I’ve referred to Jim Smith for years as the “Colorist to the Stars!” He usually laughs, but inwardly I’m sure he’s gritting his teeth. He loathes ostentation, artifice, or vulgarity of any kind. One of the most visually astute people I’ve ever come across, Jim’s exterior is one of quiet reserve and self-effacing shyness. A “colorist” yes — Jim is to beige as fizz is to champagne — without serious input one from the other you’re simply not getting the optimal bang for your buck. He’s worked with some of San Antonio’s loftiest social and professional names to transform ho-hum residences/offices/galleries and spaces into tasteful, striking, even downright spectacular showcases. His work is seen in every major city in Texas. He’s “colorized” everything from palatial ranch estates to penthouses — from Massachusetts to California, Florida to Colorado, Maine to Mexico.
All from a man who didn’t own a computer until a few months ago and still doesn’t have a cell phone. A man who is waved to and whistled at as he motors around town in his 1954 “English Dinner Mint Green” (Jim’s precise wording) Buick “Super” as if he were leading his very own Battle of Flowers Parade. Jim doesn’t advertise, doesn’t pass out business cards, doesn’t attend conventions or symposiums — in short, Jim doesn’t “network.” His business is 100-percent word of mouth. To see him on the floor of his River Road bungalow painstakingly cutting paint snippets from a plethora of color wheels flung haphazardly around his office, fastidiously gluing each vestige to an intricate hand-written design schematic incorporating photographs, fabric swatches, fragments from nature — is to observe something akin to, say, Yves St. Laurent assembling a haute-couture collection. Meticulous, exceptional, observant — everything custom-made.
I’ve known Jim Smith for a very long time. So long, neither of us can remember when or how we met. We had a sit-down a few weeks ago, and I asked him to begin by telling me what he remembers as his “favorite time” in all his years of SA residency.
“In my mental ‘Way Back Time Machine’ it’s 1981 again, and I’m sitting in the Calico Cat Tea Room down on North Presa, and in walks Anne Alexander and over there is Brad Braune sitting with a group of the original ‘River Rats,’ and Yvonne Woods is back in the kitchen making something wonderful, and everyone knows everyone, and San Antonio is once again this big small town with a real sense of community, and I’m thinking — this is such a cool place to live! Little did I know that practically right around the corner the whole scene was going to be pretty much fractured forever.
When I first got here in 1971, San Antonio was like this splendid ruin, not unlike New Orleans. You had all these rotting front porches hanging off enormous Victorian palazzos all over town. It was highly atmospheric. And you could live cheaply, too. San Antonio was like the Palermo, Sicily, of Texas! You could just get a job in some health-food store and have a life — unlike say Dallas, where without the hair, the clothes, and the job, you didn’t exist.
“It’s true, ‘Progress’ came slow to San Antonio — we’ve had a long time to brew down here. And, of course, there’s always been this high-suburban — what I call the “Hum-of-the-Campbell-soup-cans-being-opened-every-evening” — vibe going on. That soothing, bland ‘Luby’s World’ thing. I guess my boring, bourgeois inner child just needs to know that someone, somewhere in this town is enjoying a big piece of Devil’s Food cake once in a while in order to feel all is truly right with the world.
“I was born in Houston; both of my parents were from East Texas. I have three older sisters. When I was 3, my mother died, and my father, who was already in his mid-’50s by then, sent us off to live with a series of Texas aunts. Eventually he bought a home in St. Louis and we all moved up there. My father was a self-made Texas oil man and inventor with an eighth-grade education. He was obsessed with his only son getting the proper schooling. I attended a rather formal, all-boys prep school in St. Louis, and it was a wonderful environment, but you know, I was a dreamy kid. I spent the greater part of seven years sketching blueprints and doing life drawings in my notebook when I should have been paying attention to the French Revolution. Outwardly I appeared a conformist, but inwardly I was highly rebellious.
“When I was in high school I knew there was going to be trouble ahead because all my friends were being groomed to go to Amherst, become doctors, or take over Dad’s business — and that clearly wasn’t on my horizon. I announced one day that I was going to be an architect and everyone in the family kind of went, ‘OK.’ They all thought I was very talented and not another word was said until my mid-term report card arrived freshman year at the University of Texas School of Architecture. Suddenly it was, ‘Houston, we have a problem!’ I was a disaster in math. So I ended up doing what any other math-deprived architecture undergraduate with a student deferment who was adamantly opposed to the draft and the war in Vietnam did — I slid over into the Art Department for the next three years. I concentrated on sculpture, studying under Charles Umlauf, who gave me the only A in the entire class. I loved sculpture so much that’s all I wanted to do, and then I got to my final year and they said, ‘No, you’re not allowed to take any more sculpture classes. You need to take a geometry, a biology, and two more semesters of introduction to paleology, or whatever, before you can graduate.’ So I sniffed and said, ‘Oh, really?’ and hopped in a van with a bunch of friends and went off to live in a commune in Oregon for the next four months. Never regretted a minute of it. It was the time. It’s what the ’60s experience was all about.”
“My generation, the late ’60s/early ’70swas all about freedom, expressing yourself, self-awareness. Of course, at lot of us from that era retreated in a big hurry. It was like this big flare had gone up — bright, hot, mesmerizing — and a lot of people got singed in the process. I wanted to grow, become more sophisticated — I didn’t want to be making tie-dyed T-shirts 30 years down the road, so I moved on, too.
“I lived in New York for nearly a year, and it was fabulous, but I realized without friends, connections, money — resources — I just didn’t have that kind of dynamo personality to make the city bend to my will. I’m a Texan — come spring I started thinking about warm weather and inner-tubing and not having to scream at taxi drivers trying to kill you. I got homesick in the worst way. I came back down to San Antonio in 1971 and became an impromptu chef for Walter Starcke, who had this wonderful New Age meditation commune going on at his home in Terrell Hills. One day, Walter asked me to pick out some colors for a house he was restoring in Monte Vista, and I said, ‘Sure,’ not giving it a whole lot of thought. Next thing I knew, somebody was knocking on the front door wanting to know, ‘Who did your colors?’ Hard to believe from such an inconspicuous beginning a 30-plus year career is launched.”
“I suppose one definition of eccentric to me is people who have maintained some level of independence due to the fact they either couldn’t or didn’t choose to make it in the corporate world. They’ve avoided the ‘Big Ant Hill’ all together. But having the freedom to be an eccentric doesn’t necessarily make one an eccentric. If you don’t have that form of ‘inherited security’ — money, self-worth, blazing talent, unwavering vision — you will pay a price. I’m sure others perceive me as eccentric, but I see myself as equally conservative in personal taste and demeanor, if certainly not politically.
“And I’m NOT just this guy who picks out colors.I think that’s stupid. I guess my real frustration is that Leonardo da Vinci spent a number of years decorating parties, and it’s now considered a scandal by many that he wasn’t doing his art during that time. Part of me ALWAYS wants to be back in my little studio painting or throwing pottery or sketching or sculpting. It’s the conflict I think most creative people wrestle with — paying bills and paying homage to your gift. The great riddle of my life is this: Everything to do with being a color consultant has been ‘all doors magically open’ and everything to do with being a full-time artist usually results in conflict, delay, indifference … struggle. It’s a real dichotomy.” •