Q&A: Ben Smith on archetypes past and present

Atlanta artist Ben Smith speaks with The Alexander Report about the mysterious figures in his woodblock prints

Featured image: Ben Smith, Death on a Red Fish, woodblock print, 1976 (All images courtesy the artist/Chastain Fine Arts)

by Andrew Alexander
September 2019

When I was growing up, a huge poster hung on a wall in my parents’ living room. It showed a strange processional figure cloaked in black with a voluminous red-striped ceremonial skirt. With one hand, he held a mask on a stick a few feet away from his face. Both mask and face had the exact same distinctive profile. More than a little spooky, but somehow strangely calming in its graphic simplicity and in its plain-spoken recognition of a complicated truth: face and mask, revelation and obfuscation, can be indistinguishable.

This is the unforgettable work of Atlanta artist Ben Smith. I’d never met him, but I literally grew up with his work. I was thrilled to learn that Smith was having a retrospective exhibition Ben Smith Past and Present at the Chastain Fine Arts Center, so I jumped at the chance to speak with him about his work and to ask where those strange figures come from.

When did you first start making your large-scale woodblock prints?

Ben Smith: I was still in art school at Atlanta College of Art at that time. It was probably some time in the 1960s. Probably 1967. I seem to remember putting that date on some of them.

Masquerader, woodblock print, 1968

Where did those figures come from? What inspired them?

Smith: I was always interested in archetypal images. While I was at Atlanta College of Art, they had a little gallery for students to sell things in. There was a visiting lecturer named Rudolf Arnheim, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology. He asked to see me, and I wondered why. At that time it was nice to be noticed by anybody. He said that I used contemporary means, but my instincts were of someone who made icons. He thought that was rather rare, to see someone with that much instinct intact, using modern stylistic means. He’s the first one to make the connection that I was drawing archetypes. And of course, the woodblock prints have a poster quality to them. A poster is in many ways the 20th century icon. 

One of the things that’s so compelling about the figures is their sense of mystery. It’s hard to know who they are, what they represent, where they’re going. But do you have specific stories to go with them? Is it clear to you who they are?

Smith: No. I’m probably as mystified as anyone. It’s that sense of going through life and knowing there’s something there and not being able to put one’s finger on it. 

Ben Smith at the opening of his show at Chastain Fine Arts Center.

Can you tell me more about the process of making one of the woodblock prints?

Smith: It’s the principal of the typewriter key basically. To make the woodblock, you carve out all the negative spaces and ink the positive spaces with a roller. It’s the oldest form of printing that we have. There are certain significant Buddhist manuscripts that wouldn’t have existed any other way. You need a block for each color if it’s a multi-color thing. You have to match each block as it’s printed with the one before to make sure it comes down in the same place. … To tell you the truth, I’ve never enjoyed printing out the editions very much. It’s just labor. And with all that ink flying around, not particularly neat labor. I enjoy the first two or three, discovering how they look. Sometimes the first one is a surprise.

Were your parents artists, as well?

Smith: Musicians. My mother was going to go to Juilliard at one time. She got married and World War II happened. My father loved music. He was the second trumpet at Emory. They were musical people. I’m the one who drew. Most children draw, which is kind of wonderful. The kicker is that I never stopped.

Ben Smith

Were you fascinated by myths and stories and archetypes as a kid? Or did that come later?

Smith: I loved myths. I loved illustrations. There was a golden age of illustration at the turn of the last century. Not as much was printed during World War II so I had the things my parents had. There were a lot of wonderful books by people like Arthur Rackham and Jessie Willcox Smith. I was very interested in Art Deco, which was very strong at the time when I was a kid. It looks back to pre-classical Greece and Mesopotamia, but it also looks forward to the future, which made it an interesting style. 

Puppet Show, graphite drawing, 1998.

The new show contains a lot of recent drawings.

Smith:  I’m older than I used to be. I couldn’t for the life of me print or cut one of those things anymore. So I sit down and draw. I usually start out without knowing what I’m going towards. A lot of it is subliminal. Something will come to me as I’m moving my hands, and I’ll pursue it. I love doing it. It’s what I wanted to do since I was a kid.

Ben Smith Past and Present runs through October 5 at Chastain Fine Arts Center.