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Jerry Smitson: His found art lifted him out of homelessness

ST. PETERSBURG — During an Art in the Park gathering in 2008, a man reeking of alcohol approached Leslie Curran and asked her to look at a piece of his artwork.

Curran, the City Council member who started the event in Williams Park, was underwhelmed by what Jerry Smitson held before her: a glob of Spanish moss and Indian beads still dripping with glue.

But she saw some potential in Mr. Smitson, who specialized in "found art" in which he turned discarded objects into something visual.

"You've got something there," Curran told him. "Keep refining it a little."

At that moment, Mr. Smitson was at his lowest. He was sleeping in Williams Park or in the woods or under bridges. He was eating out of restaurant Dumpsters and drinking every day.

But after Curran's encouragement, Mr. Smitson devoted more time to art and less time to booze. His hands steadied, he began to cobble bones and feathers into more impressive pieces.

Eventually, a community of local artists adopted him, offering advice and ideas. The art improved even more.

Mr. Smitson used anything and everything he could find for his art — fish scales, jawbones, deer skulls and pieces of driftwood. He saw the inner workings of his gargoyles in rotting fish, with ears of bone and fins turned into feet. He created motorcycles with long forks, sand-dollar wheels and a conch shell gas tank.

None of that intricacy had been evident in the gluey clump of moss he first presented Curran, though she saw an artistic promise made sloppy by booze.

In the ensuing months, Mr. Smitson met artists who told him he had talent. Though his drinking abated, he never ditched the habit. Two arrests for alcohol-related misdemeanors later that year landed him in jail for a week.

But his devotion to his art helped him at least slow down his drinking.

He was born in Perry County, Ind., and grew up in Tell City. His father drank heavily and was rarely around, said the Rev. John Smitson Jr., 52, a Nazarene minister and Mr. Smitson's brother.

By age 18, he had dropped out of school and married. He made his living painting houses and owned a contracting business.

He raised a family but could not stop drinking. "He would go and work and then go on a binge for two or three months," his brother said.

Though described as quiet and almost painfully shy, Mr. Smitson had a fiery side and got into his share of avoidable fights, the Rev. Smitson said.

The business dried up. So did the marriage.

A decade or so ago, two grandchildren died in a car crash, which sent him reeling.

He moved to Pinellas County, where the slide continued. He told people he lived in the Whitney Hotel, which was occasionally a true statement.

The rest of the time he slept outside. Other homeless men mugged him for bus passes. He learned to shove dollar bills down his pants, and to crouch nearby when restaurants threw out their scraps.

"What he had to do living on the street, it ran cold chills down my spine," his brother said.

But his relationship with other local artists helped him put that hard life behind him.

Lance Rodgers, an award-winning contemporary artist, met Mr. Smitson through ARTicles, Curran's gallery.

"At first I thought, 'Oh, here's Leslie doing some outreach or something,' " said Rodgers, 58. "Then you could see that he was developing a pretty good eye."

Mr. Smitson was also befriended by the late Bill "Woo" Correira and other artists. His pieces started selling — $50, $75, up to $200.

A golf tournament started using his sand-dollar motorcycles as trophies.

"It gave him some sort of pride," Rodgers said. "He'd come to openings and you could tell he had dressed up a little bit and cleaned up a little bit. He was talking about aesthetics and things. It was really awesome."

Some days he was sober. Others he wasn't.

"Sometimes you could tell he was still drunk, his speech was slurred," his brother said. "But he had cut way, way back."

He got into Boley, a recovery center, about three years ago. With earnings from his artwork, he bought a used truck.

Mr. Smitson also entered Folkfest every year. The competition draws folk artists from Florida and neighboring states. In October 2012, competing against about 60 others, Mr. Smitson's work was awarded Best in Show.

"It was the icing on the cake," Curran said. "It made him very happy."

Recently, though, his health began slipping. A discomfort in his chest he had passed off as pneumonia turned out to be late-stage cancer that had spread through several organs.

Mr. Smitson died March 20 at Bayfront Medical Center. He was 53.

Folkfest St. Pete eulogized him on Facebook as "a superb outsider artist," a term sometimes used for artists who are not trained in art school.

"The part he was good at was the intuitive part — how two disparate things would come together," Rodgers said. "You can't really teach that."

The Rev. Smitson said he thinks that kind of art gave his brother a purpose the last years of his life.

"His artwork started to bring him out, and make him feel like he did have some worth in him," he said. "He took some things that were nothing, and made something out of them."

Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

.Biography

Jerry Lynn Smitson

Born: Sept. 18, 1959

Died: March 20, 2013

Survivors: daughters, Crystal Conder and Heather Smitson; sons, Rodney and Darique Smitson; brother, John Smitson Jr.; sisters, Kathy Poole and Kim Jackson; 7 grandchildren.

Jerry Smitson: His found art lifted him out of homelessness 03/26/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 12:09am]
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