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Dwight Smith – Search for the Secret in Painter’s Work

Look closely at a painting by artist Dwight Smith and you might spot a small “bull’s-eye” hidden among the brush strokes.

It isn’t really a bull’s-eye, though it has that circular imagery. It’s an adinkra, and it’s one of a number of the cultural symbols from West Africa that are something of a trademark in Smith’s work.

A quick check on the internet reveals that the circle symbol is called an adinkrahene, the “chief of adinkra symbols,” and means greatness, charisma and leadership.

“I have always been drawn to the circular element in art,” said Smith.

The internet source also reveals that the more than 200 adinkra symbols “reflect a system of human values that are universal: family, integrity, tolerance, harmony, determination, protection, among others.”

Smith was introduced to the symbols while helping to plan an arts festival in Detroit. “We needed a symbol, a logo,” he recalled. He pulled a book on Ghana from a committee member’s bookshelf and discovered adinkra. And for him, it became an inspiration that is repeated in his work.

The viewer may or may not pick up on the images. “It’s like a secret code – if you know the symbols, you will see them,” he said. “You have to let the creative mind go to work.”

He enjoyed a successful career as a graphic designer but knew that wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Armed with a master’s degree from Wayne State University, he concentrated on being a fine arts painter. He describes himself as a conceptual artist.

“I really like the abstract arts and conceptual art,” he said. And he likes working big, he added, although 40-by-60 is as big as it gets for him. “Larger than that, there’s a problem moving it. It has to fit in the back of the car,” he explained.

He now works in oils and acrylics but started out using watercolors primarily. And his first work was quite traditional and included still lifes and portraits.

“That was not really where I wanted to go,” Smith said. “I wanted to delve deeper, to try to say things conceptually, giving people another way to look at art. When you’re looking at abstract, you have to take your time and think and ask ‘what is this artist saying to me, why is this person doing what he’s doing.’”

Recently Smith has returned to his first love – drawing. In his classes he stresses the importance of drawing to his students. “It helps work out ideas and helps with hand and eye coordination.”

He began drawing as a young boy in an art studio set up in the basement of his family’s home in Detroit. He drew horses, although as a city kid he had never seen one except on television and in cowboy movies. “I was never interested in the cowboy,” Smith said with a laugh, “only the horse.”

One of his earliest influences was his talented older brother, Dave Jr., who Smith said was the first person he ever knew who could draw. An art teacher encouraged Dwight to expand his interest beyond horses, “to discover other things, everything around me.”

Smith acknowledges that making the transition from successful graphic designer to fine art wasn’t easy. “Sometimes it’s difficult to make a living,” he said.

Painting is not just his livelihood now, it’s his passion. “That’s who I am. If I go through long periods that I don’t paint, I have withdrawal symptoms. I’ve got to make art.”

Sometimes his teaching and other activities keep him away from his brushes. “Sometimes I’ll go in there and paint with the students. It’s in your blood – you have to do it.”

Ready for a change, Smith moved to Fayetteville five years ago after visiting friends here and finding he liked the city. His work was recently shown in the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, and he has been featured in shows in Detroit, New York City, Washington, D.C., France, South America, and Senegal. His work can be seen locally at the Art & Soul Gallery on Franklin Street.

“Fayetteville is a new audience for me,” he said. “Art & Soul has done a wonderful job of promoting my work and introducing me to a whole new world of buyers.”