Melvin Smith and Rose Smith: Journey of a Lost Tribe
An online exhibition in conversation with Amanda Hunt
October 13, 2022 - January 10, 2022
Journey of a Lost Tribe showcases a selection of artworks by Minnesota-based artists Melvin Smith and Rose Smith.
As a couple, the Smiths have cultivated their artistic careers side-by-side. Together, they have traveled to urban epicenters of Black art and culture in search of creative exchange and dispersed communities that they collectively refer to as a "lost tribe." The time they have spent in Harlem, New York, the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, and New Orleans, Louisiana has greatly influenced their individual styles and techniques. Filtered through the lens of memory and social observation, their artworks showcase urban scenes and portraits of Black life and cultural production across America.
Amanda Hunt is Head of Public Engagement, Learning, and Impact at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN. Prior to this role, she previously held positions as the Director of Public Programs and Creative Practice at the Lucas Museum in Los Angeles, CA; Director of Education and Public Programs at MOCA, Los Angeles, CA; and Associate Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY. In 2019, Hunt was a co-curator of the Desert X Biennial in Coachella Valley, CA.
Bellow, Amanda Hunt, Rose Smith, and Melvin Smith discuss personal histories and the importance of place as a source of creative inspiration while exploring the context of artworks featured in this exhibition.
Amanda Hunt: Hello Mel and Rose, It is so nice to speak with you today. Do you remember meeting me in 2019?
Melvin Smith: Yes, I do. You pointed to one of my pieces on the wall. Do you remember that?
AH: Yes, I think the curator's job is to be nosey. We are always finding something interesting to investigate.
I know that you were wondering If I have any relationship to Richard Hunt. If we can find one, I'm all about it. What a wonderful man!
MS: Yes, he was very friendly, very. It was a rewarding experience to meet him.
AH: He's really an important character in a whole long narrative arc of Art History and Black artists within Art History.
I'm thrilled to be speaking with you today from Minneapolis. I just moved here four months ago to begin my work at the Walker Art Center as the new Head of Public Engagement, Learning and Impact. It was interesting when Adam [the founder of Fort Gansevoort] came to me about you. I've been thinking about our time together around the McKnight Foundation Award, and what I saw that day in your home and studio, and just the legacy of your work together and as individuals. Digging through your work together at your house, looking through the Rondo series, and just talking Minneapolis, chopping it up, and getting introduced to a lot of community members through you and Rose just to start to understand the picture—so the timing of this was really beautiful. So much of what I want to do here at the Walker is to be a good host at this museum. It's an exciting moment to be here and be connecting with you both again.
You've been working here for a long time! As I get oriented, acclimated, familiar with the many communities that shape the Twin Cities, you two are some of the folks at the top of the list.
I want to ground us and talk about the title [of this online exhibition] because it points to something that I want to ask more questions about. This journey that is signaled here, can we spend a minute speaking to what that means, “the journey of a lost tribe?”
MS: Well, when we first got married. Our mission was to follow what Jacob Lawrence had really started. We wanted to explore that and just follow the people that were on that journey. They didn't know where they came from; they didn't know who they were; so, they were lost. That's what we wanted to focus on during our time in history. We wanted to artistically document their journey. And so, we went to different places to do so. You'll notice that we went to New Orleans after Katrina; we made sure we looked at that. New York was the first place we went, and we walked on those cobblestone streets. We walked down from 125th Street. We went in August. It was really hot! And we passed by those brownstones and could smell urine and defecation…so we experienced that. Now, if you go there, those brownstones are priceless. They fixed them up. That's because of Clinton.
AH: That is so interesting. It HAS changed a lot. I remember my first time visiting Harlem. I was in middle school, and I remember I was on a field trip of some kind. I remember stepping off the school bus and it was hot. It was at Lenox and 125th Street. The Lenox Lounge was still in operation.
And then fast forward to 2014. I started working at the Studio Museum in Harlem with Thelma Golden. We caught the last kind of gasp of the Lenox Lounge and the history of that space. You felt Duke Ellington in there, and Sarah Vaughan, you felt all the greats.
