20-year-old artist Rashard Smith is making waves in the creative community
Story by Brent Owen
Photos by Kathryn Harrington
It’s a warm, late spring morning and artist Rashard Smith is walking the second floor of Morrison Hall. The South Fourth Street building sits on the Spalding University campus where Rashard is a sophomore. The hall was once a student dormitory but is now a designated studio space for the university’s art students. Through open doors along the hallway, you can peek into each studio and see young artists hard at work. In one room, photo proofs are taped to a wall. In others, a sheet covers an eerie kind of sculpture that appears to have outstretched arms or an easel holding a blank canvas, calmly waiting on an artist’s hand to bring it to life.
Toward the end of the hallway, the 20-year-old turns in to his studio to compile the pieces that will comprise his first solo gallery show. Rashard’s work will be on display at Avenue E, 536 S. Fourth St., during the month of June. He will kick the month-long show off with an artist reception 6 to 9 p.m. June 1. There will be appetizers and beverages provided at the reception, and Rashard will be on hand to discuss his work.
Inside, his studio is packed. The walls are covered and piles of finished and unfinished work lay everywhere. The sheer number of pieces in his studio would be impressive for an artist twice his age. His subject matter ranges from traditional (nude portraits or still life) to kitchy (several brightly colored variations on an ape that seemingly ponders life) to abstracts (in which he uses “lots of color to trick viewers’ eyes”) and even some original cartoon characters with bright neon skin (none of which he has names for yet).
Rashard’s choice in medium is as erratic as his choices in subject matter. He says he has been utilizing more traditional techniques – like charcoal, pencils and acrylics – lately. But he’s using them on any surface he can get his hands on: canvas, paper, cardboard, scrap wood, an old door, garden lattice or skateboard decks. It doesn’t matter to Rashard; he will make art with whatever you put in front of him. There’s even a black and white nude portrait that hangs on the wall. He fashioned it in the style of a mosaic by haphazardly tearing up scraps of paper, each painted a slightly different shade of gray. There is no other way to describe his versatile work than breathtakingly original.
Rashard was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father’s work moved the family around quite a bit – from Ohio to Atlanta to Alabama – before they settled in Louisville about five years ago. He attended and graduated from South Oldham High School.
Growing up, Rashard doesn’t recall his parents being overly artistic, with the exception of his mother dabbling in ceramics. “There was always a sketchbook in my hand,” he said. “I was always drawing just to draw.” By the time he was six years old, his art became less a hobby and more a form of therapy when he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Professionals encouraged him to continue with his artwork because drawing has been known to help kids overcome the challenging disorder. Learning this only increased Rashard’s enthusiasm for art, and he began drawing more than ever.
He would often stay home with his sketch pad, recreating his favorite superheroes like Green Lantern, Spiderman or Luke Cage. He even tried to create a few superheroes of his own.
“Dyslexia made it hard to express myself with words the same way other kids could,” said Rashard. “Art really allowed me express myself in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.” The professionals were correct. Over time, he developed good hand-eye coordination, which helped him to better focus – even when he wasn’t drawing – and this helped him overcome his dyslexia.
It’s a struggle he hasn’t forgotten. He’s not even old enough to drink and Rashard already aims to be an example to the next generation of young artists.
“I’m dyslexic,” he said. “I would love to give my art to children who also struggle with it to show them that they can be something. Hopefully they can look up to me and know that they can overcome it.”
The inclination to help the next generation was planted by other artists who have supported his budding career, including Lynn Dunbar, with whom he completed an internship, and Charles Rice, the artist-in-residence at Avenue E. “He is a really talented artist,” Rashard said of Rice. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little intimidated but also very honored to be able to put my work in the same place he is showing his.”
Rice speaks of Rashard with equal admiration: “(Rashard’s) work is refreshing! (I’m) excited about watching his body of work expand.”
Rice isn’t the only established artist to have mutual respect for the young talent. Rashard cites the influence of artists like David Choe, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Synthia Saint James. He’s even developed a personal connection with Saint James since he showed her his work when she visited Kentucky State University in 2016. Saint James is a world-renowned artist based out of California. She designed the first Kwanzaa stamp the United States Postal Service ever issued. Her work has been published in countless books and shown in galleries all over the world. She even did the original cover art for Terry McMillan’s bestselling novel “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”
Rashard and Saint James kept in touch after that first meeting. She returned to Kentucky State University last year as artist-in-residence, and Rashard participated in her master’s class. “It’s almost like she mentored me,” said Rashard. “She taught me so many things when it comes to not just my art but art in general.”
The admiration was mutual. Saint James said of her former student via email: “Rashard Smith is an innately gifted visual artist destined to make his mark in the world of art.” He also inspired her own work. Using a picture she had taken of Rashard (with his permission, of course), she incorporated his image into a commissioned painting for the National Association of African American Honors Programs (NAAAHP.org). The painting is called “Honors Mindset.”
At 20 years old, Rashard has talent, ambition and the admiration of peers and elders alike. One has to wonder what comes next for such an individual. He says one of his goals is to shine a light on other African-American artists. “Growing up, you hear so much about European artists and so little about African-American ones,” he said. “Those European artists have great work, don’t get me wrong. But there is so much beauty in the African-American experience, as well. I want people to see that, too.”
Beyond that, he’s a little uncertain as to what will happen after graduation (he’s majoring in studio art and sculpture). “I get that it’s a tough industry and I might have to work side jobs,” said Rashard. Regardless, he’s certain his path won’t stray too far from the art world. “I just love being around art,” he said. “I don’t know anything but art. I’ve been doing it so long it’s a part of who I am.” VT
RASHARD SMITH SHOWCASE
536 S. Fourth St.
Reception: 6 to 9 p.m. June 1
Food and drinks provided