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His Own Path

A young artist’s discovery of the importance of giving back

Johnnie Lee Smith may have been born with artistic talent, but it wasn’t until he was a sophomore in high school that he discovered it.

Johnnie Lee Smith may have been born with artistic talent, but it wasn’t until he was a sophomore in high school that he discovered it.

In and of itself, this is relatively unremarkable — there are people who find their creative bent far, far later in life. But in Johnnie’s case, it’s the circumstances that led to his picking up a camera — and then a paint brush — that warrant an ear.

“I grew up here in Rochester on the west side,” Smith says. “Went to middle school at James Madison. Thinking back to middle school days, to art class, there really wasn’t the environment to learn. I mean, there were kids throwing crayons in the back of the room and we were slap-boxing and stuff like that.

“It wasn’t an environment where you could learn to appreciate art,” he laughs.

We sit in a coffee shop in the South Wedge, surrounded by eclectic paintings, pen-and-inks, furniture and found-art pieces, and the egregious noise of latte-prep and 80s alternative satellite radio. I agree: environment is everything.

“It was around that time my mother started taking care of my great-uncle, who lived live out in Pittsford.”

Smith’s great-uncle, Bob, was a Ph.D. and former high school teacher and administrator who suffered from Alzheimer’s.

“We found out he was driving down the wrong side of the road and things like that, so he wasn’t in a condition to be on his own. My mother was a nurse and felt a responsibility to take care of him. She would drive me from Pittsford back into the city to middle school until she decided that it would just be a better opportunity for me if we moved in with him. I ended up in Pittsford Sutherland in ninth grade. Sophomore year we had a mandatory choice between art and music. I couldn’t picture myself singing, so I chose the art class and it was something that really clicked with me. I mean, being in a new environment, it was a way for me to create my own identity. I look back and think that if we hadn’t moved, I would’ve never had art … how something like that can change your life … that’s kinda crazy.”

Knowing that his earliest work focused on his great-uncle and niece, I asked how he landed there.

“One of my greatest inspirations is the photographer Gordon Parks. Seeing how he depicted the civil rights movement and how he captured emotion — there was one image he had, it was a little boy and he was screaming and there was a tear running from his eye [he’s referring to the iconic March 1968 Life magazine cover image of the crying child, who is actually a little girl, from Park’s photo essay A Harlem Family] and when I saw that — it depicts nothing but sorrow — for him to be able to do that, was something that I wanted to do, I wanted in my artwork. That’s where I got my interest in photography.

“Starting out, I was really shy and didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t want to bug people I didn’t know, so I started photographing them. A lot of window-light portraits. At that time, [my uncle] was still able to walk and talk. He couldn’t remember anyone’s name, but those were my first few pieces. As I got better at it, I always went back to photographing him because I had this connection with him. Looking back — he just recently passed away — I’ll always have these images of him. It was always just about capturing emotion through his eyes.”

And that is exactly what’s striking about Smith’s images. The dignity and honesty ring true. They celebrate the man and his life.

Johnnie Lee Smith

I ask him which he prefers — painting or photography.

“It’s a toss-up,” Smith says. “I like them both for different reasons. I enjoy capturing people and real emotion with a camera. But I love to intensify that emotion in a way that you can only really get at with painting.”

Regardless, his work is attracting the attention of some well-known community figures. In addition to a commissioned piece he painted for Maya Angelou’s visit to RIT, he recently presented commissioned paintings to author and activist Dr. Cornel West, choreographer Garth Fagan, and poet Joshua Bennett.

“Being in the same room with them, let alone painting them — it just made me think about what’s possible,” Smith says.

And it looks like he understands both what’s possible and his role in effecting change. In addition to being involved with some art classes in the city and volunteering weekends at a painting workshop at the Memorial Art Gallery, he’s created a line of sweatshirts that carry his own paintings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X.

“I felt like there’s not a lot of talk about positive role-models in the black community. Youth are more focused on rappers, so to bring something like clothing that promotes positive black leaders, that was something I could do that could make a difference.”

He’s planning to add Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Angela Davis to the series this year.

He’s also been busy getting ready for an exhibition that will feature his recent photography — focused on African American women of all ages and their natural hair. The show will open at the Frederick Douglass Resource Center on King Street Feb. 1.

“If I wouldn’t have had that opportunity to find art, I would’ve missed out on my gift. To be able to come back to the city, to where I grew up, and be able to inspire someone who might overlook it — I enjoy being able to come back and show kids who may not think they’re an artist that they could be one as well. That it is possible.”