For local painter Dana Smith, art and music have always been intertwined. He can he found in the dark corners of music venues, his face obscured by a large lens, capturing live shots of local bands that he'll later use as a guide for his paintings. The sounds, sights and people of St. Louis are his muse -- Smith finds constant inspiration in the friends, music and buildings that surround him. And though he is, in all respects, a guy who prefers to stay behind the camera, his soft-spoken exterior masks a prolific artistic dynamo.
Smith spent his teen years traveling the country as a sponsored skateboarder. It was during some adventures on the West Coast that he first encountered designers who did graphics for skate companies, artists and photographers. He explains, "I was always interested in art but never knew how to approach it. But on those trips, I met people who would just do it."
Even though he didn't have any training or any idea what he was doing, one day when he was about eighteen years old he just started painting. Around this same time Smith began many years a musician the South City music scene, playing in the Wormwood Scrubs, the Baysayboos, Asbestos Sister and Cloister. He found ripe subject material in the bands he frequently watched and shared stages with, and eventually decided to concentrate his efforts on painting the local musicians that he felt compelled to celebrate.
Over time, this hobby turned into his passion. He now paints for hours nearly every day, sometimes working on three paintings simultaneously. Smith's love for the music is clearly infused into his alive, vibrant canvases. There's something about the way that he presents light and movement that allows his paintings radiate energy. He captures not just big rock scenes, but the smaller moments, too -- giving the observer the feeling of actually being at the show. This unique quality has put Smith's work in high demand. In addition to filling requests from individual patrons, Smith has also been commissioned by local businesses, including the Royale on South Kingshighway and the Old Rock House, where he works as a sort-of artist-in-residence, painting many of the national touring acts that have played the venue.
Smith's talents have been tapped for other music-related projects, as well. He's illustrated show flyers for friends' bands (including Gringo Star), provided artwork for Vintage Vinyl's Record Store Day compilation release, had pieces featured on the music website Daytrotter.com and his painting of Bunnygrunt was used by the band as the cover of its last full length album.
His enthusiasm for capturing local underground bands has resulted in an unexpected consequence: Smith has become an accidental custodian of both the current and past south side scene. Over the years he's produced paintings of many of the big names that rule the small stages: Mark Early (Glass Teeth), Darin Gray (Dazzling Killmen, Grand Ulena), Dottie Georges (.e), Jerry Green (Potomac Accord), Eric Hall, Fred Friction, JJ Hamon (Magic City), Jason Hutto (Phonocaptors, Warm Jets USA), James Weber Jr. (Julia Sets), Tim Rakel (Bad Folk, Union Electric), Tony Renner, Steve Scariano (Finn's Motel) and Mark Stephens (Highway Matrons, Accelerando).
Smith's documenting skills also extend to the venues and spaces that housed these performances. Places like the Duck Room, the Firebird, Frederick's Music Lounge, the Hi-Pointe, Lemmon's, Mad Art Gallery, Mississippi Nights, Penny Studios, Radio Cherokee, the Schlafly Tap Room, the Sheldon Ballroom, the Typo Cafe, the Way Out Club and White Flag are all represented in his paintings and illustrations. Details like the diamond-shaped wood wall design at Off Broadway (now hidden behind the red curtain) and the neon beer signs at CBGB fill the background of his pieces, offering familiar clues to the location of the performance and adding extra depth and detail to Smith's paintings.
Smith's first proper retrospective of his work with local bands is being held this month at Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts on Cherokee Street. The show is called Southtown Famous (a nod to the Bunnygrunt song of the same name) and it will display about 40 pieces of Smith's work throughout the years. The opening is this Saturday, with music supplied for the evening by .e, of course. The show runs though February 4th, and Fort Gondo is open every Saturday afternoon. Read our interview with the artist on the next page and then go check out some paintings of your St. Louis musical heroes and neighbors.
Jaime Lees: Tell me about your upcoming show.
Dana Smith: Well, it's gonna be a collection of paintings from the last seven or eight years. In 2003 or 2004 I had the idea that I was just going to start focusing on St. Louis businesses and people. So most of the people are musicians because that's what I'm interested in. The idea for this show was to pull all of these paintings together because they've never all been shown together.
