Fred Smith in Depth About His Paintings, Life & More

by Rubén P
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Fred Smith (b. 1987) in California but grew up in Germany, because his father was in the American military. Fred is a renowned American painter who uses their works as a way to dissect and question the traditional narratives that have formed within the society. They seek inspirationfrom personal experiences and absurdity of the world and they believe their work functions as a parallel possibility of the reality we find ourselves in.

Hi Fred, It’s a pleasure to sit down with you. First question. Living in LA, how does a regular day look like for you?

What’s up Ruben the feeling is mutual and I appreciate you reaching out to interview me. Also I’m actually not based in LA but I honestly get that or NY quite a bit when people reach out about studio visits. Currently I live in Charlotte, North Carolina and a normal day for me here is wake up early get my kid to school, then coffee, and after that I head directly to the studio. I try and spend at least 6-7 hours working in some capacity every day and then honestly the day ends the same way it began, coffee, pick my kid up and head home. 

Having a father in the military, did you move around a lot? Or did you stick to Germany?

Oddly enough we only had one major move growing up which was to Germany when I was 5. For most it’s a move every three years sorta thing but we stuck around Stuttgart, Germany area for quite a while. It was an interesting place to grow up and I couldn’t have asked for a nicer location to live, I’d move back if I could. 

Staying on the subject. Do you think that moving around and growing up in Germany has impacted your artistic side and how you view art?

In a very abstract way, yes. I wasn’t really exposed to a lot of art as a kid, European or otherwise. But I definitely think growing up in this outsider/third culture experience shaped my world view heavily. Making art/imagery was just how I ended up feeling most comfortable channeling the questions that resulted from my experiences. On a side note the Schlossplatz in Stuttgart had a large Calder sculpture, we used to think of ways to skate it as kids. It wasn’t till I was 24 I realized we had been scheming to skate this famous work of art, haha. 

I see.. so what brought you back to America? It must have been hard moving away from your friends and comfortzone. What was that transition like?

Just being an American really, I tried sticking around Germany for a few years after I left school, but kinda reached a ceiling on that, you can only do so much with poorly spoken German, haha. Coming to America was rough cause I had no connection to it. Initially I bounced around a lot and wasted a lot of years, roaming around the country trying to find a place I could be comfortable. I didn’t have a good head on my shoulders and partied a lot. Plus New York City was a labyrinth for me I could get easily lost in, and I did it a few times through out my 20’s.  

Right, so what are the biggest contrasts between the art-scene and culture in Germany and the US? Any noticeable differences?

To be clear I had no concept of the contemporary art scene in America or Germany as a youth. Culturally the Germans are very industrious and organized, everything seemingly runs smoothly over there. America just felt so massive to me and still does. Each state is like it’s own country but we all speak the same language pretty much, especially lately it seems even worse than before. 

You took art classes in High School, but how old were you when you started to draw and how long after did you evolve into painting?

I always drew on and off like most kids probably do. I really started focusing on it when I blew my ACL skateboarding around age 15. I spent my down time drawing pictures of people and animals in magazines. I dabbled in image making in high school but it wasn’t till I was 19-20 I painted my first pictures. 

Staying on the subject. Your painting style has changed over the years. When did you start to develop your current recognizable style? And what is it about it that comes natural and feels right to you?

Ha, yes I have done a little bit of everything. I would say the first paintings that led me to where I am now, I did in 2015-2016. Before that I used to work from reference a lot, some was my own photographs and some were borrowed. Early on I had this unfounded hang up/insecurity about drawing straight from my imagination, like if the imagery was off or odd it diminished the idea, which I know now is a silly thought. But yeah I think Margaret Kilgallin’s words about the hand of the artist never being perfect really made me more comfortable with my own natural style.

 Do you remember what moment that led you to start taking being an artist seriously?

I just realized at one point nothing else would do. My last job was managing/assisting another artist for 3 years. By the end of that I was pretty fed up with working on some one else’s ideas and dreams. Then in 2019 I got accepted into a residency program called Good Year Arts that’s local and open to Charlotte based artists. The residency was postponed till end of 2020 because of Covid but having the space, time, and money to work and make whatever I wanted allowed me to develop a studio practice and I haven’t stopped working since. 

Being able to live off your art is every artists dream and something very few get to experience. Talk to me a little bit about the moment you realized that this was your reality?

Yeah I agree, and for me it’s kinda of an ongoing realization. I’m not swinging from chandeliers and jumping off mountains of cash. I have had immense support system and also had to make a lot of concessions to be able to live solely off my art. Maybe it’s not glamorous but it’s what I want. I make sure my son is well fed and we have a safe/comfortable environment to live in. So it’s kind of like every day, week, month I will have a thought, like “oh I’m doing this and my bills are covered and I can head to the studio where there is enough supplies for me to work.” It feels good but I think it is an attainable thing for more people, but maybe some other stuff has to fall away for it to be reachable.

