Every Carrie Smith Portrait Tells a Story

Carrie Smith posing in her studio. Photo by Eva Avenue

Every Carrie Smith Portrait Tells a Story

The St. Petersburg-based artist recently painted the iconic Yayoi Kusama, the high-profile installation artist soon to be featured at the Tampa Museum of Art.


by EVA AVENUE | Aug. 28, 2018

Carrie Smith has a painting studio filled with big portraits at the ArtsXchange in St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District. She keeps it clean and organized, and it’s a fun spot to visit while you make the Second Saturday Art Walk rounds.

I show up on a weekday to learn more of Smith’s story. She’s wearing a pair of pants inspired by a trip to Anthropologie. Not wanting to spend $150, she rebirthed a pair of pants she never wears by covering it with little brushstrokes of paint, the way she saw them in the window. She says she almost went into commercial window art installation but instead she’s a full-time painter.

Smith makes good use of her walls and has everything out on display, big and small (mostly big). It’s a bright, clean, colorful Instagram-friendly sort of art studio and gallery that’s fun to take pictures in.

I point to her large portrait of international art star Yayoi Kusama.

CP: So you know she’s coming to Tampa.

Carrie: Yes!

How excited are you?

I’m beyond excited.

Did you paint her because you love her face or her work?

Both. And I love that she wears the red wig — it’s like such an iconic look. But I discovered her a year or so ago and that was before I knew she was coming to Tampa. She was going to go to Ohio. I was like I’ll fly up, stay with my folks in Ohio and go. But then I was like, oh my gosh she’s coming to Tampa … I love her story: she uses art as her therapy and I think a lot of artists do that; I know I did that as well. She’s super persistent. Growing up, I know her folks didn’t want her to paint and to pursue art as a career but she kept going and plowed over all those boundaries and I respect that. I do that as well. It’s nice to see someone who has become so successful. She’s one of the top female living artist that are highest paid, right? So she is definitely someone I admire and I look up to.

A portrait of artist Yayoi Kusama by Carrie Smith.

Tell me about your love of painting people. Have you just been doodling faces your whole life? Did you go to school and take figure drawing?

I was intimidated about painting portraits my whole life. And then in college (Ohio University) I chose portraits. I was like you know what? I’m just going to learn how to do this. So I took drawing lessons, I took the painting lessons and then I took a one-on-one class, like an independent study, with John Sabraw. He’s a kick-ass painter and he taught me how to paint the eyes, the nose, the lips. It was learning a language but it made so much sense to me and it just clicked. And ever since then I’ve been painting faces. But I like to study the person I’m painting and I like to kind of pull out their character in each portrait. And kind of create a sense of familiarity with their expression almost so it relates to the viewer in a way. And I love the psychological background; she is super intense right? Bold. It’s like a don’t-fuck-with-me almost kind of attitude. And I like to pull that out of people. But for other people, maybe it’s a little softer.  (Pointing to another painting) The girl, her name is Shawna, with the profile view. That’s more of a softer portrait. She’s kind of facing away from the viewer and we’re studying her. Everyone has their own story which I find fascinating and I want to express that with each painting I do.

So do you sell much out of here? How’s the foot-traffic?

I just sold that piece behind you, “Brighter Days,” right before you came in.

Really? Congratulations, that’s amazing! Was it someone just walking through here?

I have my Dalí painting at Kozuba Distillery right now on display, so the girl who invited me to display my work bought that. Pretty excited about that.

Has someone tried to buy the Yayoi painting yet?

Not yet but I’m working on getting someone who works at the Tampa Museum to maybe get this in front of the eyes people who love her work or even Yayoi.

I’ll bet that would even sell out of your studio during her show here because they’d be like “OMG, it’s that lady with the Tampa Museum show!” Have you thought about making prints of this and just having small ones here on sale during her show?

I should print some out for Second Saturday.

So when did you decide to move in here? Have you had many studios before?

I had a studio in Clearwater for two and a half years. That was right after I graduated college — I worked there.

What was Clearwater like?

It was just slow. It was a good place for me to work because I live like 10 minutes away so it’s fine. But we just didn’t get much foot traffic, not like we do here. And when I found out about the ArtsXchange, I put my name on the waiting list and luckily I got in.

How long did it take?

Maybe over a year, I think. I’ve been here since October since it opened and it was the best decision I’ve ever made for my career.

So do you treat this like a 9 to 5 work day?

It’s not 9 to 5 just because there’s so much to do besides painting. It’s shipping, it’s promoting, it’s installing. I come 3-4 times a week and I’m painting less now because I’m doing other stuff, the business side of things, which is good.

Do you think you’ll ever get to the point where you can hire someone?

I would like to. I’d like to have a team. Do you know who Ashley Longshore is?

Um, YES. Hello!

She kicks ass.

She wins so hard.

I talked to her like a year and a half ago. I called her to ask advice.

And she picked up or one of her assistants picked up?

One of her assistants picked up, of course. But she talked to me, giving me advice for like 30 minutes and it was really nice just hearing it.

What!? So she’s all busy and you call up and her assistant does what, oh let me put you right through? Or she’ll call you back?

I emailed first and said I’m an aspiring artist down here in Florida, I love your work, I love what you do, and I’d just like to talk to you for 10, 15 minutes to pick our brain on how to do this and the assistant was like “Ashley is free on this day 2 or 3 weeks later,” something like that. And then she talked to me. She’s got an amazing group of females working for her so eventually I’d like to see that happen with my studio. I’d like to do a portrait of her too. I’ve done Yayoi, I’ve done Dalí , I’ve done Kehinde; they’re all artists I admire and she’s on my list now. I just like her vibe, she’s so positive, her work is so vibrant and fun and she always puts funny sayings on her paintings. She’s making the world a better place doing that.

She’s like a vintage refrigerator magnet but fine art and sassy.

Super sassy. She’s so herself. No filter.

So what are your favorite parts to paint when you’re doing a portrait?

The eyes. They’re embedded in our skull so you wanna start with what’s furthest away and then you build around it. So I get everything in and later on I’ll do the eyelids and everything else around the face.

You’re right, it is the farthest part of the face — I never thought of that.

Mm hmm, so you wanna push those in there and then build out from there.

So you do portrait commissions too?

Yes, if someone wants their child painted, I’ll do that. Or themselves, I’ll do that.

From life or a photo?

A photo of them. I take the photo. I have a price sheet on that little table. The small ones start at $575 and then they go up. A 20-by-20 painting is $1,700.

People can find you during Second Saturdays.

Yes and by appointment. I’ll do any time of the week or on weekends.

You wouldn’t put your number out?

I put my number out; it’s on my business card.

Has that ever led to weird calls?

I got one weird call.

What was it?

Just someone joking around with me, I forget what it was. But I have had people from prison write me. No joke.

What do you mean?

This was maybe 4 years ago, when I started. I was in an article, Dupont Registry and I had all my information out and then I kept getting these letters from inmates saying like let’s connect or lets do something like collaborate cause he was an artist and I just never really responded. Little fun fact most people don’t know.

For more info, visit carrievsmith.com

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