Leavin’ Cleveland: An Exit Interview with Steven B. Smith

By Mark S. Kuhar
July 2006
(hopefully to be published in Art-e-fakt)

How do you begin to calculate the contribution that Steven B. Smith has made to artistic culture of Cleveland over the years? Equal parts artist, poet, publisher, eccentric, gadfly, lightning rod, underground cultural icon, Smith is all of that and more.

Smith, now 60 years old, has served his country on the high seas (and was kicked out of the Naval Academy for smoking dope), worked as an insurance salesman, a computer programmer, a steelworker and a church janitor, among other things. He has been married and divorced, suffered through the tragic suicide of his brother, been a jailbird and a cancer survivor.

And through it all, he has managed to both keep his humanity intact, and his creativity well engaged. With thousands of paintings, collages and poems to his credit, he has been a prolific contributor to the fabric of Cleveland’s artistic culture.

The death of his mother last year, and his recent marriage to poet Lady Walker, brought him to a place where “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” He decided to take the one that leads out of Cleveland. After more than 20 years, he and Lady sold most of their belongings, moved out of Smith’s Tremont loft condo and are heading overseas for adventure, and to escape what he calls, “an oppressive political climate.”

I conducted the following “exit interview” with him as he was finalizing preparations to leave.

MSK: You're leaving Cleveland after more than 20 years of service to the arts community. What is your artistic legacy? Where does your work fit in?

SBS: A three-pronged legacy, rather like the devil's pitch fork.

1 - I've made some folk laugh, a few more smile. My life hints of ways to live outside of accepted sheep in safety pen. Just cuz it is, don't mean it has to be. You CAN go your own way, be honest, and still make it. You pay for the consequences of what you do, so you may as well do your own thinking, make your own decisions. Though I find that by doing this, you usually end up fighting accepted authority every inch of the day.

2 - I started ArtCrimes here in Cleveland in 1986 and it ended here 20 years and 21 issues later (last month).

3 - There've been 40-some articles/reviews/blurbs about my art/poetry/ArtCrimes/criminal-past since my first one-person show at Spaces in 1984. I've had two art shows censored - once in Willoughby and once by Tri-C Parma. So I've given them something to bemoan or bemuse my 29 years here... I've left little art tracks.

Where does my work fit in? I'd say the top shelf in the best museum in the world ... or the wall of a friend's house ... or in an outhouse out back. Even put some in the trash recently. I'm Outsider Art with wit, style with grace. Belong to no school, thought, pattern, clique, scene, philosophy. Can't evaluate any of it until 50 years after I die, and I ain't dying, so we'll never know for sure. I'm willing to let my words and art be judged by time, tho.

MSK: How did the city of Cleveland and its inhabitants inspire and inform your art work, either positively or negatively?

SBS: The people--Cleveland has great artists, great poets, great small press publishers--and small-minded small-souled politicians, press and chief executive officers. The art scene is tame and conservative. The press ignores the underground. I've only been mentioned so often because of my bad-boy-ness.

MSK: How did you develop and evolve your unique artistic style? Whose work served as a role model?

SBS: Started doing my art before I knew it was art. As a plebe in the U. S. Naval Academy in 1965, I began cutting out word phrases and taping them together into sardonic anti-religious god word collages with deep streaks of dark dark humor. On my 3rd collage I added an image of an old skeleton key - then found a real key same size & shape and glued it on top. It really tickled the poet me putting this real key over symbol key. The heck with Magritte - this both IS and ISN'T a pipe. Iced my existential cake with real frosting. Since then, forget it. Anything goes. Dead things, broken things, old things, beautiful things, sad things, cheap tawdry no one for a friend but me things (seems to be a lot of those), even no things. Go to sleep around me at right time, you might wake up part wall sculpture.

After I started doing this on my own, I eventually started reading and found first Robert Rauschenburg, Kurt Schwitters, Man Ray, my hero Marcel Duchamp - and finally soul mate Edward Kienholtz. Less mentors, more reassurers my path a valid one they broke.

And broke pretty much is what art has left me - money-wise, that is, cuz life-wise mind-wise heart-wise friend-wise and just for plain old adventure, art and poetry have been very very good to me.

MSK: How did your family situation growing up and into adulthood contribute to your art?

SBS: Fine art and poetry were not part of my family life - movies, music, television and reading were. Early reading and lots of it pretty much shaped my life, kept me going. Gave me the desire to be a good-guy hero. My father was a stone mason, and my mother sewed quilts, clothes, and had a ceramics shop, so creativity was always around. One day in the mid-1950s, my father was telling mom how weird a customer's copper sculpture was on a fireplace he'd just built, and then he turned, looked down at me, and said "you'd like it" (not complimentarily).

MSK: You've lived more than your share of tragedy, with death, jail, cancer and more in your background, yet you have channeled that into untold creativity. To what do you attribute your survival and accomplishment?

SBS: I just believe things are going to turn out good - and if not, well, that's the price, that's the way things go. I'm a cynic from experience but an eternal optimist by nature. Laughter makes pain manageable.

As for my creative output - it's not something I do so much as something that happens. My minds like to play. Reality likes to play. Sometimes interesting intersections happen and leave a poem, piece or story behind I claim as mine.

MSK: Looking back at over 20 years of ArtCrimes, how do you view that body of literature?