So even though it's been built up and sold off and aggressively monetized—in a way that only New York City can be—there's still essence and traces there, and I think so much of it is in an institution like the Studio Museum that really upholds the legacy of Black art and artists of the diaspora. So even your point about before Clinton, like the politics of you moving through your own practice, of following the great migration—because inherently I see Jacob Lawrence in this work—I understand that there's a migration that is mapped through Chicago, through New York, but what I need is your help with is understanding how it relates to Minneapolis. That's where I'm trying to learn. I'm looking to you.
MS: OK, this is my experience. I'm from Oklahoma originally. My wife is from St. Joseph, Missouri originally. So, we are part of that migration movement. You see, we came into Minnesota from Oklahoma. My family were called Black Seminoles. They were originally from Wewoka. They fought with Native Americans in the Indian Wars. When they came to Oklahoma, they settled in a place called Holdenville. My mom was born in Wewoka, which is the capital of the Seminole Indians. My grandfather was forced to move out of Oklahoma, and he was forced to go to Omaha, and from Omaha my family migrated to Minnesota. That's how I got to Minnesota. It was around 1900. They were meat packers and they moved. You'll see that in our artwork. They moved—the meat packers. They were Black meat packers who traveled as a group to Minnesota where they opened a new meat packing plant.
AH: That's incredible. That helps me so much. Because you know about Scandinavia and Norway and how all those folks have shown up here, and the Viking narrative. But I'm like, where are the Black folks? How did we get here?
Rose, what about your family?
Rose Smith: Well, like Melvin said, my family was born in St. Joseph, Missouri. And then I came up to Minnesota in 1950. So, we were there before it had started changing—in the neighborhood called Rondo. I saw the original Rondo.
AH: Can you tell me what brought you here in 1950 and describe your experience then and now?
RS: We came here because my father was looking for work. I have five brothers and four sisters. It's a big family. My uncle worked on the railroad. That’s how we got here. That's what caused us to migrate.
AH: That's interesting. My husband is from Minnesota. He's from a working-class Catholic family, a White family. Actually, he has roots in Oklahoma on his father's side. And I remember his mother saying, on her side, the Catholic side, it was like The Grapes of Wrath, following the work around the country, just trying to survive. I think about that because I've talked to an incredible Dakota scholar, Darlene St. Clair, who's based in Saint Cloud, and she said, “I want to ensure your survival here.” That was very powerful for me to hear from an indigenous educator. She is a critical member of an Indigenous Council that we have at the Walker, and of the story of Angela Two Stars’s Okciyapi public artwork that honors the work of Dakota language revitalization in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. She and I got to talking about family—the things that make this place what it is. So that's where I'm operating from in this kind of initial phase, and that's why I want to connect with you about family and thinking about the cold, and how you get close, and what survival means here. Because it's different, but it's also the same, right? We all need each other. We all need our families.
MS: But Minnesota has changed. The Minnesota we experienced when we were younger is not the same as Minnesota now. Little Saint Paul is the only city in America that was never segregated.
MS: It never was, and most people don't know that. That is why Roy Wilkins, the civil rights activist, came out of here. And there was Frederick McGee, the first Black attorney in Minnesota. He's the one who started the Niagara movement with W. E. B. Du Bois which laid the foundation for the NAACP. [The photographer] Gordon Parks also came out of this community. All these influential and creative people came out of this community because of the freedom they experienced. Leaders and Art people need freedom to be creative and that's what they got here.
AH: Well, I'm sure many people who will read this interview won't know all that. I didn't know all that. Now I get to go home and tell that story to my in-laws and our child and that's how we change history. Somebody tells a story, keeps telling the story until the history is corrected. That's really special. I think a lot of people don't know a lot about Minnesota. It's cold, but they don't know that it's been radical, that it's liberal at the center. You know, I think that there's a lot missing in terms of the texture of life and how it's depicted here. So, tell me about Rondo. Because we can't not talk about Rondo. Why was that important for you?
MS: Well, it’s something about the place that inspires. I created a large public sculpture. And the title of the sculpture is Spirit of Rondo. It represents the first African American community in Minnesota.
AH: Talking about public sculpture and thinking about public space, I just went to the George Floyd Square to the memorial a couple weeks ago. [At the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue]. Have you been?
