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Bird’s-eye view: Artist with Natchez roots gives creations new perspective

By LYNDY BERRYHILL

The Natchez Democrat

An artist with Natchez roots and influences will be featured at one of the most highly respected art galleries in New Orleans this December.

Will Smith Jr., who is now a resident of New Orleans, grew up in the Natchez with his parents, Marion and Carolyn Vance Smith.

His show, “A 2020 Perspective,” opens Saturday, Dec. 5 at Gallery 600 Julia.

Smith left the Natchez with a deeper understanding of life along the waterways, he said.

For the works that will be featured at the upcoming art exhibition, Smith traveled to the very end of the river on which he lived for most of his life — the self-proclaimed “End of the World,” called Venice Louisiana, which stretches out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Attendees to the art show can expect Smith’s signature subject matter, but from a new perspective. His renderings of Louisiana’s waterways are painted with the help of a drone, a rarely used artistic tool.

“It’s a bit of a departure from the landscapes that I built my career on,” Smith said. “That’s what is so exciting.”

Smith has been working on his upcoming exhibit since mid-September of 2019 when he visited Venice with photographers Clara Diaz and Claud Jones.

Jones and Smith used a drone to capture aerial photographs of the area, which Smith used as a reference in his paintings.

The artists were able to get access to an offshore helicopter pad and launch the drone further than the expected.

The drone captured intricate details from hundreds of feet in the air, such as where the muddy waters of the Mississippi River fade into the cerulean waves of the Atlantic.

The photos help Smith to render his brushstrokes into pixels as he paints realistic-looking images.

“Ive always worked from my own photographs. … To me, that is most authentic,” Smith said.

His landscapes are highly detailed and aesthetic with an underlying gravity, which Smith describes as “poem meets police report.”

When the show opens next month, Smith will showcase 20 paintings based on Venice, representing hundreds of studio hours from the past year.

“I have been working daily since concept to completion,” Smith said.

Will Smith Jr.’s painting of a harvest moon rising over the marina in Venice dried in his New Orleans studio on Wednesday.

Smith has several diptychs and triptychs that are hung in collective panels to illustrate a full day at the “End of the World.”

“It’s a beautiful subject matter,” Smith said.

Venice encapsulates an “exotic” quality for Smith as the delta soil thins into marshy wetlands, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.

“The timing is once in a lifetime. … A lot of (the marshland) is going away,” Smith said.

In the past, Smith has painted series on the Atchafalaya Basin, Bayou Black, Bayou Terrebonne, which are fed from the Red River and the mighty Mississippi.

“The two rivers really are the life blood of Louisiana,” he said. “Im trying to visually present this landscape and the livelihood it supports.”

Smith, who grew up on the Natchez bluff with his parents, left the city with a deeper understanding of life along the waterways.

After graduating Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama with bachelor’s degree in painting and sculpture, he began earning his master’s in art therapy from Notre Dame de Namur University in California.

There, he studied why people find art appealing and learned how audiences are soothed with calming water scenes.

He moved to in New Orleans to continue his artistic career in 1999. Smith said he is thrilled to continue to work with Susan Seward, a Harvard-educated gallery owner.

“It’s always an honor when she carves out room for me,” Smith said of Seward. “She and I have been working together for many years now and I adore her.”

Seward earned her doctorate in art history and represents more than 30 regional artists in the New Orleans region.

“As a photographic realist and an environmentalist, Wills paintings are an invaluable record of the imperiled waterways and traditional lifestyle of South Louisiana,” Seward said.

Seward said the upcoming exhibition is unique with its drone perspective.

“Translated into oil painting, the images are a stunning map of nature as if seen by a soaring pelican or egret, which often appear in the art,” she said.

Seward’s gallery exhibitions are anticipated by art-lovers and coveted by potential exhibitors. Gallery space is often booked years in advance.

Smith has been featured in numerous times throughout his art career to much success. In 2017, he represented Gallery 600 Julia for White Linen Night, which is arguably one of the largest art shows in the South. Smith is currently scheduled for a solo show in 2022.

Smith’s work has also been featured in the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson and the Tulane University Library. A collection of his work is also featured at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez.

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