The Art of Now: Work by ETSU Guggenheim fellow features Carter County

Photo by Dave Boyd
ETSU Professor of Art, Mike Smith, stands in front of one of his photographs titled, √íCarter County, TN 2001√ď. Smith, who received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his art work, spoke to students in the art gallery at Milligan College, where his work is being displayed.

By Julie Fann
star staff
An art professor whose work has been purchased by museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City says his goal is not to perpetuate the stereotype of a Carter County rife with poverty and ignorance. On the contrary, the photographs of Mike Smith, recipient of one of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowships awarded to only a select few, deal, he says, with the moment.
"The moment is what I think distinguishes this from a stereotype. I'm interested in now, and I'm interested in how things appear in a very specific way, and a stereotype typically is something that kind of garners things together in a generalized way.
"What I try to do is deal with what's in front of me now, and so I'm looking at the present, and that would, I think by nature, diminish any idea of a stereotype. I'm not looking for anything that's locked in the past. The material is the fabric of what's going on today," he said.
Associate Professor of Art at Milligan and a former student of Smith's at ETSU, Alice Anthony, arranged for fourteen of Smith's photographs to be displayed at the gallery. Smith spoke to students and the public during an informal gathering in the gallery Monday evening.
Smith is a native of New England, a Yale graduate, and has taught photography at ETSU since 1981. Becoming a teacher, however, was not his original plan. "I always wanted to grow up to become an artist. I never thought I would be teaching ... within the course of three months I was a teacher, and I wasn't trained as a teacher," he said, then recalled a case of stage fright so severe he had to leave the classroom and sit in his office to regain his courage.
Three of the 14 photographs on display at Milligan feature Carter County "material". The first, "Carter County, TN, 2001", features a blue shed on a brown landscape, with the shadow of a tree sprawled across the ground in front of it. But it is the play of color, light, and shadow that, according to Smith, "captures" the moment of the photograph. Also, the shed wasn't purchased from Lowe's.
"In the suburbs, when you need a shed, you go down to Lowe's and buy a shed and they deliver it. Here, there's a certain sort of telling resourcefulness that shows one's aesthetic, and that aesthetic is what I'm interested in," Smith said.
Two other photographs taken in 1996 depict other aspects of Carter County, one of them caged cocks surrounded by a makeshift home of wire and old timber, their red beaks gleaming in sunlight. In another, an old log house sits in a kind of blue darkness while, in the foreground, a puddle of muddy water in the road reflects the bare limbs of trees.
"It's a picture-making thing for me. I look at the world as raw material, and I think of this place as a photograph."
"I'm doing brand new gas stations and car washes and things like that now ... I felt it was time to deal with different problems."
Smith said he enjoyed the one year off from teaching that receiving a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship provided him so that he could focus solely on his art. Guggenheim Fellowships are grants given to only a select number of individuals to help provide them with blocks of time in which they can work with as much creative freedom as possible.
Smith has also created a book that features approximately 92 of his photographs titled, "You're Not From Around Here".
For more information on Mike Smith's art work displayed at Milligan, contact Alice Anthony at 461-8700.