By Jon W. Sparks, Commercial Appeal
April 17, 2011

Dolph Smith has been celebrated for his art and his teaching for so long that he could be forgiven for being blasé about his latest achievement.

But that’s not the way he is.

Last week, he received Tennessee’s highest honor in the arts, the 2011 Governor’s Arts Award in the Distinguished Artist Award category.

Smith, 77, is thrilled to add this to his many honors, but he’s as wryly self-deprecating about it as ever: “Some kind people wrote letters,” he said, “and somebody must’ve believed them — they fooled somebody.”

But his legions of fans and friends would say “pshaw” to that. There is much about this gentle but persistent man that stirs the soul, whether in his art or his words or his approach to creativity or his connection with people.

Smith was nominated by state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, both having worked together on the board of the National Ornamental Metal Museum.

“He’s had a subtle but significant impact on the culture of our community,” Norris said. “He is quintessentially West Tennessee, strong yet understated like his work ‘Confluence’ at the Cannon Center.”

That arresting steel and copper work runs along the mezzanine of the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts Downtown. The ribbonlike work flows like the river it represents for 120 feet, combined with a poem by Kay Lindsey to evoke movement and passages.

“There is a tension in his work — sculptures, paintings, books — that evokes what I often feel in the fabric of life in West Tennessee,” Norris said. “His works are interwoven with who and what we are — the coexistence of illusion with reality.”

Smith’s flights of fancy have lured many admirers. His fantasyland is Tennarkippi, a peaceful place with a witty air force made up of unusual aircraft — some of which take their form from rural structures. As Smith has described it: “I have always seen the Southern barn with its Falcon head hayloft and lean-to wings as capable of lifting up in a good wind and sailing away.” His view of the Mid-South on a different plane is seen time and again in his constructions and elegant handmade books using all manner of materials, from wood to rubber stamps, acrylic to handmade paper.

Speaking from his Ripley, Tenn., studio — which he calls Tennarkippi Fields — Smith recalled how he got into the art world. In the mid-1950s, his mother signed him up at the then-Memphis Academy of Art at the old James Lee House. There he met another student, Veda Reed, who would, like Smith, become a teacher there for many years. “My first class was with Burton Callicott, and he became a teacher then a mentor, and we taught together at the college and became really good friends.” Smith marveled that the masterful Callicott never stopped being a student. Decades after they met, Callicott came to Smith’s class one time to work out how to restore an old book. “He was the first student in that day, and he had his beret and portfolio with his T-square sticking out and the beat-up book — and he was a student.”

Callicott certainly influenced Smith, and Smith has passed on his knowledge to generations of art students. “I think you would find a large number of alumni who would attribute the greatest contribution to their education to Dolph,” said Remy Miller, longtime professor at Memphis College of Art and dean of academic affairs. To Miller, Smith has something that goes beyond his excellence as a teacher and an artist. “It is the spirit of his contribution,” Miller said. Smith continued that in his retirement when he established an annual award in his and his wife’s names to recognize a student who exemplifies the spirit of the college. The Jessie and Dolph Smith Emeriti Fellowship is awarded “to a senior who shows promise and dedication in Art and who exemplifies the spirit of the college as demonstrated by the lives and careers of Professors and Directors Emeriti.”

A key turning point in Smith’s career was more than 30 years ago when he found that doing watercolors just wasn’t the way he wanted to roll anymore. He wasn’t fond of doing watercolor, and he didn’t care to teach it. “He re-invented himself as a papermaker,” Miller said, “and our papermaking program grew from his interest. He developed his work and his teaching at the same time, and this personal transformation became a huge deal for the school.” The Flying Vat (studio at the school) became a center for hand papermaking and book arts in the country.

And the books keep coming from his skilled hands and great imagination.

“I make one-of-a-kind books because it can combine a lot of things we are familiar with,” Smith said. “You pick up a book, and you engage it. It was interactive before the Internet came along. You have to feel weight and texture, and you are invited and guided through it.”

Despite his respect for the traditional sense of what a book is, he doesn’t shy from pushing the edges. “I’m developing books with three-dimensional content, and it’s got me real engaged. You know, a book with 40 pages is 40 moving parts.”

He finds as much joyous challenge in the larger projects as well. Carissa Hussong, executive director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum and formerly with the UrbanArt Commission, worked with Smith on several projects, including the Cannon Center’s “Confluence.” “He is a great collaborator, and this work takes a lot of collaboration and faith,” she said. “He was one of the few artists that I trusted with public art. You keep an eye on an artist and if they deliver what they proposed. He kept up with it and took it to the next level — there was incredible trust. I knew ‘Confluence’ would be a masterpiece, and it’s one of my favorites.”

It’s been quite a ride since his first show when he was in college. “It was in a sandwich shop in Downtown Memphis mixed in the menus on the wall,” he said. “There were no galleries, and we did the best we could. It was fun because it was a little school and we knew everybody and we could really connect. The teachers were dedicated, and there were some early pioneers of that school.”

Smith started at the old building and finished his degree in 1960 in the new one in Overton Park. Then he just kept on making history, in Memphis, the Mid-South and Tennarkippi.

And that’s why the governor of Tennessee is making a point of noticing this cultural giant. As Norris said, “Talent like Dolph’s needs to be praised and celebrated. I’m glad we can do that through this award.”

Others honored

Eight individuals and organizations received the the 2011 Governor’s Arts Awards. Besides Dolph Smith, other local recipients were:

The Blues Foundation, which received the Folklife Heritage Award, was formed in 1980 and has 3,500 individual members and 185 affiliated local blues societies representing another 50,000 fans and professionals around the world. Its events include the Blues Music Awards, Blues Hall of Fame, International Blues Challenge and Keeping the Blues Alive Awards.

Orpheum president and CEO Pat Halloran received the Arts Leadership Award. Halloran was cited for his role in the preservation of the Orpheum and for positioning the theater as an economic development partner with Downtown Memphis. He has led the Orpheum for three decades, bringing a variety of theatrical programming to the region.

The other honorees were:

Estelle Condra of Nashville (Distinguished Artist), a professional actor.

Johnny Maddox of Gallatin (Distinguished Artist), ragtime pianist.

Thomas Maupin of Murfreesboro (Folklife Award), a self-taught, traditional buck dancer.

Charles Towler of Cleveland (Folklife Award), a respected figure in the world of Southern gospel convention singing.

W.O. Smith Nashville Community Music School (Arts Leadership) has made affordable, quality music instruction available to children from low-income families.


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