How do you choose who you are going to paint?
I don't know... That's an interesting question. I guess it has to do with how they play or what they play and if I have an interest in it. Because I am kind of picky sometimes, but I don't know why. A lot of times I'll just have a camera with me, and I won't plan on taking any photos or anything. And then something will just hit me and I think, "I have to photograph that."
But for me, It's very important that when I do my own paintings that I work from my own photograph. I know I could just pick anything off of the net, but I went to the show. I stood there all night. I sang along. I was right there. And then the photo that I got was my photo. And no one else got that image or that angle or whatever; it's all me. I go there and I stand there and I wait and I soak up the atmosphere. And all of that goes into it when you're painting because you experienced it.
Did you ever want to paint somebody specific but couldn't get the right picture?
Yes! There are a few people who I want to photograph but the circumstances haven't worked out or I haven't put myself in the position to get the photo or anything. I want to do one of Jeff Robtoy. And Chris Powers. And I'd like to get a good one of Jim Utz DJing or something. When I was a kid going to Mississippi Nights I'd see him all the time. And I'd be like "Who is that guy? He's so cool!"
Is it important to you that you always paint live shots? Most of your paintings are from the audience's point of view, instead of being backstage with somebody sitting down and you take their photo and then paint it.
Well, yeah, if I had that access then I'd love to do stuff like that, too. And sometimes I do. There's a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes and I'll snap a photo of that. But I don't want anything posed. It would feel fake. I don't want them to know the photo is being taken. I try hang out in the back and try to be inconspicuous.
That's how it is in the Phonocaptors painting that you are using for promotion, right? They weren't playing in that shot.
Yeah, that was the idea. That photo is from 2003 or something, and I didn't paint it until two years later. Those are the kind of scenes that I was really into capturing. In that painting they're setting up. And the guy off to the left is Steve Pick and the woman in the middle is Karen [Ried]. But they didn't know I was taking the photo. They're just hanging out and talking and setting up and [Jason] Hutto is walking around with a cigarette and getting ready and everything. And I thought that captured perfectly what it's like to be at CBGB when they're about to play.
So how has your painting style changed over the years?
I used to do a lot of older paintings just out of my imagination. Just make stuff up, you know? And I liked it but now I prefer to paint from something. It could be a live thing or a photograph. My style is still very rudimentary. Very simple, very rough. But I like to get all the little details in there and make it so that you can recognize that it's Lemmon's or the Royale or whatever. And so I pay more attention to details now.
Who buys the paintings? I know bands want to buy their own a lot -- does that happen all of the time?
No, and I don't do the paintings thinking that the band will buy it. It just depends. Sometimes I'll sell a painting and it will be someone specific in it and I'll ask, "Oh, do you know the person in the painting?" and the buyer will say "No, I just like it." And that's really cool when that happens.
Do you explain to them who is in the painting?
Well, I used to because it, like, meant a lot to me. [laughs] I'd explain who it was and what bands they'd been in. But I realized after I did that a couple of times that the buyer usually doesn't care. [laughs] So I don't really do that anymore unless they ask.
Why are you inspired to paint locals?
When I started out every night I'd be somewhere -- at a show or hanging out at a recording session or whatever. This was eight or nine years ago. And there would be awesome stuff going on musically. But it was like "No one is going to know about it." You'd think, "Who cares what happened nine years ago on a Tuesday night at Frederick's Music Lounge?" But, like, I cared. Eric Hall would do a show. And I would think "Eric Hall is fucking great. People should know who he is." And now he's getting recognition and stuff, but that was kind of the idea back then.
These people that I would hang out with and see perform were doing great stuff. But there was no audience. There was no one there. They weren't making a living at it or anything. So the idea was to somehow capture this. And sure, you could take a photograph or whatever. And I like photographs, but when you paint it is like you have to spend time painting the nose and getting the light right...
And I love painting pro bands, but at the same time I still want to do local artists and buildings and scenery in St. Louis and paint that and if someone is interested in it, that's great. But I'm still going to do it. Because the way that you feel when you paint... Well, you paint...
It's just a great feeling! And it's the only thing I know that gives me that feeling.