You had your son in 2017. Has becoming a father affected your creativity in any way?

Yes yes, this is something I consider a lot. He really pushed the sculptural aspect of my work because he’s into Halloween props and is attracted to stuff like that. It made me look more closely at those objects, which then come out in the materials and scale I work when making sculptures. Also I think there’s something to achieving the goals and ambitions you want in life. I’m not saying I do everything to set a good example for my son, I try to just do good work and enjoy my life. But I definitely think in the back of my mind it’s good to set an example of achieving your dreams and not settling, in the context of being a role model for your kids or even other people that might be paying attention. 

You have stayed sober for the past 2 years after having struggled with alcohol and drugs in the past. Talk to me a little bit about that time in your life, and how is creating under the influence different from creating when you’re sober?

Yeah, it’ll be two years in December, like I mentioned earlier I just really liked to party, a little too much, haha. Another artist (Ryan Karpinsky) put the idea of sobriety into my head in a way that sounded like life could still be fun, it took a few more years before I finally heeded his advice though. The difference is definitely in the work, my ideas pre sobriety are all over the place and so was the work. I could never get organized or keep a consistent thought for too long. Working sober things just line up and my brain is always able to recollect where it was in relation to the paintings and ideas. Lately I’ve been world building creating this parallel universe for all the random ideas and thoughts I have on a daily basis. Allowing my self to explore anxieties and overthinking by creating situations for them to exist in. It’s been the most fun and rewarding work I’ve ever done. 

What do you hope that we, the observers get out of your paintings?

I mean for anyone to get anything at all out of what you create is an amazing feeling. This work means things to me I don’t think it could mean to any one else and I think that’s a two way street. If the viewer approaches the work and dissects/interprets it based off their own life experience then that’s all I could hope for. 

Where do you get your ideas from when painting the surreal scenes, characters and objects? Is it something you have experienced or seen, which you then express through your paintings?

Some times its simple everyday anxious thoughts or maybe a vivid childhood memory, I get hyper focused on certain instances or even actions I’ve performed. All of these things are questions in my mind and then an image starts to form, for me it’s like presenting or asking the question in a more accessible way (everyone can relate to figurative imagery vs. not everyone speaks the same language). But also like I said earlier it’s creating these spaces in which the ideas can exist in, ideas can be just that, ideas and then they are forgotten about, hopes, dreams, obsessions. Whatever they are, they only exist as long as you allow them to, so in a way the work I do is putting them out there for as long as the painting physically exists and people are viewing them. Creating parallel possibilities in theory and maybe in actuality. 

Staying on the subject. What is the process like when you’re starring at a blank canvas. Do you already have an idea of what you’re going to paint? And how long from idea to reality?

Sometimes I’ll work smaller canvases without an idea as a warm up or a study and just see what develops, but I really enjoy setting out on a painting with a plan.  Some ideas can sit for a year or two, others I’ll have in a day and sketch it out and start working immediately. Really it all depends, I think the most important thing is how excited I am about it. I don’t wanna feel like I’m making something cause I have to and so I’ll wait on a idea as long as it takes to get psyched on it. 

Where do you go to get inspired and what motivates you?

So many places like everyday experiences, also I have a pretty solid memory even with all the partying, haha. I will get visions or feelings pop up from memory, or the misconceptions of youth and the ideas that were imprinted on me through out life will come up. Sometimes part of me processing them is making work about those ideas and feelings. As far as motivation it’s just what feels right. I’m in a place where creating on a daily basis and getting this work out feels the most important and honest thing I could be doing. I’m just grateful that other humans are interested in viewing and supporting the work in any way. 

 You got the whole day off. You’re free to do whatever you want. What are you doing?

Oh man, as boring as it sounds I’ll lay on the couch and watch stupid movies. I have to do this every once and a while to just shut down the machine. Thrifting and getting some good food is always a go to. Also! When I’m outta town which are true days off cause no possible studio time, I hit as many book stores trying to find the best stuff I can. I recently went to England for my solo with Moosey Gallery and that’s what I did, had to ship back the books cause I found so many, haha. 

Nikeskates, what’s the background behind that?

This kinda started as a joke I think it’s cool/funny people want to know. At the time I was just trying to figure out a good handle something catchy and I was also thinking about appropriation, and how Nike and other large brands swallow up culture and aesthetic from groups of people to build their brand. So in my mind I would use Nike’s brand recognition to do the same for me. I had found the handle was available and I got an official logo made for Nike skates with the swoosh and all, I even had decks made with the logo on it at one point. The joke was to get enough attention that I would get a cease and desist which sadly never came, haha. But there’s still hope, maybe I’ll do another run of boards soon.

What song do you listen to the most right now?

My music is always on shuffle but a few honorable mentions 

The Shangri-Las – Leader of the pack

Iggy Pop – The Passenger

Joshua Cotterino – We Can Do It

What are your favorite movie(s) and why?

Anything weird and dealing in sci-fi usually gets me going

Dark City

Brazil

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