Dr. Charles Smith

July 8–September 10, 2022

Press Release

White Columns is pleased to announce the first New York exhibition by the Hammond, Louisiana-based artist – and founder of the “African-American Heritage Museum + Black Veterans’ Archive” – Dr. Charles Smith (b. 1940, New Orleans.) Dr. Smith’s exhibition comprises a group of 30 recent figurative sculptures – including portraits of Paul Robeson, Diana Ross and Phillis Wheatley – made over the past year in his Hammond, LA studio and home.

Dr. Charles is self-taught as an artist, and self-designated as a ‘Doctor’ – a title he adopted to better communicate the “elevated level of wisdom” that he has garnered from his life experiences. Dr. Charles is an ordained minister and a veteran, he has worked as a community organizer, a social worker, an educator, an archivist, and as an orator: experiences that continue to inform and shape his identity as an artist and activist. Since the mid-1980s, initially in Aurora, Illinois, and more recently in Hammond, Louisiana, Dr. Charles Smith has created one of the most remarkable sculptural projects of the past forty years.

Charles Smith was born in 1940 in New Orleans and relocated with his mother and siblings, following the death of his father, to Chicago in the mid-1950s. In 1955 Smith’s mother took her children to pay their respects at the funeral of Emmett Till, an experience that would have a profound effect on the young Smith, one that would impact upon his subsequent development and determination as an artist. In 1966 Smith was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps, and he served for two years as an infantryman in Vietnam before being honorably discharged in 1968. His experiences in Vietnam left him with physical, psychological, and spiritual wounds that resulted in his suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 1986 Dr. Smith purchased a property in Aurora, Illinois, where he initially created a commemorative sculpture of a friend who had died in Vietnam. Over the ensuing fifteen years he continued to make figurative sculptures in Aurora, and by the time he left for Louisiana in 2000, he had created more than six hundred individual works, transforming his home and yard into an all-encompassing, site-specific sculptural environment commemorating “African American history, from slavery to the present.” He named the Aurora site the “African-American Heritage Museum + Black Veterans’ Archive.” (More than two hundred of the sculptures from the Aurora site subsequently entered the collection of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.) In Hammond, Louisiana, starting in 2001, Dr. Charles initiated the second iteration of the “African-American Heritage Museum + Black Veterans’ Archive”, which remains active to this day. Created within the context of his properties, Dr. Smith’s site-specific environments in Aurora and Hammond were ultimately not directed towards mainstream art audiences, instead Dr. Smith considered them as “gifts” to their respective communities. As an artist, archivist, activist and educator, Dr. Charles views the narratives of African American history and the African American experience as the constantly unfolding subject of his lifetime’s work. In his work Dr. Smith commemorates the lives of celebrated Black public figures such as George Washington Carver and Malcolm X whilst simultaneously elevating the lives and experiences of his friends and neighbors, the individuals in his community who are fighting for change. As a statement on Dr. Charles’ website suggests, his work is ultimately an “expression of his profound commitment to righting history, teaching social justice and preaching anti-racism.”

At White Columns Dr. Smith will present a group of thirty recent discrete sculptures. Smaller in scale than those made for the Hammond and Aurora public sites, they are intended for display in gallery and museum settings. Constructed in his signature painted concrete, often augmented with found objects, Dr. Smith’s deeply empathetic sculptures share all of the formal characteristics of his larger public works. Seen together they operate as if a ‘chorus’, a sculptural ‘community’, and a polyphony of voices that amplify both the pathos and the joy of the lives that they represent.

Dr. Charles Smith’s work is currently on view as a part of the inaugural exhibitions at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s Art Preserve in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. His work will be shown at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, Illinois, this coming fall. Previous exhibitions include: the traveling exhibition ‘Chicago Calling: Art Against The Flow’ (2018-21); ‘Black History Lessons’, Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, Great Falls, Montana (2020); ‘The Road Less Traveled’, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin (2017, organized by Heather Hart.); and at the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland in 2010.

His work is included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago; John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan; National Veterans Art Museum, Chicago; The Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History, Augusta; and the Milwaukee Art Museum, among others.

White Columns would like to thank Dr. Charles Smith for his commitment to and enthusiasm for this exhibition; Lionel Rabb for his invaluable assistance in helping to make this exhibition become a reality; Fred Scruton for his extraordinary photographs of the Hammond, LA site; Karen Patterson, Laura Bickford and the entire team at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin for their support of this project; and John Michael Morein for his help in coordinating the exhibition from Louisiana.

Dr. Charles Smith’s exhibition has been generously supported in part by funds from the Mitzi and Warren Eisenberg Family Foundation, Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg, Ronald and Debra Eisenberg, Shelly and Neil Mitchell, and Randi and Eric Sellinger. Additional exhibition support has been generously provided by The Rabb Family.

