Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

‘I Just Like to Make Work’: A peek inside the weird world of enigmatic San Antonio artist James Smolleck

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Artist James Smolleck in his home studio with recent works including the 2021 drawing The Goblin Scapegoat. - BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Bryan Rindfuss
  • Artist James Smolleck in his home studio with recent works including the 2021 drawing The Goblin Scapegoat.
While some artists are driven by the prospect of fame and fortune, others are simply driven by the need to create. San Antonio native James Smolleck easily falls into the latter category.

“I always kind of knew I was going to be an artist,” Smolleck told the Current during a recent studio visit. His business-minded father teased him about his chosen career path by handing him the classifieds and asking, “You see any jobs for artists?”

Undeterred, Smolleck stuck to his guns but found his way through the unexpected discipline of skateboarding. As a teen attending Churchill High School in the 1980s, he palled around with fellow skaters Aaron Curry and Erik Parker — both of whom went on to become renowned artists.

“Around ’86, ’87, skateboarding was pretty underground,” Smolleck said. “So we kind of all found each other. … It was really formative. The graphics and just the whole idea of doing your own thing — that’s actually what got me more into making artwork: skateboarding.”

Those strange bedfellows became further intertwined when Smolleck studied art at UTSA then purchased Zulu’s — a local skate shop he and his business partner renamed Goodtimes and operated until 1998. Nevertheless, he drifted away from skating as he started taking painting and drawing more seriously.

A pivotal moment arrived when Curry, who was then studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, returned to the Alamo City and invited Smolleck to Blue Star to check out an exhibition of paintings by Peter Saul, a boundary-pushing artist known for his cartoonish aesthetic and biting social satires.

“Seeing that show really got me [inspired] to paint,” Smolleck explained.

While Saul emerged as a major influence on Smolleck’s early work, the UTSA community also played a key role in his artistic development. “Ken Little was one my first professors,” he said. “I had him for drawing. It was a really good experience. I had Connie Lowe for painting. … Dario Robleto was in one of my classes. … Hills Snyder was a graduate student. So, it was a real melting pot at that time.”

During his senior year, Smolleck started shifting away from Saul’s poppy sensibilities, honing his painting skills and embracing the aesthetics of Flemish and Italian masters.

“When I finished school, my dad asked me, ‘What are you gonna do now?’ And I was like, ‘I’m gonna do carpentry.’ He said, ‘What the fuck? I just paid for this school,’” Smolleck recounted. “I always knew I [would] have to find a way to make revenue, because there’s no way to [earn a living] just making artwork. … So, my wife’s father hooked me up working in a mill shop. … I worked for this contractor for a year — the worst year of my fucking life. But I learned a lot … and I was making a shit ton of artwork … it was just piling up in my studio.”

A work in progress in Smolleck’s studio. - BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Bryan Rindfuss
  • A work in progress in Smolleck’s studio.
Around that time, Smolleck ran into Ken Little at First Friday, and he scheduled a studio visit from his former professor. Little was so taken by the quality and volume of Smolleck’s work that he arranged a meeting with Chris Erck and Gabriela Trench of the influential Finesilver Gallery.

“Gabriela just started selling [my work],” Smolleck said. “She was like, ‘Let’s find homes for all this stuff.’ And so that’s how I ended up working with Finesilver for a while.”

Upon the birth of his daughter in 2006, Smolleck decided to take a break from creating work.

“Having my daughter opened my eyes up to a lot more things,” he said. “[I stopped caring about] trying to do shows or what this person might think. When she was born, I was like, ‘I don’t give a shit about any of that stuff. She’s the coolest thing ever. This is all that matters — everything else is bullshit, dude.’”

That epiphany marked a turning point. As Smolleck slowly returned to the studio, he allowed himself to start addressing themes that had long interested him but hadn’t yet appeared in his work: the occult, alchemy, architecture, Persian manuscripts, even his own subconscious.

“I was putting all this off,” he said. “It freed my head — like, ‘Fuck it, I don’t care what anybody thinks.’”

By 2009, Smolleck had developed the signature style he works in today — dark, enigmatic and increasingly theatrical. Reminiscent of everything from fraternal organizations and secret societies to science fiction and the masked drama of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Smolleck’s meticulously rendered drawings and paintings often place hooded characters in mysterious situations he sums up as “choreographed rituals.”

Smolleck's painting Boundaries of Opacity. - BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Bryan Rindfuss
  • Smolleck's painting Boundaries of Opacity.
During the visit to his home studio, works in progress lined the walls. Smolleck estimates his drawings and paintings each take about two months to complete. He doesn’t create them with any destination in mind.

“I just like to make work,” Smolleck said. “I’m fine with it just piling up. If somebody sees it, that’s cool. My end goal with making work is not to have shows or anything, just to make work.”

When quizzed about his exhibition history, he replies, “My resumé is pretty pathetic.” Selective might be a better word for it. In addition to being included in the permanent collections of the San Antonio Museum of Art and the McNay Art Museum, Smolleck has exhibited in Mexico, France and Denmark, and he’s represented by David Shelton Gallery in Houston.

Despite some disillusionment with the gallery system, Smolleck goes all-in when the right opportunity arises. He cites both 2012’s “Neophyte Doublestare into the Eighth Dimension” at Sala Diaz, curated by Hills Snyder, and 2018’s “Transmissions from the Blue Egg” at the Southwest School of Art, curated by Chad Dawkins, as milestones.

Pondering the work that piles up in his studio, Smolleck reflects on the outsider artist and writer Henry Darger, who became famous upon the posthumous discovery of his oeuvre — especially the epic, 15,145-page novel The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

“Darger was a fucking janitor and just made all that work,” Smolleck said. “It’s just something he felt he had to do — and that’s the way I feel. If I’m not doing this stuff, it just feels weird.”

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