One of America’s most powerful and under-recognized artists, Dr. Charles Smith expresses profound narratives about American and African-American history and culture through his sculptural figures. The largest museum exhibition to present his work, Dr. Charles Smith: Aurora, will be on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center from July 14, 2019, through May 17, 2020.
The exhibition will focus on more than 150 works that were part of a major installation at his home in Aurora, Illinois, from 1986 to 1999, which he titled The African-American Heritage Museum and Veterans Archive. The exhibition seeks to show the relevance of the artist’s work beyond its original setting. Most of the work has not been on public view since it was last seen in Aurora in 1999.
Beginning in 1986, Dr. Smith set to work transforming the entirety of his home and studio and its surrounding property in Aurora. In the ensuing years, Dr. Smith made hundreds of sculptures memorializing historical figures, community members, and celebrities, depicting the tragedies and triumphs of the African-American experience. His work drew hundreds of visitors each year to his home and studio.
When Dr. Smith relocated his project to Hammond, Louisiana, near New Orleans in 2002, the majority of the over 600 sculptures from his Aurora site were removed, conserved, and acquired by several museums. Four hundred and forty-eight sculptures were acquired by the Kohler Foundation Inc. with 200 gifted to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, making it the largest single institutional holding of the artist’s work. The remaining 248 works were distributed to other institutions around the country in keeping with the artist’s wishes. Dr. Smith continues his work on The African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive today in Hammond.
Dr. Smith often works in concrete, forming his sculptures on top of structures made of chicken wire. They are left outside to “weatherize,” which allows them to slightly crumble and decay. Once he is satisfied with their look, he will paint them, incorporating their “aging” into the final piece. The process can happen multiple times over each sculpture’s life with the effects of time and weather adding to the work’s meaning.
“The exhibition presents a fascinating conundrum in that artist-built environments were meant to be viewed in situ, but unfortunately for many reasons, they rarely can remain where they were made for the long term,” said Laura Bickford, associate curator, John Michael Kohler Arts Center. “Our challenge is to present Smith’s work in a museum setting where it can be viewed by a greater audience and yet remain true to the artist’s intent.”
Designed to fulfill the African-American Heritage Museum and Veterans Archive’s primary intended purpose of education, the exhibition organizes each piece by theme and contextualizes them within important periods in African-American history. Themes will include Civil Rights, Contemporary Life, Africa Before Slavery, The Great Migration, Sharecropping and Jim Crow, and more.
Among the highlights will be sculptures of prominent African-American heroes including Louis Armstrong, Rosa Parks, and Florence Griffith Joyner. Often Smith’s figures serve as memorials and are holding lanterns, candles, or flashlights. The Eric Morse Memorial figure honors a 5-year-old boy who was thrown to his death by two other boys in a Chicago housing project in 1998. Smith’s 3/5 of a Man refers to Article 1 of the United States’ 1797 Constitution, which held that African-Americans counted as only 3/5 of a person. Among other repercussions, this distinction prevented African-Americans from registering to vote.
Dr. Charles Smith (born 1940) is an artist, historian, activist, and minister who has worked prodigiously since 1986 using his homes, first in Aurora, Illinois, and currently in Hammond, Louisiana, as stages to express the impact of the entire arc of African-American history, from the diaspora to the present, on his psyche and on humanity. Calling both properties the African- American Heritage Museum and Black Veteran’s Archive, Dr. Smith combines home, studio, museum, and archive into powerful visual and experiential works of art as public history. Dr. Smith’s sites express history as a stream of historical moments created from the stuff of everyday life. His work at the Aurora site was purchased in 2000 by Kohler Foundation, Inc., which restored approximately 600 sculptures and gifted them to museums around the country; a major collection resides in the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI.
Dr. Smith uses the self-appointed title Dr. to connote the status he feels he has earned from the studies he has completed and the life experiences he has accumulated, including his experiences in the United States Marine Corps, into which he was drafted in 1966, and his combat service in Vietnam, for which he earned a Purple Heart. Smith served as the national executive director of the African/American Association, a liaison position between Illinois congress members and the Congressional Black Caucus. He was ordained at the Virginia Black Training Academy. His work was included in the John Michael Kohler Art Center’s 50th anniversary exhibition series, The Road Less Traveled in 2017-18. His exhibition for this series was honored as the number two selection for “Best of 2017” in Artforum. His work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; INTUIT, Chicago; and Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha.