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Theoplis Smith: "Can You Spare Change?"

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


Theoplis Smith, who is also known as "Phresh Laundry," is a primarily self-taught artist whose work comes from an innate need and desire to create. As this writer explored in a previous article last Fall, Smith's practice is incredibly unique both for its skill and its unlikely beginnings. After graduating from Taylor University's Fort Wayne campus, he found himself drawn toward the arts, and has slowly but surely pieced together an original form of painting with certain connections to popular culture forms of representation like comic books and the quick sketches of caricature, paired with the long history of traditional portraiture. Smith has been refining his practice over the last couple years, and has since produced his first full body of work. There are few artists in Fort Wayne's art community that have produced a body of work as focused, with broad appeal, while staying fresh and keeping a varied approach to the formal aspects of their work. Theoplis has done this with his large format paintings of black history icons in his "Can You Spare Change" series, which opens this February.

Produced throughout the month of February, in 2013, "Can You Spare Change" depicts a proverbial "who's who" of political, athletic, religious, and artistic black history icons, the majority having come into importance during the 20th century. This body of work found its genesis in a small, cardboard sign, held by a man in need of help outside of the South side Wal-Mart, where Smith works. Smith took notice, and later thought back to this moment and realized power of this simple phrase. This lead to an exploration of social change, those who made social change, and the power in asking that simple question. Through the creation of a painting each day throughout the month of February, Smith was able to focus on a unique form of change made by each icon, and pare this down into vibrant images of implied lines, wide gestural brushstrokes, and the use of only black and white paint added to pieces of cardboard, making three-color final images.

When Smith began this body of work, he was honestly surprised by the power of the work, which immediately began drawing a huge attention through social media. This response was found universally, from friends and local artists, to people from around the world through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. By then end of the month, Smith’s images being seen by millions of people through the help of rap celebrity Sean "P Diddy" Combs sharing his image of the great Muhammad Ali via Instagram. From this, Smith continued his practice of making smaller pen and ink drawings of contemporary celebrities such as Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, and others. "Can You Spare Change" will also include nearly fifty small drawings of contemporary icons.

Of this series of 28 images, there are a number of images that stand out for both the images' power formally, and the interest of the characters being depicted. Jean Michel Basquiat, Etta James, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are three of which captivate the viewer easily. Jean Michel Basquiat, the superstar visual artist from the streets of 1980's New York City, is in some ways, both a portrait of the person and a self-portrait of the artist. Both Basquiat and Smith are finding themselves entering the art world unsure of certain aspects of it, but with both the confidence and humility to make waves upon entering. Adapted from the famous "boxing" poster that Basquiat and Andy Warhol created for the seminal Tony Shafrazi Gallery exhibition that spawned other strong collaborative work, Smith's inclusion of frenetic brushstrokes and inclusion of the "SAMO" crown to Basquiat's image producing a life-like, empathetic image.

The Archbishop Desmond Tutu has gained celebrity status since the 1980's as well, due to his opposition of the South African government's actions during the Apartheid, being the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, and his broader work in social rights activism since gaining an international voice. Smith's focus on Tutu as both a social and religious leader is important in the overall pop cultural referencing within "Can You Spare Change," but also with the artists' strongly held religious identity, and understanding that religion can make an important impact in the world. Smith's economy of both paint and brushstrokes creating an airy and transitional image. In Smith's image of Etta James', there are a few decided differences, including a filled in whited out background, a character constructed by specific, delineated line work, and a strong play between the negative foreground and positive background of the painting. James, one of the strongest blues, R&B, soul, jazz, rock and roll, and gospel singers in the history of music, is given a more intimate space within "Can You Spare Change". Her image is tranquil, quiet, and regal.

Ultimately, "Can You Spare Change" is a strong body of work built out of a personal endeavor, examining the power of social change, viewed through the images of individuals who pushed for something more in each of their talents and realms of expertise. By looking at ideas this large, this early in his artistic practice, Theoplis Smith is bound to create social change of his own.

For More Information:
Theoplis Smith: "Can You Spare Change"
February 8th-March 9th, 2014
Opening: February 8th, 6-10pm

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