As British satirist Alan Patrick Herbert once said of artists, “A highbrow is the kind who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.” But what about the artist who looks at a sausage and sees only a beautiful piece of meat? Or the artist who thinks Picasso was an expert at expressing concrete emotion through abstract art? Where does that artist fit in?
Such is the dilemma of Jacksonville sculptor Jim Smith, whose steampunk assemblages — diorama-like mechanical prototypes of imagined Victorian-era objects — straddle the fine line between highbrow art and universally appealing work. The 62-year-old artist’s most ambitious installation yet, five 8-foot-by-14-foot panels containing nearly a thousand 4-inch-by-12-inch cigar box-sized steampunk assemblages, go on public display on Saturday, March 29, at 914 King St. at a reception organized by Folio Weekly contributor Abigail Wright.
Steve Flores and Ed Salem, owners of Kickbacks Gastropub, commissioned the work from Smith to visually anchor their new business, an “international comfort food restaurant” called Goozlepipe & Guttyworks, scheduled to open in May. Flores’ and Salem’s intentions to redevelop the space, which is adjacent to Kickbacks, originally ran into several protests from the Riverside Avondale Preservation neighborhood group. But those problems were smoothed over in January, allowing Smith full entrée to compile the largest of his three site-specific art installations in Jacksonville.
Many of the assemblages on display at 914 King St. directly echo the obsession with techno-surrealist sci-fi that dominates the steampunk aesthetic. There’s Edgar Allan Poe’s machine to cure melancholia, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone-like device to better communicate with his profoundly deaf parents, a device to reanimate a broken heart, H.G. Wells’ time-travel suit, and a séance machine intended to contact Harry Houdini in the afterlife.
To be clear, none of these objects was ever created or owned by any of those visionaries. But all are instantly recognizable to anyone passingly familiar with steampunk’s primary aesthetic palette: gold, copper, brass, cast iron, clocks, dark wood. “As a steampunk artist, you really need to be aware of history,” Smith says. “I think of these pieces as little historical novels, which often contain hard facts while having many other storylines that you can’t prove. But all of them speak to historical fascinations, and their subjects run the gamut from love to happiness to money to greed to sex — all the things Shakespeare wrote about, basically.”
Central to Smith’s work is his own Shakespearean legend that he created several years ago to combat the affliction of arrogant or nonsensical artist statements (“For me, the easier way was to come up with this make-believe story,” he says). So here goes: In 1987, Smith was contacted by one Martha Doyle Jennings, the great-granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle. Jennings had received a notice informing her of a derelict family property in France that the government planned to destroy to make way for The Chunnel, an underwater rail tunnel connecting France and the UK. Inside the property were thousands of scientific and social prototypes collected by Doyle during his lifetime, and Jennings sent Smith to salvage and catalog everything.
Smith says that though the story in any format is clearly labeled with a “THIS IS A LEGEND” disclaimer, he still gets inquiries into why his artifacts aren’t roped off in museums or insured by major banks. “Once I explain the whole thing and say, ‘No, it’s made up — they look real, but they’re only real art,’ sometimes people get offended,” Smith says. That’s why he’ll have steampunk enthusiasts — some dressed in era-appropriate garb, some not — present at the reception, to add an interactive, historical and performance-art aspect to the evening.
For those snickering at the idea of “steampunk” as a legitimate art form, or the prospect of eager enactors from the Cowford Steampunk Society talking about fictionalized objects, consider Smith’s background as a steampunk artist. Working as a painter in New York City in the 1960s, Smith kept adding objects to his work until it was nearly three-dimensional — at which point a friend said, “Get out of the closet, Jim. You’re a sculptor, not a painter. Be a sculptor.”
His fascination with objects — “They resonate with me, and I feel I can read their aura,” Smith says — quickly deepened. Influenced by flourishing Pop Art icons like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, box art progenitor Joseph Cornell — whom Smith says “is to assemblage art what Pollock is to abstract art: anybody who works in that vein must pay homage to him” — and by New York’s developing performance art scene, Smith heeded his friend’s advice and dived headfirst into three-dimensional work.
Moving to Jacksonville in 1977 to start his teaching career, Smith eventually earned his master’s degree from Jacksonville University and secured a job teaching at Bolles School. In the early 2000s, in one of his Bolles classrooms, Smith was working on one of his many assemblages. A student told him that the work was clearly in the steampunk vein. “At first I said, ‘What is that?’ ” Smith remembers. “So I went online and did some research and realized it was pretty close. A good metaphor would be ‘same church, different pew.’ “
Smith’s goal with his steampunk work is to have it always be viewed as more serious than mere “kitschy whirligigs and silly widgets.” “The main thing I try to avoid is movement, even thought the pieces look like they could move,” he says. “I want the viewer to believe that what they are seeing is true and real. I want my pieces to be taken more seriously as a whole body of work, like a Rolling Stones or The Beatles album. The individual songs are cool, but listening to them as a collective makes for a richer experience.”
Part of his work’s organic nature stems from the fact that he creates many of his own materials from found or reclaimed sources. “I jokingly tell people that when it comes to materials, I’m an art whore,” Smith says. “I can’t say no. Brass light fixtures, granite blocks — I even had someone give me plastic globes they thought I’d use in a steampunk piece that I ended up using for a site-specific installation at the Jacksonville Arboretum inspired by Monet and Jeff Koontz that wasn’t steampunk at all. So I’ll take anything and everything. You never know how something might get used.”
Although Smith has displayed or installed his art at several local Jacksonville venues, including The Cummer Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church and Southlight Art Gallery, he says his steampunk displays sell best in Europe, particularly in Nantes, the hometown of steampunk godfather Jules Verne. The city’s Jules Verne Museum is even negotiating with Smith to display some of his work there in 2015, though the financial challenges of transatlantic sculpture transportation present the biggest obstacle to securing such a monumental deal.
But Smith says that regular travels to France, including Nantes and its steampunk theme park Isle of the Machines, have actually helped him expand his own artistic horizons. “I think art is a calling. As my website says, it’s one of the few compulsions that’s socially acceptable,” he says. “It’s part of your DNA. I go in withdrawal when I’m unable to make sculptures, which is why I learned to take pictures when my partner and I go to France every summer since I’m unable to make sculptures. My photography is mostly just OK, but it’s like methadone for a junkie in that, if I couldn’t make art at all, I’d be a crazy man.”
Yet Smith has reconciled his obsessive artistic urges with his four-decade career as an award-winning and highly influential schoolteacher. “Teaching is a wonderful thing,” he says. “Often artists spend a lot of time in their studios and never have the opportunity to hear what other people think. But I believe I’m the only man my age who understands what cray-cray means or knows the words to Lady Gaga songs. I even found out recently that I do not have swag, which was really upsetting! I’m being light about it, but I’ve learned so many interesting, aesthetic things from my students that have been so important to my art.”
Which makes a lot of sense when you realize that placing Smith’s fantastical yet historically rooted steampunk art on either side of the highbrow-versus-lowbrow divide is impossible. “Highbrow art often leaves me questioning, cold and with no response,” he says. “The idea as an artist is to have a narrative; you should be able to communicate.” Comparing Mozart’s revered status as a classical music titan with his original role composing and playing music for the 16th-century masses, Smith adds, “If you can’t speak the language and make people understand what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing it.”