20 Questions: SMiLE

If you’re familiar with the streets of Boulder, you may have noticed some new art popping up in the nooks and crannies, on electric boxes and telephone booths, seemingly overnight – intricate stencil work portraits of cats and artists from Van Gogh to Tupac.

For these we can thank SMiLE. Though he intends to stay anonymous in the streets, the artist will take his work to canvas for First Friday July at madelife.

Here’s 20 Questions with SMiLE.

Tell us who you are in one sentence.
I am the Street Artist SMiLE.

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When did you know you were an artist?

I’ve always been an artist. From the very beginning of my ‘life story’ drawing was how I helped others to be happy and present.

Your new exhibition is titled “Streets to Canvas”. What does it mean for to you to take your work from the street to the canvas? How are the mediums similar and different? What does each have to contribute to the art community?  

This is the first time that anything signed as SMiLE has been put up for sale. As a kid my art teacher told me the story about Michaelangelo unveiling the statue, the David. It was presented in public, in the town square of Florence, Italy, and it was left in public for weeks. This was rather common back then, for artists to exhibit their stuff in public at the behest of their patron, to the delight of the community. And as a kid this stuck with me. My favorite piece of Street Art as a kid was of a middle finger spray-painted on the wall next to the baseball card shop on the Pearl Street Mall. Too bad I didn’t have a David to marvel at instead. I was a great young artists…but all of my stuff ended up behind frames in Middle American living rooms. I never saw it again. Nobody did but the owner. And I wanted the art to be all over the city! I still want to see great art all over the city, but only a few other artists have joined me here. I want to see my childhood friend Amanda Sage’s art painted all over the walls of Boulder, preferably without consent but only her intuitive guidance. Instead I go to a website and look at her stuff, alone alongside thousands of other people on their computer viewing the same image at the same time. I want to see Bryce Widow on the streets of my town, in random derelict spots that he transforms into the best moment of the day. But we can’t always get what we want. And to be honest, I grew up marveling at canvas paintings and appreciate that too and have had a blast creating all of these canvases for the Madelife show on the First Friday in July, as well as some for friends and family. So Streets to Canvas is partly about me finding a balance between Street Art and Fine Art.

When you decide to do a street piece where does your artistic process usually begin?  

The artistic process for any given street piece starts in countless ways, which is really part of the thrill of Street Art. As a studio artist I often got into eccentric routines and self-exploratory grooves that could last months or years and ultimately sap me of my creativity by the predictability of the process and the inertia of the headiness. With Street Art, the whole project is about the community that I live in and the people that I’m painting for and this entails an entirely different mental approach. A much more static and extroverted approach. The things that I’ll consider for a typical street piece are: who primarily uses the area; what are my personal ties to the place; what colors are already on the Street Canvas; what kind of surface does the Street Canvas have; how well it will be lit at night when I’m painting; if there are markings of previous tags on the Street Canvas that have been covered and most important of all: will it help people to smile. Any one of these considerations may be what first attracts me to a barren eye sore of a public wall or a rickety newspaper bin that juts too far into the sidewalk and becomes a potential spot to paint.

You have done many cat portraits – why do you like cats?

Boulder is my hometown and I grew up around Pearl Street. Mornings are beautiful…but I’m not a morning person. I’m a night walker. Cats are night walkers. Over the years I’ve wandered the nighttime streets of downtown Boulder and so much has changed–best-friends have died and soulmates have moved on, family members have moved away or moved in and saints and charlatans have swapped spots and all along, trusty as the sunrise, the cats are there with me in the dark nighttime alleys. More often than not under the midnight moon a cat will watch me paint. They usually watch from across the street or perched on a fencepost of from a window, but I’ll sense it and look and sure enough there’s a cat. This city and its cats have shown me magic. And in truth, all around the world I’ve found cats for companionship. On a sad night in a sheltered field outside of a city in Southeast Turkey, when I had nowhere else to go and the city was closed for the night, a cat curled up beside me and purred me to sleep. When I was sick and lonely in a small village in Northern Yemen it was the cats that kept me company and purred for me and helped me smile. Of all of the faces that I came across in Athens and on the Greek Islands, it’s the mama and her babies that cautiously took food from me on the island of Sifnos that I recall the most fondly.

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Where do you go or what do you do to get inspired?

The city is inspiration enough! I have a strong sense of community, but aside from a large and tight-knit family I have no true community besides Boulder. I take a walk through the streets of the city I love, I see the smiles on the faces in my community and by the time I get home I’ll have picked several new Street Canvas’ with ideas of what to paint on them. I have an entire desk drawer full of slips of paper with these combinations scribbled down, combinations of great Street Canvas’ in Boulder and what would be the best image for the spot.

