Jan. 6 2010 12:00 AM

Lansing artist Craig Mitchell Smith brings shards to life

Two weeks ago, Craig Mitchell Smith was doing 12-hour shifts in the workshop of his west Lansing house, putting together his latest exhibition of undulating glass sculpture, showing at Dow Gardens in Midland through Feb. 26.

His feet crunched over shards on the floor as he paced from worktable to kiln and back again. The show was due to open in less than a week — Dec. 27 — but Smith worked and philosophized at the same time.

“Glass is everything I want to be as a human being,” he declared. “It’s transparent. It’s malleable when warm and brittle when cold. It’s colorful, stronger than it looks, and yet it can be destroyed in a moment.”

While delivering this manifesto, he fitted a couple of orange and yellow glass petals — or were they solar flares? — onto a gleaming metal orb fabricated by a friend, Jim Cunningham.

This was only a test. The following week, Smith bolted the sculpture together for good in a craggy pine hollow at snowy Dow Gardens, matching its curves, lines and swirls to the surrounding rocks and trees.

Smith isn’t out to decorate your yard with figurines. He’s inventing a distinctive visual language that mediates between man and nature. The 20 pieces in Smith’s Dow show are mind prints on the snow.

“I guess I’m a glass impressionist,” he said. “Everything I do is a response to the beauty that I see.”

At the Dow show, an icy glass swirl with aluminum ribbons spins with visual music, riffing on the peeling white bark of the surrounding birch grove. Other pieces are aligned with a distant tree or tilted to catch the light just so. The lobsterred branches of a bare shrub meet their match in blazing crimson stalks of glass.

Smith’s work is so distinctive and purposeful it’s hard to believe he only found his muse at age 42, in 2006.

Now he’s hustling like mad to make up for lost time.

In the past four years, Smith has sold 375 signed pieces and done 17 gallery shows. His 10-foot human marionette hung at the Detroit Institute of Arts for the Governor’s Arts Awards last year, and he was a featured artist at Kresge’s Twilight in the Garden last September. In all, Smith figures he’s fired up his kiln over 2,000 times.

Glass is a new life for Smith, but not a new love. As a child, he coveted his mother’s Noxzema skin cream, and not because he wanted to play with the moisturizer.

“That cobalt blue bottle,” he said, with lust in his eye. “I wanted the light to come through.”

Growing up in Lansing, Smith went to Holy Cross, the most modern church on Lansing’s east side, and his least favorite because it had the fewest windows.

He preferred older churches like St. Mary’s or St. Gerard’s. “The only thing that got me through Catholic school was looking at that stained glass,” he said.

Plants obsessed him, too. An apple tree in his front yard — now as thick as an elephant’s leg — is a shrine. He brought it home from Frank’s Nursery on his bike and planted it himself.

When Smith turned 16, he asked his parents for a greenhouse. It came with a photo of the Sturdi-Built Greenhouse Manufacturing Co. factory, near Portland Oregon.

Smith always thought of factories as “belching, 300-foot towers,” he said. “This factory was in a hillside, in a forest, and the roof was covered with living moss.”

He couldn’t stop staring at the photo. At 22, he split for the West Coast with $1,000 in his pocket.

There he did decorative painting, interior design and landscape design. He lived in a commune on Mt. Jefferson and owned a flower shop in a skyscraper in downtown Portland.

When Smith came back to Lansing in 1993 to help take care of his ailing mother, he didn’t plan on staying.

Then he met Mike Pohnl, now his partner of 14 years. He also fell in love with his childhood home, a skylit modern gem on a bluff overlooking the Grand River near Willow Street.

I came back it was a time warp,” he said. “Everything was orange and
avocado green. But the structure had these great lines.”

Smith put in a stone floor and redid the kitchen.

2005, he learned that the cable channel HGTV was sending camera crews
to the Midwest to scope out unique kitchen remodels. He sent photosof his kitchen to Weller/ Grossman Productions in North Hollywood.

“About 20 minutes later, Hollywood called,” Mitchell said, with a flourish.

it wasn’t the call he expected. The HGTV rep told Mitchell the show had
enough kitchens to cover that year. But hey — what was that thing in
the corner?

caught the rep’s eye was Smith’s first sculpture, which he glued
together for fun. The previous winter, a tree branch had fallen on a
blue glass gazing ball in Smith’s front yard. When the snow melted, he
found it in shards.