MS: No, not yet, but I went by there.
AH: You have to go down there. Let's go together. It's a special, spectacular, community-led, memorial space of remembrance and honoring. The city needs to honor that space, though I realize it’s all complicated.
RS: I think the city is talking about putting something there.
AH: They have to! Because of all the reasons we're talking about. We are still in the business of uncovering history, and how things have come to shape the present, and that is so necessary. We can't afford to keep making that same mistake of risking an erasure or loss of visibility of the communities that have shaped the place where we are.
Let’s pivot and talk about what we see in some of the works. There's a woman who appears in many of your works, Rose. Who is she?
RS: The Woman. Yeah, I do a lot of paintings of women. Most of them are my mother, my sisters, and my aunts. I think of them when I'm making my work.
AH: They shaped the family, they led.
RS: Yes, exactly.
AH: We often do.
And Mel, for you I see more of the cityscape and the crowd. But who else is in there?
MS: Rose deals with the personal between the ears kind of stuff. She's really sensitive, you know. And I'm at a distance. I don't let you get close. I keep my vision distanced and she's right up close and personal with people. That's why I like her work—because she touches people's interiors. I don't do that. I always tell people that I liked her work before I really got to know her.
AH: Oh, wow.
MS: The first time I met Rose, I asked her what she liked to do, and she said she liked to draw. I said let me see some of your drawings. So, she brought back some drawings. And I was blown away. Believe it or not, I felt like I had gained purpose in my life, just right there looking at her stuff. I liked Rose, but I liked the work before I liked her.
AH: That’s the highest compliment. That's powerful.
MS: Well, it is the truth. When I flew back to Oklahoma, I found a certificate I had won for my own art. And that's when I thought about getting married to her. So, we chose art together because we both won awards. Rose, what did you win?
RS: When I was in junior high, I won the top art award and then in high school, in my senior year, I also won the top art award. These were predominantly White schools.
AH: So, teachers recognized your exceptional abilities as artists early on in your development. I just want to talk about the importance of education—even less traditional paths to it—how artists get into museums and galleries and all that. Who taught you the things you know today?
MS: If you come to my house, you'll see a sculptured mask, a large mask sculpture of Ms. Dabney. She's the woman who put that piece in the kiln and then put it in an art contest. That's how much she means to me. I get up every day and I see her in the house and that’s how she touched me.
AH: Now, I know you are a teacher yourself. A tennis instructor, right? Are you still teaching?
MS: Oh no, I just do art now. I belong to a gallery in New York, that's what I do.
AH: I heard. [laugh] How does it feel?
MS: You know, my wife recently said it takes the hassle out of being an artist. Now all we have to do is keep making art. We no longer have to do the work to promote ourselves. That makes a huge difference! It makes you want to create more.
RS: I'm also just concentrating on my art. I remember when I was a young girl, I used to go to my grandmother’s house on Sunday, when we were in Missouri, and she used to get magazines in the post. Norman Rockwell did all the covers. So, I started saving them and that's when I started drawing a lot of people. That's why I think there are a lot of people in my paintings.
AH: I know. I love that painting of yours, The Toil of Being a Black Woman, 2022.
RS: Yeah, I just finished it. I'm now getting ready to start on this other big canvas.
MS: Some of that motivation comes from Adam [from Fort Gansevoort].
AH: Well, to be cared for, and looked after, and to have people honoring the work and representing it is really important and it's well deserved. You two have been working a long time without those supports. I've seen it repeatedly. Especially for artists of color, and especially for women.
RS: Yes, we are lucky to have what we have.
AH: I'm going to make a big shift here. I'm thinking a lot about color in your art. I'm talking about color as it's mapped onto energy or vice versa. I want to know more about the palettes you use. Rose, in your works I see the quiet. I see some sadness. I see a lot of tenderness. You use peaches and lavenders. I want to talk more about that mood, that interior space.
RS: Well, I usually just start mixing colors, and I just get into a kind of daze really, and I just start painting.
AH: But you start with the color.
RS: Yes. I usually start by painting my background as the base. And from the color, the rest of the composition emerges. It is intuitive.
