Not long ago, drivers along Old Highway 64 between Pisgah Forest and Brevard may have spotted a man on foot between the two places. That would have been Billy Smith, working on becoming an artist. He says he’s nearly there.
Smith, who turns 35 this month, decided a few years back to make a living by cultivating his natural talent as a fine artist. The 9-to-5 life never fulfilled him. In his mid-20s, he quit a blue-collar job out of frustration. Without work, the other conventional trappings of life fell away, too.
He found his personal bottom, and art found him. Minus a car, a home of his own, a mainstream foothold, art became his focus. “I lost everything I had. I was basically homeless,” he says. “That’s when I really started to pour into my work. It was a release. An escape.”
His first public artworks were “live” performances at music venues in Brevard. He’d walk from his mom’s place in Pisgah Forest and draw musicians playing at local bars. Those contemplative days walking to and from town (seven miles roundtrip) brought him forward — literally and figuratively. After high school, he had shelved the talent his high-school art teacher said was a rare gift. Smith long doubted he could make it drawing and painting without a formal education. At last, he convinced himself he could.
“Everyone had always said, and I started to believe, growing up, ‘Starving artist, you can’t make this, you should never try to pursue that, find a real job.’ All these perceptions that I had, I thought, ‘This is how it is.’ But I really had a strong calling. My faith behind my art has really kept me going,” Smith says.
His first inspirations came from Pisgah National Forest, his backyard, where he spent his childhood studying plants and insects. He immersed himself in their details. “You really couldn’t keep me inside. I was always intrigued by everything. I was always so curious as a kid, and that’s kinda where my art started.”
While he calls himself an “emerging” artist, his work leaves no question about his skill. He works in acrylic, oils, pastels, pencil, and chalk, creating wall murals, paintings on large and small canvases, and drawings on smooth stones. Lately, he’s been leaning toward portraiture, but he gives himself broad license to create whatever comes to mind.
“I begin to see a world that this person lives in. I’m not looking at any references. I’m actually creating an ideal world this subject should live in,” he explains.
Recent success aside, Smith lives and thinks about art like it’s all he’s ever done.
“It just exploded. Commission after commission after commission, almost to the point of thinking, ‘How am I going to do all this?’” he says.
He’s got a car, now. He’s looking for a new place.
And he works out of a new shared studio/gallery called COLLECTIVE in downtown Brevard, a block off Main Street. He still likes to draw and paint in front of an audience. He multi-tasks, working on up to four paintings at once — today’s it’s a portrait and a fantastical piece of several nudes that emerged by applying gray paint on canvas. It’s a style he calls “reality fantasy.” Smith likes to work from a gray or black background because, he says, “from dark comes light.”
He adds: “All I’ve learned about art comes from God.” (In fact, he is referred to as the “God Taught Artist.”)
Smith is enjoying the experimental phase of the painter’s life. He sells a variety of pieces, recently shipping a commissioned portrait of Marilyn Monroe to a couple living in Bermuda. But he’s just as happy painting a quick, hand-sized hummingbird. He learns new techniques by consulting other artists he’s befriended across the country.
Though he wants to travel, never possible before, Brevard fits his lifestyle and laidback personality. Smith thrives in the Southern culture and underlying artistic current, working in a black graphic tee, black jeans, black high tops, black cap turned backward. COLLECTIVE, where he paints, is a large open studio that encourages give-and-take between artists and patrons. Recently, he participated in a gallery opening that involved poetry (which he writes), dance, and fine art.
As Smith’s earned a reputation around town, his artistic life has expanded. He teaches group lessons, including at Coffee cARTS Studio in Brevard, tutors, and supports other artists. He’s also involved in civic and philanthropic efforts, as a board member of the Transylvania Community Arts Council, and helps his church raise money for missionary work.
Smith lives in a state of blessed astonishment at the emergence of his new life in art. His attitude meter stays on the plus side. Though he still hears other artists lament, “I can’t make a living at it,” he sets a can-do example.
“I have no problem making mistakes in front of people,” notes Smith. “I will sit and paint in front of people and let you watch me destroy a painting and then rebuild it, because that’s the way the process goes. No one can sit in front of a canvas and produce something perfect the first time.