SBS: ArtCrimes has published over 500 folk, mostly Clevelanders and Ohioans, has helped create a small world presence for Cleveland via contributors from a slew of nations - there are 4 British, 1 Netherlander, 1 Japanese in this last issue that I know about. ArtCrimes never rejected anyone - no matter how lacking in talent or horrendous in belief - and was the first to publish a bunch of folk - such as Michael Salinger. As a body of work, it is greatly uneven, often raw. Usually anti-authority. Underground. But there's a slew of top shelf art, thot and poetry in each issue. Just because we accepted the worst didn't mean the best didn't deliver. ArtCrimes was Daniel Thompson's biggest publisher from 1986 thru 2004 using 100 of his poems. Bottom line - a lot of folk would never be published without ArtCrimes - and a lot of published folk would never have gotten their grittier, nastier pieces published otherwise.

MSK: You've seen your share of poets and artists come and go over the years. Who do you miss the most?

SBS: Nationally I miss John Lennon. Only time I ever cried for a celebrity death. Lennon could be my avatar creatively, drug-wise, politically. Locally Daniel =Thompson's passing has left a major hole which I see no one filling. Think you need a bit of the ever hopeful hippie to do what Daniel did - he could convince all sorts of cross-cultural cross-generational cross-political cross-social cross-racial cross-religious folk to get-together-by-golly-and-do-something. Art-wise, I don't believe we've lost any Clevelanders that matter.

MSK: You've spoken -- eloquently and passionately, I might add -- about political repression in the United States. Talk about the role of the current political climate in your art and your life.

SBS: Kurt Vonnegut said The only difference between Bush and Hitler is Hitler was elected." Bush stole the elections twice, then killed several hundred thousand Iraqi women and children in our name. Spies on Americans, trashes the Constitution, refuses to obey our laws. He's a perfect president for Corp-O- Rat Amerika. Seems when they taught us not to steal, cheat, kill, or lie, it didn't apply to rich white Republicans or rich white Democrats or rich white CEOs. This country never really stood for all the fairness we were taught it did in High School Ethics class, but she's never before ever been this much of a bullying greedy do-anything-for-oil murdering psycho-slut. I'm voting by being and leaving.

MSK: Tell me again how you met Lady, I love that story. How has she enriched your life and art?

SBS: After Mother Dwarf died, I wrote 9 short pieces on her death. Some of the best writing I've ever done, and since we all have a mother, it affected people. You gave me a chance to read it down at your Borders Deep Cleveland reading. Lady asked for a ride down, and never left. I tried to discourage her due to our 27 year age difference - but finally saw we had to be. I wrote this poem to her our second week:

Dada Graybeard - A lady poet followed me home / And asked if I could keep her / I replied / It must be denied / For I had no room in my freezer / She engineered her stay / Of relocation with play / Charm and elocution / Praised this and that / Allowed a wee pat / Counted on evolution / I may be cheap / And easy too / But for female I’m hard-wired / And too / It’s sort of cool / This once being the one that’s desired / Though I question her taste / Her need of rat’s waste / A too hasty fade / Will shatter shades / I cannot replace / Best to see / What she reweaves / What treasure in her trundle / Though it fracture my plan / I am but man / And man is meant to bundle

I'd known her a couple years from our poetry circles. Our first week, she left a dish of bright red moist pomegranate seeds on wet yellow orange mango slices in my refrigerator - looked like a love-potion spell so I threw it out. Didn't do me any good - I fell anyway.

She moved in 3 weeks later. In our 5th week we were heading to K-Mart to get some shelves to integrate her into my environment when I said "You know after ArtCrimes comes out, I have no plans... we can do anything we want." She said "How about moving to Europe?" I replied "Why Not." So in 3 minutes we decided to emigrate - without knowing exactly where we were going. We've been together 11 months, married 4 months, and we're leaving for Europe in 3 days.

She's taken my life up several levels. We have one of those fairy tale movie loves that everyone knows doesn't really exist in the real world - yet does. We collaborate on writing, art, everything. My creative output has probably doubled. We're very much alike - I figure she's probably my long lost missing clone come back to take my place.

MSK: Do you have any advice for today's emerging crop of Cleveland-based artists and poets?

SBS: Do your own thing. Don't join committees. Or groups. (I was a group of one, and I found that to be one too many... now tho I'm a group of two with Lady, and I find that to be just right - go figure). There's no need to emulate. Or follow formulas. Do what interests you because no one's going to pay you for it anyway so you may as well enjoy doing it.

MSK: Smith, for all we know, you may never come back to Cleveland. You may live out the rest of your life in a poet's garret overseas. If you never return, how do you want to be remembered here in Cleveland?

SBS: As a life object lesson. I have done bad stupid selfish things along the way, but I always wanted to be a good person. I never let any particular failure define me. I always assumed I would get better than I was, and I did. Not perfect. Not even really really good. But definitely better. Beyond that, they can tell any lies about me they want. Just spell my name right.

Mark S. Kuhar is a Cleveland-based writer, artist, poet and publisher. He is the proprietor of Deep Cleveland, llc, DeepCleveland.com. You can follow Steven B. Smith and Lady’s European adventures on their blog: www.WalkingThinIce.com. Their art and poetry may be seen at www.AgentOfChaos.com and www.TheCityPoetry.com.

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