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Famous montage artist speaks about unique career

Laura Baumgartner | Thursday, March 30, 2006

Winston Smith presented selections from years of work as a montage artist to Saint Mary’s College students, professors and community members Wednesday as part of the College’s visiting artist lecture series.

More than 30 years ago, Saint Mary’s art department chair Bill Sandusky lived with Smith in Florence – but the College professor never believed he would be inviting his former schoolmate to host a presentation at his future place of employment.

“I’m really excited,” Sandusky said. “I think this is a great opportunity for the students and the community. [Smith] is really incredible – he’s a person the current generation can identify with.”

A self-proclaimed “art criminal,” Smith creates works by cutting pictures out of vintage magazines and publications with razors and glues them together to form his creations. He is also widely known for the political and social commentary he infuses into his art.

“When I was a kid, I realized I could just pass up the drawings. I realized I didn’t have to learn to draw to be an artist,” Smith said. “I could just rip off other people’s work, cut it up and make it my own. We didn’t have photocopiers back then like I use now, but it was a big relief.”

While Smith has spent years using other people’s work to create his own, he said he was still shocked when he came across a poster that someone had designed using pieces from one of his illustrations.

“When I saw it, I went ‘Oh man, they ripped me off,’ and then I was like, ‘What am I saying?’ But when you get to the point where someone will rip you off, it’s kind of a backhanded compliment,” he said.

Smith is connected to the punk rock movement through the numerous album covers he has created for bands over the years. He is also recognized for illustrations he has created for magazines ranging from “The New Yorker” to “Playboy.”

“I got started in this field because I have no other marketable skills,” Smith said. “I worked as a roadie for bands like Santana and Crosby, Stills and Young in San Francisco for $2 an hour, and I started to create concert posters for local bands when punk rock started to rear its ugly head.”

Smith said his career progressed after he was inspired to invent fake bands and create posters for concerts that were not real. People would show up at vacant lots expecting to hear a band play, he said.

“Part of my career change was [that] I was being an opportunist,” Smith said. “It was my way of trying to get people to cough up money to pay me to make posters for record companies. I would make up stories about bands, and it worked. People would go along with the stories.”

Now, Smith said he works mainly out of a studio in his San Francisco apartment and from his rustic ranch in northern California – where he creates art by the light of kerosene lanterns because the ranch has no electricity or running water.

Smith’s work environment reflects his views about current society. One of the reasons he said he uses vintage pictures to create his work is to comment on politics, consumerism and other social issues.

“A lot of my work is political or social commentary – it’s just my twisted lefty point of view,” Smith said. “There’s all these tiny little things that are added just to see if anyone is paying attention, and some are totally meaningless pictures that can be anything you want.

“Some of the meaning is quite obvious. Some of the meaning is up to the beholder. I don’t even mind if people don’t like [my work] – it’s only a drag when they look at them and say, ‘What’s the meaning of that?’ I’d rather be annoying them.”

Smith told numerous anecdotes throughout the presentation about the meaning behind his pieces, ranging from critiques of the United States’ involvement in wars, to environmental issues such as the harvesting of the redwood trees in California.

Another reason Smith uses vintage clippings is to avoid copyright problems, but he said this limits the variety of images included in his art.

“I tell people creating my work is like going through a New York City phone book looking for a friend where there is no alphabetical order,” Smith said. “But it’s what I have to do because I can’t work if things are categorized and ordered. I have to sit there and go through all the silly pictures to create my things.”

Many of Smith’s pieces include stereotypical representations of women from 1940s magazines like “Life.”

During the question and answer session following his presentation, associate art professor Krista Hoefle asked about the reception his pieces would receive being displayed at an all women’s college, as they depicted stereotypical imagery of women.

“It’s part of the reason I made the pictures,” Smith said. “Using women only from the certain time period – [the images are] pretty crass to begin with – they were all about Americana and how everything is bright and wonderful and the future was going to be full of things like flying cars, and to contrast that with the world as we really know it is kind of the comment.”

Smith said he used the images because they were not perceived as demeaning at the time.

“It was, ‘Oh here’s the happy housewife – and that was the social reinforcement for women not to go out and do things,” he said.

Displays of Smith’s work will be exhibited at Saint Mary’s until Friday, including replicas of pieces like “Strange Bedfellows,” which depicts a donkey and an elephant next to each other in a bed filled with money.

“It’s a comment on the debate of campaign finance reform between democrats and republicans,” Smith said. “They’re all the same because they have the same thing in common – greenbacks.”

Smith will present his work today in room 232 Moreau at 12:30 p.m. for Saint Mary’s art students. The presentation will be open to all members of the public. While at the College, Smith said he welcomes visitors who wish to discuss his work – or anything else. His temporary office is 240 Moreau.