“We’ve been married so long that we tend to finish each other’s sentences,” AJ Smith says, looking at his wife Marjorie Williams-Smith from across one of Community Bakery’s many small tables. The two are what you might call a ‘power couple,’ especially when it comes to art.
After relocating to Little Rock from New York in the early ‘80s, AJ and Marjorie each found separate avenues to UALR, both teaching within the art department. Currently, Marjorie teaches graphic design while AJ focuses on printmaking.
The two have had a long relationship with art that spans dates, and even, a specific instance. Marjorie says, “I think I always liked art in school and enjoyed the projects we did … [but] I guess I never really thought of it as something I would do for the rest of my life.” Luckily for her, her parents were supportive and her high school teacher gently nudged her to what art beyond high school could look like.
AJ doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t creating in his life. Even though he grew up in Northern Mississippi, an area which he says, “didn’t really think about art,” he nevertheless found a soft spot for images and drawing. “I just like to draw – anything really. I would draw on most of anything, notebook paper, the side of the wall.”
In fact, AJ was able to establish much of his work ethic and style early on, although he’s always evolving as an artist. He says, “I guess during my late teens or early 20s, my images started to come to me … fully intact. I just had to find a way to do that,” he says. So he has. He works primarily by creating portraits which are usually part of subsequent series. He says, “I try to create in a way so that I can show who is behind the façade that we see physically.”
His most recent work, “The Uncivil War” was born out of the approaching 150 year mark of the event. He did some research and found himself wanting to know more. “Working on this series, I had to go back and really think about the Civil War … I wanted to know the personal side of the civil war … how it affected the day to day life of people on both side,” he said.
What resulted is a powerful piece of work, and you can currently view a few of these images at the Art Center’s 2015 Delta Exhibition.
Like AJ, Marjorie remembers drawing people early on, but she later focused on flowers and nature in her work. She finds this to be a flexible subject, as she says, “I find flowers and plants to harbor interesting shapes and forms. Sometimes they have abstract qualities about them that I try exhibit and allow the viewer to focus only on that form.”
She exhibits most of her work through silverpoint, which isn’t widely done. She says, “It’s a very different medium and very old – it goes back to before the Renaissance.” She first saw a silverpoint exhibit at the Art Center in the late ‘80s which sparked her interest, and began trying to gather the materials – which turned out to be difficult at the time.
Luckily, it’s easier these days, as she says, “I’d say there are many more people working with silverpoint now than 25 years ago.”
Marjorie has actually met many artists who also focus on silverpoint and even managed to bring one of her favorite artists, New York based Susan Schwalb, to UALR for a workshop. She happened to discover Schwalb’s work through various silverpoint exhibitions that also exhibited her own work, and Schwalb has since served as an inspiration.
Throughout their time in Arkansas, the couple has kept up their East Coast contacts. But looking back on that initial move across the country, Marjorie shakes her head.
For AJ, Little Rock was “unchartered territory” and his “Western front.” He was offered a position as artist-in-residence with the Arkansas Art Center, and he says laughing, “I coerced Marjorie into coming. We really did have a nice lifestyle in New York, and I was even starting to get noticed a little bit there for my art.”
Marjorie adds, “I told him I wasn’t moving there,” but she agreed to accompany him for the allotted year. Once down here, however, the two really fell in love with the place. Marjorie says, “We moved and it turned out to be a really good thing. The art scene was really growing, and we’ve seen a lot of changes in this town since we’ve been here.”
The two were very drawn to the work and vision of Townsend Wolfe, the then-director at the Art Center. “He was very encouraging about the future of the arts in Little Rock,” says Marjorie, “and we wanted to see what would happen.” More than that, says AJ, they knew they wanted to be involved: “They [were] building something here, and I want[ed] to get in on the ground floor.”
So they have. And what they’re seeing in the capital city is really inspirational to them both. Marjorie says, “Argenta really has an energy to it. It didn’t exist when we first moved here. Also, the River Market is really coming up too. … As an artist living here, there’s a lot of activities going on. There’s a real cultural movement – look at the film festival, the literary festival.”
AJ says he’s interested in the local community of artists, specifically, communicating across ages and other barriers. “The vibrancy within the community of young artists – those in their 20s and their early 30s, trying to find their voice is really interesting to me – there’s a lot of energy there,” he says.
The two have been in countless shows, both locally and across the US, and when I ask about the shows, AJ smiles and says, “To me it’s all the same where you show,” and Marjorie finishes his sentence, “we want people to come out and talk about it.” And why not? Get out and see some local art. Start by checking out more of AJ’s work here, and Marjorie’s here.