Self-taught artist Cedric Smith creates mixed media masterpieces.
Words by Crystal Bruce
Photos by Cedric Smith
rowing up in a small town in the heart of Georgia, Cedric Smith spent summers at his grandmother’s house in the country. He picked plump plums off trees, waded in the waters to scoop crawfish out of their muddy homes, and hammered nails into the final pieces of wood that made up his clubhouse.
Cedric recalls exploring the woods around his great aunt’s store and finding old tintype signs—the kind that encouraged you to spend a nickel and get a cool, refreshing RC Cola. This seemingly insignificant memory made a huge impact, sparking a lifetime love of worn and weathered signs from a time not so far gone.
It’s not just the antique aspect that captures Cedric’s artistic eye. Even as a child, he would look at the signs and see something missing—himself, or at the very least, someone who represented him.
“I saw the absence of blacks in these advertisements back then, and the ones that I did see, they were portrayed negatively,” Cedric explains. “I wanted to put a spin on that and make it more appealing to me and educational for others: black, white, whatever, or whoever. I want them to see that showing blacks in a more positive light back then would create a better outlook on how people view some blacks today.”
Cedric creates pieces mixing two art forms he’s mastered: photography and painting. He’ll cut out the face of a black person from an old photograph and put it on a colorful back-ground with the name of a famous designer in a big, bold font. He’s creating the advertising he wanted to see as a child.
Cedric paints in his sunlit studio in Macon, Georgia, listening to that familiar slight crackling sound of a vinyl spinning on a record player. “Background noise,” he calls it. The voices are u
nmistakable: Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin. Pure, classic Americana—like the artist he muses about.
“When you think of Americana imagery, you think of Norman Rockwell. I wanted to be somewhat of a Norman Rockwell, showing stuff he didn’t see back then because he wasn’t in those neighborhoods. When you look at my work, it shows positive, but also negative things too. That’s all part of American history.”
Looking at something from both angles is part of Cedric’s personality. Though people tell him he can be serious, he doesn’t look at that in a negative way. He sees the balance.
“I have a lot of humor. Sometimes I can and do put a little humor in there, but I’m taking away the pain of that particular history. It’s what comedians do. The jokes are about the pain they go through, the pain they are suffering. I think that’s more a reflection of me as an artist, because I don’t want everything to be serious. When people look at my work, they think it’s pretty, and once they sit with it a while, they start to see other aspects.”
Cedric didn’t go to school for art; he learned by trial and error and allowed himself to constantly evolve as an artist. When he paints, he uses a putty knife that he’s had for 20 years. He says he needs to get a new one but in the same breath says a new one wouldn’t do the same thing. This particular putty knife, with the layers it has accumulated over the years, gives his paintings an authentic old, roughed-up look.
For a time, he gave up painting and picked up the camera to explore another artistic outlet. It added another layer to his abilities. His time as a photographer made him more aware of composition.
"IT CAN BE ANYTHING—A BOWL OF BLACK-EYED PEAS, A PIECE OF FURNITURE. I'M ALWAYS SEEING STUFF THAT SPARKS IDEAS, AND I PUT THEM TOGETHER TO INSPIRE ME"
"Right now, I’m working on a painting of a little girl in front of flowers holding a sign, and I’m thinking, Where is the sunlight coming from? I look at my paintings now like editorial photography. I’m thinking about the pages that catch my eye and make me tear them out and pin them to my inspiration board.”
That’s right—Cedric has a real-life Pinterest board consisting of things that inspire him. First thing in the morning, he jumps online and scans the news of the day, YouTube, magazines, looking for anything that catches his eye.
“I will see a lady and she may have a certain pink dress, and that might spark something in me to paint. It can be anything—a bowl of black-eyed peas, a piece of furniture. I’m always seeing stuff that sparks ideas, and I put them together to inspire me.”
His real-life inspiration board is nine feet tall and four feet wide. It’s layers upon layers of pictures pinned into foam, and he often flips through the pictures, looking for anything that inspires him to create.
When asked about his greatest achievement, Cedric says he’s lucky to be in a world where people genuinely like his work. And his work is giving him an opportunity to see that world. “Brazil, Paris, California, New York, Chicago—that’s the achievement,” he says. “When you are able to make a living off something you love doing, and it is taking you to places you never would have gone yourself.”
Connecting with an artist is easier than ever, thanks to social media. As of writing this, Cedric has 11,000 followers on Instagram. He calls the platform his biggest seller.
“I’ve had people from San Francisco, the United Kingdom, they’ll see something on Instagram and ask how much and purchase it that way.”
He’s been creating art since 1994, and at one point, he was featured in up to 12 galleries at the same time. A gallery, for many artists, is validation. Cedric sees it a bit differently: “My validation is someone spending their money on something I painted."