What do you like best about being an artist?
Being an artist has always felt like being at the crest of a social wave, just before it breaks into the mainstream dialogue. It feels like BEING the secret rather than knowing the secret or seeking the secret. I’ve always been an artist, it’s all that I’ve ever known and I’ve always been deeply aware of the sense of wonderment that art can elicit in an audience, whether of classmates or fellow Boulderites or global reaching social media audiences. It’s like alchemy: take a person with a mind in flux, thousands of racy racing thoughts per minute, and then put that person in front of art that syncs with their heart and watch their thoughts melt away as they enter the palace of splendor where there is no time, only eternity–that’s what wonderment does to a person after all–and watch them smile. It’s in that never-ending moment, in that smile…I’ll meet you there. That’s what I like most about being an artist.

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Describe the setting of where a piece of your art will be in the year 3001.
The surviving Street Art pieces will be carefully removed from their public moorings and screwed to the side of places like the Louvre in Paris and the MOMA in NYC, alongside thousands of other pieces of Street Art from other artists. The canvas stuff will mostly be in private collections, although there may still be a few canvases hidden around Boulder that nobody ever found. I do that every now and then, I’ll stash a 14 inch by 20 inch canvas somewhere out of the elements downtown and hope that somebody that likes it finds it. It’s just such a thrill to do that. There is a Tupac still stashed out there around Central Park. It’s wrapped in a clear plastic bag and in great condition.

Do you collaborate with other artists and if so, what is that like?
As SMiLE I don’t collaborate at all. I put on my mask and cape every night and I hit the town, looking for an offending wall to beautify and for banality to banish with colors. I’ll occasionally see other Street Artists running amok in the dark of night, wearing their distinctively colored capes and their new track shoes and we’ll say something like, “Show got out at the Boulder Theatre and a horde is headed this way,’ or, “..the bars are emptying out, here comes an audience.” Or we’ll warn one another about The Man, but we won’t get into that aspect of Street Art here today.  😉

You get one super-power, what is it?

To, night after night, clandestinely paint the walls of my community in such a way that in the morning when my friends and baristas and bartenders and booksellers and yogis wake up and walk downtown they are shocked and awed at the placement and appearance of a new painting, shocked into the moment where all of their sorrows and trials become transparent. That’s why I go by the moniker SMiLE. When a person genuinely smiles than their heart shines and the suffering that is endemic to human life is revealed for the illusion that it is.  

What do you know now, that you wish you knew then?

That my community isn’t in the distant places where I searched when I was young–Syria or Yemen or Albania or Transalvania–but that the world is what I make of it and that community is where I plant my heart and water it with the smiles of others. It’s that easy–plant our heart in a healthy dream that benefits others in a way that they’d ask for it if given the chance and nothing can stop us because everything is backing us.  

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What plays on your stereo?
Dubstep. The Koran. Tupac. Gregorian Chants. Nirvana. The Dots.

Coffee or Tea? Tequila or Whisky?

Tea. Straight up.

What was the best piece of advice you ever got?
Love is real, don’t fear illusions. And since life is an illusion, live with no fear and a wide open heart.

How does the culture of Boulder affect your art?

I am a community oriented person and if I wasn’t in love with the streets of this city than SMiLE would’ve never come to be. I believe that people are intrinsically connected to the land that they’re raised on, and the land that I was raised on was covered in asphalt and brick and mortar and metal…and derelict public walls. Street Canvases as far as the eye can see. So as Post-Modern as it sounds, this city and I are lovers.

How do you hope your art affects the culture of Boulder?
My intent is to help people to smile. I am a trickster. At the art school that I attended as a kid, I was always likened to Hermes, Loki, Dodger, Mercury–the trickster. I like to surprise people, and I like to be surprised. It brings a person to the present moment, whether they want to be Present or not. And when we’re Present, we’re  step ahead of our thoughts and in the eternal now where we’re always together. So SMiLE is a shot across the bow to surprise my fellow Boulderites with the unexpected, to bring them to the here and now, and then to hopefully help them to smile.

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Has mentorship ever been a part of your career as an artist? If so, how?

I attended an art school from grades 1-9 and at this school I had the same teacher every year. This teacher was an excellent artist. In college I took several art courses but they were on a par with the art classes that I attended in second or third grade. I was fortunate to have a thorough classical artistic education like this, in a shape and form that resembles Renaissance Italy much more than post-9/11 America.

What keeps you making art everyday?
Now that’s the eternal debate right there. Is it Oneness, Jah, God, She, It, Je Ho Vah, the Goddess, the Universe, Brahman, the Great Spirit, the Void? I’m not sure, but whatever It is It keeps the spark blazing in my heart and that’s all it takes, that spark transforms into endless passion. When the spark dies, I’ll move on. I don’t think it will die tho.

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Are you superstitious?
I have a strong sense of destiny and I notice the signposts on the road of life that suggest whether I am following my heart and intuition and living my destiny or overthinking things and trying to control outcomes. So I think that translates as ‘yes’.

Do you have any words of wisdom for young artists?
Know your heart, love your seeming ‘faults’ and your art will shine with your inner strength and beauty.

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