Kansas City Artist Harold Smith is Racking Up the Recognition, Including a Prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant

Kansas City artist Harold Smith is the recipient of a prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation artist grant. (photo by Jim Barcus)

There are good years and there are banner years. Harold Smith is having a banner year. And 2022 isn’t over yet.

Smith is best known for his dynamic, expressionist, full-frontal portraits of Black men. He increasingly incorporates collage in his powerful, painterly works, inspired by what he describes as “my personal exploration of the complex, chaotic and multi-layered experience of men of color in America.” In his art — which also includes writing and filmmaking — Smith embodies James Baldwin’s belief that “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks at reality, then you can change it.”

The self-taught artist spent 30 years as an educator, teaching computer science and other computer classes, and later coding and game design, at Kansas City’s Manual Career & Technical Center. Before retiring last year, Smith taught art at Lincoln College Preparatory Middle School for two and a half years.

Recently, Smith got the news that he was awarded a prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation artist grant. He was one of 106 artists and non-profit organizations worldwide to receive grants totaling $2,685,000 during the foundation’s July 2021-June 2022 fiscal year grant cycle. For an individual artist, the generous award is a life changer.

And his retirement has brought other honors that put him in international company. In early November Smith will travel to Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he will spend three weeks working in a private studio as the recipient of a MacDowell Artist Fellowship, the nation’s first artist residency program, also with an international scope. (James Baldwin, along with other internationally known creatives from all genres, was a former recipient.)

Earlier in 2022, Smith received a $10,000 Charlotte Street Visual Artist Fellowship and was juried in as a member of the Studios Inc residency program, allowing him to move his painting studio from his house into a 2,500-square-foot space in the East Crossroads. He is enjoying national exposure through prominent placement of his paintings on the sets of two television series: “Bel-Air” and Oprah Winfrey’s production of “Queen Sugar.”

In September, Smith attended the Armory Show in New York, where he planned to see “some other cool shows including Robert Colescott and Jammie Holmes.” The trip is funded from the Byron C. Cohen Award, established in the late dealer’s honor to fund travel to an art fair of an artist’s choice and administered through Charlotte Street.

“Right now,” Smith says, “everything that’s happened to me has caught me by surprise. I’m just humbled and honored by it all.”

Smith is a dedicated community activist. As busy as he is, he created and then donated a major 10 x 8-foot painting to the Kansas City Art Institute’s annual fundraising auction for student scholarships. He also organized and hosted an exhibit and sale at his studio space for Trey Loomis, a physically disadvantaged artist who was Smith’s student when he taught at Paseo Academy.

In the recent past, Smith received a one-person show at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, which included text by the poet Glenn North. His paintings were also part of critically important regional group exhibits at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, the Carter Art Center, the Stocksdale Gallery at William Jewell College and the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom. Through Dec. 10, he is exhibiting new paintings at the Kansas City Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace, as part of the “2022 Charlotte Street Visual Artist Awards” exhibition.

Smith’s paintings have great visual power; they are an unforgettable, unique mix of pain and love and anger. He is constantly processing what it means to grow up as a Black man in America, and his art reflects his unflinching and personal findings. His maturity as an artist reflects his self-knowledge.

“A lot of us grew up with stern parents,” Smith says, “and especially as you get older you understand why our parents were that way. They were trying to protect us. If you process that (knowledge) correctly, you get hindsight. It can make you a better person.”

Another important art form for Smith is his writing (he contributes regularly to “KC Studio”). He writes every night and has for years. He is in the process of completing a group of science fiction short stories that deal with technology and time travel. They will one day, undoubtedly, be in print.

“I work intuitively. I have the same feeling when I write as I do when I paint,” Smith says. “My inspiration always comes from the same source.”

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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