For additional information, please contact: info@whitecolumns.org

Three sculptures in a gallery. One sculpture rests on a shelf against the back wall and is a bust of a person with painted white lips and eyes, a red collar and rhinestone earrings. On the table in the foreground, one sculpture depicting Gordon Parks is shirtless and holding a camera. To the right is a sculpture of a trumpet-playing figure wearing a straw hat and yellow suit.
Five figurative sculptures in a gallery. Three in the background and two sit on a separate table to the left of the foreground. A figure holding an electric coffee maker and wearing a hat and robe stands on a green plank to the left, pictured from behind. To the right is a sculpture depicting Gordon Parks kneeling in fake grass and aiming a camera.
A mural of Dr. Charles Smith’s Hammond, Louisiana site is in the background, depicting sculptures similar to those in the gallery. A sculpture of Emmett Till is placed at the bottom right of the mural. To the left in the foreground, a sculpture with painted white clothes, rhinestone eyes and earrings sits on a shelf holding business cards.
A sculpture is pictured sitting on a shelf to the left. The figure has rhinestone eyes and earrings and is wearing painted white clothes while holding business cards. In the background on the right, a trumpet-playing sculpture stands on a table in another room. A corner of the mural is pictured on the right.
A mural of the Hammond, Louisiana site on a freestanding wall in the space. “Egyptian Queen - Handmaiden,” a golden bust with long black hair on a white column, is in front of the mural. Two sculptures stand on a table to the left in the background. A photograph hangs on the wall behind them to the left of a bust on a nearby shelf. To the right of the wall and in the background is the left profile view of a standing sculpture.
Various figurative sculptures in a gallery space. Some are full bodied and standing on tables while others are busts on shelves along the walls. A photograph of Dr. Charles Smith hangs on the back wall.
Four sculptures are shown. Two sculptures are standing on a table to the left, one representing Diana Ross in a hat holding a wire basket. The other figure is a younger person wearing a tutu and holding a camera. To the right, a bust representing King Solomon sits on a shelf in the background. A sculpture with a cheetah print outfit, crown and cane stands to the right.
Four works in a gallery space, the leftmost is a photograph of Dr. Charles Smith hanging in the background next to a shelf holding a bust of a person wearing sunglasses. Two sculptures stand on a table in the foreground. One is wearing black and white fabric and holding two American flags. The other depicts two figures holding cameras.
A sculpture in memoriam to Emmett Till in the corner of the room is centered in frame. The figure wears overalls, shoes and holds a camera above its head. “Smile” is written across the figure’s chest. The Hammond site mural is to the left.
A brown bust with textural marks covering its face. Synthetic hair has been applied to the head.
A sculpture depicting Gordon Parks with clothes painted directly onto it holds a camera.
Four busts on a wooden plinth linked together with a chain wrapping around each neck. They all have black skin and wide glass eyes.

Dr. Charles Smith, installation view, 2022 (Three sculptures in a gallery. One sculpture rests on a shelf against the back wall and is a bust of a person with painted white lips and eyes, a red collar and rhinestone earrings. On the table in the foreground, one sculpture depicting Gordon Parks is shirtless and holding a camera. To the right is a sculpture of a trumpet-playing figure wearing a straw hat and yellow suit.)

Dr. Charles Smith, installation view, 2022 (Five figurative sculptures in a gallery. Three in the background and two sit on a separate table to the left of the foreground. A figure holding an electric coffee maker and wearing a hat and robe stands on a green plank to the left, pictured from behind. To the right is a sculpture depicting Gordon Parks kneeling in fake grass and aiming a camera.)

Dr. Charles Smith, installation view, 2022 (A mural of Dr. Charles Smith’s Hammond, Louisiana site is in the background, depicting sculptures similar to those in the gallery. A sculpture of Emmett Till is placed at the bottom right of the mural. To the left in the foreground, a sculpture with painted white clothes, rhinestone eyes and earrings sits on a shelf holding business cards.) 

Dr. Charles Smith, installation view, 2022 (A sculpture is pictured sitting on a shelf to the left. The figure has rhinestone eyes and earrings and is wearing painted white clothes while holding business cards. In the background on the right, a trumpet-playing sculpture stands on a table in another room. A corner of the mural is pictured on the right.)

Dr. Charles Smith, installation view, 2022 (A mural of the Hammond, Louisiana site on a freestanding wall in the space. “Egyptian Queen – Handmaiden,” a golden bust with long black hair on a white column, is in front of the mural. Two sculptures stand on a table to the left in the background. A photograph hangs on the wall behind them to the left of a bust on a nearby shelf. To the right of the wall and in the background is the left profile view of a standing sculpture.)

Dr. Charles Smith, installation view, 2022 (Various figurative sculptures in a gallery space. Some are full bodied and standing on tables while others are busts on shelves along the walls. A photograph of Dr. Charles Smith hangs on the back wall.)

Dr. Charles Smith, installation view, 2022 (Four sculptures are shown. Two sculptures are standing on a table to the left, one representing Diana Ross in a hat holding a wire basket. The other figure is a younger person wearing a tutu and holding a camera. To the right, a bust representing King Solomon sits on a shelf in the background. A sculpture with a cheetah print outfit, crown and cane stands to the right.)

Dr. Charles Smith, installation view, 2022 (Four works in a gallery space, the leftmost is a photograph of Dr. Charles Smith hanging in the background next to a shelf holding a bust of a person wearing sunglasses. Two sculptures stand on a table in the foreground. One is wearing black and white fabric and holding two American flags. The other depicts two figures holding cameras.)

Dr. Charles Smith, installation view, 2022 (A sculpture in memoriam to Emmett Till in the corner of the room is centered in frame. The figure wears overalls, shoes and holds a camera above its head. “Smile” is written across the figure’s chest. The Hammond site mural is to the left.)

Dr. Charles Smith ‘Paul Robeson,’ 2022 Concrete and paint 22 × 12 × 12 in. (A brown bust with textural marks covering its face. Synthetic hair has been applied to the head.)

Dr. Charles Smith Gordon Parks Focusing His Camera, 2022 Concrete, paint, fabric and camera 36 × 9 × 14 in. (A sculpture depicting Gordon Parks with clothes painted directly onto it holds a camera.)

Dr. Charles Smith ‘What The Slaves Saw When They Were Brought Up From The Bottom Of The Ship,’ 2022 Concrete, paint, glass, metal and wood 19 × 22 × 7 in. (Four busts on a wooden plinth linked together with a chain wrapping around each neck. They all have black skin and wide glass eyes.)