AH: Mel, what are you coming to the table with? How do you work?
MS: I work in collage. First, I select shapes and colors that I like from found materials. I pick what I like and set it aside. Then, I will rearrange the materials I have at my disposal to make art out of what is in front of me.
AH: I love that.
MS: You know, Rose and I are both self-taught.
AH: I'm so glad you said that. I think that’s important. You're not responding to a style or pedagogy, but of course you're absorbing and you’re learning.
MS: Yes, I'm free. Free to create whatever I like, however I like.
AH: Right. You said something related earlier. You said “we chose art.” When did you choose art?
MS: When we got married. That was one of the things that bound us together. It was art. In fact, if I hadn't met Rose, I wouldn't even do art. I started as a journalism major. But with art, Minnesota was a great place for us to start. As a couple, we also wanted to see the important meccas for art all over the country. So, we started thinking, let’s go. Let’s travel. And one day we made up our minds, and we took off.
AH: It's so important to travel. It changes the work, and it changes your perspective. It's also helpful to bring your experience back home to write and process, especially in the studio. I know that New Orleans is somewhere that you have spent some time together. Rose, can you tell me about your painting called Tremé, 2007? The one in purple and violet hues.
RS: Yes, the one with two men. That's the oldest African American community in America. That's where Louis Armstrong came from. That's where Congo square is…can I read you something?
“It was music. Just music sung by folks in pain. They sung in cotton fields, churches and streets. They even made music by clapping their hands and stomping their feet. It began at a place in New Orleans called Congo Square. American music and dance was born there.”
AH: Thank you Rose. That is beautiful. Where does that come from?
RS: It is from an exhibit we did in New Orleans. Printed on the card. We wanted to show not only the destruction, but also the rich history here.
AH: Rose I want to back-track and talk about another one of your works: The Toil of Being a Black Woman. How did you approach the palette and composition?
RS: The one with the newspaper in it?
AH: Yes. It’s a really nice one. And your approach feels like a different way of working.
RS: Yeah, I usually don't work on wood, but…
MS: I suggested it.
RS: Yeah, he suggested it. Mel had a bunch of old newspapers from the 1800s and I decided I wanted to use them. So, I glued them on. Then with oil, I just started to paint over them. And I painted the figure of a woman. It was like she just started to come out of the paper, like coming out of the past. Even though she is on those pages, which are really pieces of history, she is also trying to move forward.
MS: She was in a Rockwell mood when she did that one.
AH: I was going to say that. Does it go back to the Norman Rockwell covers you saw growing up? The figure is very evocative. Is she like the past, present, and the future?
RS: I would say she's the present–going through all the things we're going through now. Like the title says, the “toil” really captures the mood of the moment, I think.
AH: Yes, I think you both capture mood really well.
We were talking about traveling and being deliberate in the places that you traveled to. You were in New Orleans after Katrina. And we discussed your time in Harlem, New York. The vibrancy of these spaces, and the moods you capture really come through in a palpable way.
Mel, I’d like to talk about this in relation to one of your works. Can you tell me about your collage painting Way Down Yonder Yesterday, 2007? This work feels different than some of your others. Is this an imagined or a real place?
MS: It is an imagined place. Because “Down Yonder” could be a lot of places. It represents all the places where the lifestyle hasn’t changed for Black communities. They are still stuck in the past. In the yesterday. Or maybe the lifestyle has changed, but the attitude towards the individuals in these communities hasn’t changed. In some ways it probably never will change. And that's what I'm trying to indicate here. That is what a lot of my art is more or less about. You’ll see that idea developing in a lot of my work.
AH: That’s a really important insight. These communities, like Rondo, are everywhere.
MS: Yes, but Rondo is also all about the dwellings.
AH: But, in both cases, the works examine how people share space and occupy the spaces they are given. It is wild thinking about the spaces that certain people are given and what they make from them. The color, the energy, the creativity, that’s what also comes out of the communities you are describing, Mel, and the ones I know you have been a part of. I see that in the work.
It's interesting. I feel like both works by you and Rose that we just lingered on, are all about history, but they are also so contemporary… I think that is a good way to wrap up our conversation together. I thank you both. This was so lovely!