Painting the moment

Theoplis Smith gives voice to his subjects

Theoplis Smith, photography by Neal Bruns

Theoplis Smith, photography by Neal Bruns

Theoplis Smith is not a guy who gets stuck on one thing. Well, that’s not entirely true. He got stuck on art as a 3-year-old child, and it’s stuck with him ever since.

Now 32, Smith has been creating art in a variety of media ever since. And he’s making art in a much bigger way recently.

Those unfamiliar with Smith’s work or his “pop-up” art gallery dubbed Phresh Laundry (more on that in a minute) should drive south on Fairfield Avenue, to the former Casa D’Angelo restaurant turned art gallery, Wunderkammer Co. There, on the north-facing outside wall, is a mural of a bird. But not just a regular bird. No, this bird is a commentary on the working world, and the viewer should wonder just who is the bird and who is the worm. Smith was commissioned by Wunderkammer director Dan Swartz, who has been a champion of Smith’s work.

“I met Theo during the opening of Wunderkammer Company in December of 2012,” Swartz said. “We began to discuss art, what all we wanted to achieve through it and became friends pretty quickly. In February of 2013, Theo produced his iconic black history portrait series, and I knew that we had to exhibit this work. In the meantime, I tried to place him in as many group shows as possible to build his presence in the community beyond his already huge support system of friends and fans.”

Last November, Smith produced a portrait of Malcolm X on the Wunderkammer building, during the beginning of Swartz’s exterior mural project. This spring, he added the vibrant bird portion.

Smith’s exhibit, “Can You Space Change” opened to “widespread celebration” and was one of Wunderkammer’s best-attended opening nights so far, Swartz noted.

Smith, a Saint Louis native who moved to Fort Wayne in the mid-1990s and graduated from South Side High School in 2000, received his bachelor’s degree in marketing from Taylor University. He is a “south-sider” through and through, he said. He and his soon-to-be wife Dawn Brooks and their son T.J. live south, and he works as a manager at the WalMart at Southtown Centre.

Beginning with crayons as a 3-year-old (he says he still has his very first drawing), Smith said he began working as a professional airbrush artist at age 13, and by 16 was manning an airbrush kiosk at Glenbrook Square mall.

“I really took it seriously,” Smith said. “I had clients!”

Smith is largely self-taught, save for a memorable art teacher at South Side, Jenny Sanders. He recalled putting a portfolio together for her and marveling that he would receive a grade for something he did for fun. He said he draws or paints nearly every day, saving up his break times from work to create.

His art is reminiscent of some of his favorite artists: the New York multimedia artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the graffiti artist Banksey and painters Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso. Bright colors. Short, almost stabby, lines of color. He works in oils, acrylics, spray paint, even digital. He does small works and murals, portraits and abstracts.

“My goal is to be fluent in everything, even if just for an experience,” Smith said. “I get my inspiration from the things that happen in my life, the people in my life, other artists, music. Ambiance, that’s what I capture.

“I’m a filter.”

Smith said his need to create builds up inside him and when he paints, it’s all about the moment and he uses whatever material he has on hand. He wants to capture the authentic “voice” of his subjects, be they birds or people or an idea. He had his first solo show at Wunderkammer in March, and, he said, “people started noticing” his work. Sales shot up, to the point that his Aug. 30 wedding is fully paid for.

That said, he wishes that people in Fort Wayne would realize the level of artistic talent available right here in Northeast Indiana. The support for local artists “needs to be louder,” he said.

“Some people (see) art as a luxury, but this is our livelihood, this is our voice, this is our being, this is our life,” he said.

“It’s unappreciated. We have many great artists,” he added, noting that in larger cities, it’s not unusual to have people gathering for an art opening on a Tuesday or any other day of the week. To that end, he worked with ARCH, the historic preservation group, to host a “pop-up” art gallery at the former Canton Laundry storefront on Broadway in May, under his moniker, Phresh Laundry, where he created works in front of attendees, painting “live.” Another pop-up event was held at Anchor Films in late June.

Phresh Laundry, that seemingly bright name, actually came from a dark place and time Smith experienced. He was depressed, down about life, feeling as though he didn’t know his “identity.” He was washing some dirty laundry when he found a Bible and began reading. It created in him, as he recalls, a “clean heart.” He knew that he needed to create, to talk with God while he’s in the midst of painting. And hanging a completed painting is like hanging clean laundry: it’s finished, fresh and beautiful. Hence, Phresh Laundry.

“I needed to be part of my own rescue,” he said. And he realized that the artistic process, not the finished product, is where he finds joy.

“The process, that’s where your foundation lies,” he said. “From the sketching to the layers, it’s really rich and it’s really valuable. I don’t even know how I get there. I’m just in my own realm. … It’s beautiful. You fall into a trance, (like) a quiet, serene dance.”

But sometimes, that process, that immersion in the moment, can mean Smith is never satisfied with the final product.

“I’m either never done, or I don’t like it,” he admitted. “I want to see (the painting) in the truest form as I see it in my head, but … I go so fast it’s just an image,” he said. “I’m trying to learn patience.”

He said today’s young people are a “microwave” generation – always wanting the fastest result instead of enjoying the process it takes to get there.

“We need to pay attention to the little things. That’s where our treasures are,” he said. “It’s really rich, and it’s really valuable.”

Each work he creates contains a message, either obvious in the form of words or subtle, in the form of the image itself. For his bird mural on Wunderkammer Co.’s wall, the message is “the early bird gets the worm,” and the business-suited bird, indeed, is after the worm, which squirms out of the bird’s coffee cup. Spray-painted on the wall, the bird disappears on close inspection into a series of neon pastel strokes. Next to the bird is Smith’s portrait of Malcolm X, emerging in brown and black and gray and white stripes. He wants to cover the entire Wunderkammer wall with message pictures, taking “whatever is happening in the moment” and incorporating it into the painting.

“I’m planting seeds, messages of hope, positivity, wisdom,” Smith said.

First appeared in the August 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.

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