DR. CHARLES SMITH: THE TIES THAT BIND
July 22, 2012–February 17, 2013
Dancers: Natalie Cole Series, c. 1985–1999; concrete, paint, mixed media; 43 x 20 1/2 x 12 in.; John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection
As part of the Arts Center’s exhibition series exploring the theme of “family,” THE TIES THAT BIND presents major sculptures from the art environment created by Dr. Charles Smith in the yard of his Aurora, Illinois, home.
Smith began his sprawling outdoor memorial and history museum, dedicated to Africans and African Americans, in 1985 in an effort to call attention to the poor treatment of black soldiers during and after the Vietnam War; however, it expanded to encompass events and people from the era of the slave trade to the present. Viewed within the context of “family,” the exhibition calls viewers to contemplate the definition of family, and how deep bonds often reach well beyond a blood relationship.
The figures that populated Smith’s yard are heroes and heroines, spiritual leaders, artists and musicians, athletes, and personal friends. His subjects convey pride, celebrate talent, acknowledge despair, reflect endurance, and embody the ability to survive through resilience, humor, and joy. Smith sculpted an educational environment where Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X testify while a black “drunk driver” elsewhere sits disgraced. In Smith’s world, images of loving grandmothers were juxtaposed with those of violent gang members, slaves with bleeding welts, African tribal figures, and laughing children. Cultural ancestry is blended with details of American history.
The artist used the detritus of his own neighborhood, melded with a concrete mixture, to make many hundreds of figures. Smith recognized that the act of making sculptures not only helped him face his personal demons but also allowed him to tell stories he believed must be told, particularly those of racial pain and suffering in the history of America.
Time and the elements took their toll on Smith’s works, and he sought help from Kohler Foundation, Inc. to preserve them. The Arts Center now cares for over 200 sculptures from Smith’s original site; other museums and institutions also care for portions of Smith’s oeuvre. The artist is currently working on a new site in Louisiana.