Assuming the form of gardens, villages, grottoes, temples, towers (Rosen helped protect Los Angeles’s now-landmarked Watts Towers), self-styled kingdoms and castles, many such installations disappear after their maker’s death or relocation because of sporadic local resources or interest in saving them.
But when Smith decided to shift his focus from Aurora to Hammond 22 years ago, during trips back to Louisiana to care for his mother, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisc., a pioneer in preserving American artist-made environments, stepped in and helped save much of the Illinois work, acquiring more than 200 sculptures.
In the summer of 2019, I saw some of those pieces for the first time in an exhibition at the Kohler. The show felt somehow more like an enthralling theatrical production, with an enormous, motley cast, than a sculptural grouping. And I quickly understood why a review I had read online about the exhibition, in The Magazine Antiques, said that Smith’s work, in the specificity of its gaze, lands “like a gut punch to comfy concepts of folk art.”
Matthew Higgs, the director and chief curator of White Columns, who has for years made the venerable nonprofit into a destination for work by self-taught artists, artists with disabilities and others who defy conventional classification, saw Smith’s work for the first time at the Kohler in 2017.
Several of his pieces were woven thoughtfully into a sprawling installation by the Brooklyn-based artist Heather Hart, who wrote at the time of Smith: “His subjects exude pride, celebrate talent, acknowledge despair and reflect endurance: They are African-American heroes and heroines, spiritual leaders, artists, musicians, athletes and friends.”