Visual Art

VIDEO: Portland Painter Arvie Smith Talks Racial Stereotype and Dialogue through Art

Vibrant colors and dark humor define the octogenarian painter’s work.

With Monica Salazar & Rose Lee June 10, 2022

“Everything in this world tells me I’m inferior,” says Arvie Smith. The octogenarian painter who has spent a lifetime making art is known for his vibrant, lushly colored work, where racist caricatures find a place alongside slave ships and Klansmen, to offer pointed commentary about systemic racism in America.

The great grandson of a slave, Smith was largely raised by his grandparents in Roganville, Texas, before moving back to Los Angeles to rejoin his mother. A budding artist, he walked into art school to apply only to be told “we don’t need your kind here.” After years of living in communes, he ended up in Portland where he met his third wife, Julie Kern Smith, who ultimately persuaded him to quit his day job and pursue art full time.

“I kind of suck people in with the bright colors, and there’s usually some kind of humor, and one of the humorous things is those Black stereotypes,” he says. “I put those figures, those symbols, those images into my paintings as funny, but what I’m really doing is flipping the switch.”

The painter, whose work has appeared everywhere from the Portland Art Museum to the Nelson Mandela Estate to the Venice Biennale this spring, has become a defining figure in Oregon’s artistic landscape, his work at once political and aesthetic.

“We need to know our history,” says Smith. “If we don’t know our history things will snowball over again. I try to use that to make people think. What is it about this that will open a dialogue?"

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