Sign that says Streetlight Guild

When people think of artists from Columbus, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Emerson Burkhart, and George Bellows are among the first names that pop up in the Columbus art history books. Recently, Smoky Brown has been getting some local attention, with two art shows over the last three months, over 14 years after his death.

The Eastside Canon: Smoky Brown & Friends was the first Art Show of 2020 at the Streetlight Guild, curated by Richard Duarte Brown. Brown was the artist of the inaugural exhibit “Searching for Family: Richard Duarte Brown” at their current space from June through August 2019.

The Streetlight Guild is a not-for-profit performing arts organization, founded by award-winning writer and poet Scott Woods. The Streetlight Guild “curates events across disciplines with an emphasis on Columbus-based, original, and underrepresented voices,” reads the Guild’s website.

The Guild moved into their current space last June in the South of Main neighborhood at 1367 East Main Street, a former barbershop that had been vacant for most of the previous 15 years. In the seven months since their opening, there have been musical and literary events, along with art exhibitions in a commercial corridor that has a lot of vacant and abandoned buildings.

The Eastside Canon Exhibit, which runs through February 1, highlights pieces from the 1970s and 1980s, many by Smoky Brown, plus pieces from other Black Columbus artists that Smoky picked up along the way. Richard Duarte Brown – no relaton to Smoky Brown – acquired several pieces from Smoky Brown’s estate, according to an official newsletter from the Streetlight Guild promoting the Exhibit.

Richard Duarte Brown is a local artist who has worked with the TRANSIT ARTS Youth Program and the Ohio Alliance for the Arts Education Program, along with several other organizations, including the Short Stop Youth Center, the King Arts Complex, and the Arts and College Preparatory Academy in his over 20 years of art education in the Columbus community. He mentors young artists, with some going on to pursue art in college and professionally. He also has produced murals across the Columbus area.

Smoky Brown was born Russell Purce in November 1919. His career in art began as an art teacher in the waning days of the Great Depression, and carried over decades. Smoky Brown has art in collections all over the world, including the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian. His style of mixed media highlighted Black Culture and the Black Community.

In a memorial that was part of the Eastside Canon Exhibit that features a 1993 essay from LaVerne Brown stated that Smoky’s art career was derailed by his bout with alcoholism. “All that was Russell Purce was lost to him and Smoky says it was a hard process to regain his knowledge of art.”

LaVerne added in the statement that Smoky gave “a strong anti-dependency message in his art,” since Smoky gained sobriety in 1979. LaVerne added that Smoky “(poured) his heart into pictures that reflect the joy he (saw) in life.”

In Smoky’s own words from the Judith Fox article “Listening to Smoky,” Smoky said, “As Smoky Brown, ‘I started all over…as a folk artist under the conception that folk art is untrained. There is no such thing as an untrained artist if you are able to talk and communicate. With folk art, you don’t have the rules to go by. You can do your thing as you feel – like a child does.”

The Streetlight Guild show is the second local show that paid tribute to Smoky Brown. In November 2019, Smoky’s pieces were also featured in a special exhibit at The Shot Tower Gallery at Fort Hayes High School – “Smoky and Kojo,” which took place to commemorate what would have been Smoky’s 100th birthday. Smoky was one of two deceased local artists that was memorialized in this special exhibit, which also paid tribute to what would have been the 80th birthday of the local photographer Kojo Kamau (1939-2016).

Both the Fort Hayes and Streetlight Guild Exhibits of Smoky Brown’s works gave a glimpse of the time when Black-owned independent galleries and studios achieved their biggest success in the city. Smoky Brown brought his touch of community with his mixed-media art, based on the style of local artistic legends like William Hawkins and Elijah Pierce, and his younger contemporaries like Kamau, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, and Dennison Griffith.

Coming up at the Streetlight Guild, their next art exhibition is Black Est., a solo exhibition by David Michael Butler, will have an opening reception at 6 P.M. on February 13, and will be up through March 28. Black Est. will feature a unique experience of visuals that celebrate moments and representations of the color Black (on a White Spaced canvas).