William E. Smith and Depression-Era America
A young Black man looks out at us with smiling eyes, his head held high, his lips parted in a satisfied grin. His exuberance is palpable – infectious, really. Who is he, this image of happiness, whose joyful essence the artist manages to capture with but a few swift cuts? He is dressed in overalls and a collared shirt, with the hint of a hat atop his head in the form of an arced line. Printmaker William E. Smith titled the work Pay Day: “I caught all this from a boy who spread his happiness all over the place when he drew his first pay from his first job.” In an era marred by unemployment and poverty for many, especially for African Americans, such an occasion was indeed cause for celebration.
Images such as this, marked by a unique combination of compositional skill and social sensitivity, are common to Smith’s œuvre. Working during the 1930s and 1940s – a period that saw an explosion of printmaking activity in the U.S. – Smith was part of a small but prominent group of African-American artists. Following the first self-conscious cultural movements of the “Black Renaissance” or “Harlem Renaissance” in the 1920s, these artists sought to explore and make visible themes related to the Black experience in America. Smith has been lauded by James Porter, a pioneer in the field of African-American art history, as one of the dominant personalities in African-American printmaking.
Born and raised in poverty in Tennessee, then Ohio, Smith discovered printmaking at Cleveland’s famous Karamu House, an interracial hub founded to address the cultural needs of people living in one of the worst slums in the city. Its stated objective was, firstly, to define the direction of the African American’s creative abilities into the mainstream of American life, “thus removing him from the isolation which has been so costly to initiative and ambition.” Secondly, to enable the African American to “tell his own story to the community and the Nation, making directly known his sufferings, his dissatisfaction, his aspirations and his ambitions.”
Karamu House, which took its name from a Swahili word meaning “place of joyful meeting,” not only introduced Smith to a variety of printmaking processes, but also later provided teaching and exhibition opportunities for the artist. It was here where, armed with everyday objects such as linoleum and an umbrella stave, Smith launched his printmaking career. The prints he made at Karamu remain a highlight of his œuvre, and it is largely through them and their multiplicity that his work is known.
Smith’s 1940 print Poverty & Fatigue stands in stark contrast to the jubilant character of Pay Day. In this work, he explores the material and psychic toll of Depression-era, socioeconomic hardships in more explicit terms: a male figure sits on a city stoop, his hands folded idly between his legs, his head bowed. Whether burdened by chronic unemployment or work that brings little relief from perpetual poverty, he appears slumped under the weight of the world. The man’s face is hidden from view – he conveys his weariness and defeat solely through body language. Significantly, he is alone. Print collectors Reba and Dave Williams have remarked how this sense of loneliness is often present in prints by Black artists of the Depression era. This sets them apart from works by other contemporary artists who depict the same stories in groups: groups of strikers, groups in bread lines, groups of unemployed in streets or parks. Smith’s images capture an intimate slice of a marginalized community.
At the same time, Poverty & Fatigue is an excellent example of how Smith subtly but definitively defied a singular approach to his art: he created an impression of the work, now at The Cleveland Museum of Art, which he titled Siesta. The same image, two vastly different titles and, by extension, contexts for interpretation. By altering the title, Smith consciously assigned different agencies to his print, inviting new ways of seeing.
Both Pay Day and Poverty & Fatigue showcase Smith’s ability to capture the humour and pathos of life for many African Americans at this time. His tightly focused compositions and poignant vignettes are conveyed with a gentle expressiveness that reveals his sensitivity to the human condition at large and, more specifically, to the poor and racially oppressed. The contrast of the velvety black ink on japan paper further enhances the drama of the scenes, as do Smith’s powerfully economic lines, whereby even the most minimalist forms can convey a strong emotional charge.
Pay Day and Poverty & Fatigue, purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in January 2020, are the first works by Smith to enter a Canadian public collection. They reflect the Gallery's ongoing commitment to broaden its holdings of work by Black artists across the collection, as well as to highlight the work of lesser-known artists who have often been neglected in traditional art-historical narratives. While not a household name, Smith is nevertheless recognized as one of the premier African-American printmakers of his time, continuing efforts throughout his life both to bring the challenges of being Black in America to broader public visibility and to promote the expertise of African-American artists.
The writer is of English ancestry and humbly acknowledges that her interpretation of these works is one of an outsider.
Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.