Glass in the garden, fire in the snow
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
Lansing artist Craig Mitchell Smith brings shards to lifeTwo 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.
Smith put in a stone floor and redid the kitchen.
“About 20 minutes later, Hollywood called,” Mitchell said, with a flourish.
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.
He mixed a
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.
Facing an impending TV date, Mitchell
The six-minute feature on HGTV’s “Look What I Did” launched his career.
In four fertile years, Smith’s art has covered a lot of ground, from cornball whimsy to deeply personal revelations.
Smith’s signature appears
During the Krasl show, Smith took off his artist badge and waited for the reaction.
“This is what I consider my truest art,” he said.
One of Smith’s most personal pieces is a droll trick on the viewer.
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.