He epoxied the ball back together as a “scary flower of sharp, curved glass.”

Mitchell told HGTV he was thinking about getting his own kiln and creating more glass sculptures like it, to go with his blue tree.

Wait a minute — his blue tree?

Smith pointed to a blooming witch hazel in his backyard.

a magnificent native tree with great form,” he said. “No one else
seemed to see how beautiful it was, so I decided if it was blue they

He mixed a
harmless blue dye into an organic pine tar derivative used to protect
azaleas and rhododendrons in the winter and sprayed the tree blue.

said he’d love to do the same thing to a Lansing park some day, perhaps
combining multicolored trees with sculptures. (“I’m just getting
started,” he said, grinning.)

The HGTV lady told Smith that if he made the sculptures, she’d send a crew in nine weeks.

“I hadn’t made anything and I couldn’t afford a kiln,” he said.

told Pohnl a camera crew was coming to their house June 29. Pohnl saw a
certain look in Smith’s eye, paid for the kiln and stood back. Smith
credits his partner for supporting an enterprise many people wouldn’t

just blinks a lot,” Smith said.

Facing an impending TV date, Mitchell
set about crafting glass leaves in hosta form (he has 2,000
shade-loving hosta plants in 180 varieties in his backyard) and paid a
man to string cable up into the oak trees and hang the glass leaves “as
if they were flying away.”

The six-minute feature on HGTV’s “Look What I Did” launched his career.

marketing specialist friend of Smith’s urged him to make items for
sale. Smith’s first gallery show, at Lansing’s now-defunct Banyan
Gallery, came six months later.

In four fertile years, Smith’s art has covered a lot of ground, from cornball whimsy to deeply personal revelations.

sculpture called “Talaria,” a glassy take on the winged sandals of
Mercury, graces his coffee table. “Look it up,” he said. “There’s a
word for everything. I’m a word freak.”

word Smith has thought over deeply is “Faggot,” the name of a
conceptual work now standing in his basement studio. “Faggot” was
featured in a 2008 show at the Krasl Gallery in St. Joseph called “The
Art of Text.”

bundle of iridescent human figures made of glass are heaped on a
lectern. A block of text above traces the word “faggot” from its
earlier meaning, as a bundle of sticks used for firewood, to the people
who were burned by that wood, including “heretics, witches, elderly
women and homosexuals.”

Smith’s signature appears
beneath the last paragraph: “Formed at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, this
Faggot has survived the fire…[and] gained the strength and colour
through the heat it has endured.”

During the Krasl show, Smith took off his artist badge and waited for the reaction.

men 40 and over read the first word and left,” he said. “Women were
much more likely to read the rest. When they realized the word could
have applied to them I could see the change in their face.”

“This is what I consider my truest art,” he said.

One of Smith’s most personal pieces is a droll trick on the viewer.

a stack of glass plates inscribed with a “story I’m not ready to talk
about,” Smith said, presented “very neatly, in perfect penmanship and
with perfect punc tuation.”

He stacked all 30 glass “pages” of the story like a deck of cards and fused them together in his trusty kiln.

“I like to think it’s imbued with the story rather than telling the story,” he grinned.

concept appealed to Lansing poet and artist Katherine Fishburne, who
bought the piece. She’ll never be able to read that story, but she’ll
know it’s there.

the back wall of Smith’s studio hangs a crystalline pair of wings fused
together from 2,000 individual “feathers” of glass. A leather strap
dangles from the spot where the wings join.

parallel to Smith’s new life is clear. It’s an invitation to suit up
and play Icarus, whose wings melted when he flew too close to the sun.
No wonder Smith is smiling: Icarus worked with wax; if you’re trying
out new wings in life, glass has a lot more staying power.

WinterGarden Glass

Craig Mitchell Smith Dow Gardens 1809 Eastman Ave., Midland Through
Feb. 26 Daily admission $5 for adults; $1 for students with ID and
children 6-17; children under 6 are free.(800) 362-4874 www.dowgardens.org