeped in German Abstract Expressionism, very popular at that time period. I really liked the abstract, because that’s a broad term that allows me to do a lot of different things, spread my wings a lot of different ways and use a lot of different materials.” Besides painting, Smith does drawings, collage, and has even worked in bronze casting. “Over the years, my work has developed into being work that deals with families, celebrations of artists, the whole sense of being a black male in America, a black artist in America.”
As a teacher, both at University and in summer camps and classes, Smith carries specific principles he imparts to his students. “Your voice is what’s important. You need to be the new voice that we hear, that has something to say. You have the artist statements that you will write and those will evolve over time because your work will evolve over time. You may stay in the same lane, but the work becomes mature because you’ve worked out a lot of the technical aspects in it, the ideology, all the information that goes with it. So, I’m always evaluating my work and trying to improve my work and see what’s missing in my work, what holes do I need to fill to keep me being excited about making art. Although there are times that as an artist, that sometime you just have to make art, your brain will go: If I don’t get into the studio, I’m going to explode. You have to get to that studio and you have to work. It’s just who you are.”