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Elwood H. Smith
Death at the Circus (12)
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Detail from Death at the Circus #12

Death at the Circus (11)
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Death at the Circus (10)
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Detail of Death at the Circus Post #10

Death at the Circus #10 (Full image)

THIS DRAWING, unlike most of the others in my Death at the Circus series, depicts a real event. Recently, a friend hired a guy to set a Havahart trap to capture a groundhog. My friend was out of town and the trap setter neglected to check on it daily. The poor creature died of heat exposure and thirst. I still can't get it out of my mind; imagining the several days of suffering for no reason whatsoever. I think it's a lack of compassion for what we call pests. The groundhog only wanted to eat from the garden and now it's dead. Better to shoot it than to set a trap and let it die slowly. I doubt that anyone set out to murder the little guy, but no one associated with this local tragedy is guilt-free.
I Mean, What Do They Mean?
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I’ve had several friends ask about my “Death at the Circus” series drawings. "What do they mean?” they ask. Although that question is rarely posed by my colleagues (artists and writer friends), it’s an honest question, usually asked with genuine sincerity and only occasionally with skepticism. I figured the question deserves a response, even if I’m not sure I can offer a satisfying answer.

I find myself asking a similar question when I read poetry that wanders outside my understanding. I enjoy poets like Sharon Olds and Stanley Kunitz who write heartfelt, personal poems, but mostly keep their intentions simple and clear. Once a poet begins playing with words as visual designs (which I should like, but don’t) or alluding to Greek mythology or other literary connections, I become confused and lose interest. I don’t have the time or inclination to learn to like those poems. I’m not fond of free jazz for the same reason. I don’t have enough time in my life to delve deep enough into the forms to uncover the mysteries. I have learned a lot over the years about many kinds of music and I have learned to love later the Miles Davis recordings and composers like Charles Ives, but I’d rather revisit those artists with my days left to me than spend my valuable time trying to understand stuff that grates on my ear bones. It’s only a question of hours in a day, not a lack of curiosity.

So back to my new drawings and the question, "What do your drawings mean?" The simple answer is: Don’t look for specific meaning in my new stuff, just enjoy the quirky pencil lines, the smudgy colors and the crazed characters and structures scrawled over the pages. There is a somewhat more complex answer. Truth is, I am telling stories; it’s just that they are not anchored in what we refer to as “reality”. They are more like free-flowing dreamscapes, visual tales not meant to be understood as you might understand my commercial illustration drawings. When I approach a job for, say, a Dennis Overbye science column in the New York Times, I read the manuscript and try to digest it as best I can. Then I put on my thinking cap and begin the sometimes thorny task of creating a visual image that not only has an association with the story, but also has enough humor and energy to entice the reader into the story. Once done, my sketch has to be approved by the art director and Dennis and, of course, the NY Times editors. Once the sketch is approved, I go to final art, scan it, and send it off electronically. Almost anyone can quite easily grasp my intention in the illustration—if not by looking at the art by itself, by reading the article. Not much mystery residing there.

My new drawings are freed up from the confines of a commercial assignment, for better or worse. I assume it’s how most “fine artists” approach their work. The beauty for me of making these drawings without a specific goal in mind, is the chance to fully experience the joy of exploration. Commercial work has some of that, but the very idea that someone else besides me has final approval of an assignment has placed a restriction on my creative muse. I am speaking for myself, of course. Some commercial artists may feel that those restrictions offer them freedom, but I’m not one of them. I love simply standing at my board, with a #2 Ticonderoga pencil in hand and entering the blank page with as little preconception as possible. I’m enthralled by the spontaneity. I see it as a parallel to the way Miles Davis made music, particularly in his later years. He had a rough musical idea in mind and then urged his band of top-notch creative musicians to join him on an unscripted journey. I rely on my first pencil mark on the page to lead me to the next mark until a image emerges. There is obviously control, but I try to keep as open as possible to unexpected imagery as possible. My only setup is that--for this series at least--some iconography should relate to a circus. And somewhere in each piece, a skeletal figure will loom. That’s it. I am only trying to explore and grow within parameters that I have set for myself. Of course, I’m always wrestling with my limitations, those of imagination and drawing skills. I try to remain true to my heart and my intentions as I draw. And then erase and then draw again. I rip up all pages that have beginnings that I deem failures, but the ones that work for me are satisfying beyond description. I love ‘em. None are perfect, but they are the best I can do at this point in my life. I hope they get better. We’ll see. I am trusting myself to head in the right direction.

So, my friends, if you like finding stories of your own invention in my work, please know that I’m delighted that you are looking at my drawings closely enough to do that. But I have no answer for the question: What do they mean? I don’t want the responsibility of anchoring them down in that way. I'm satisfied with helping the drawings appear and then choosing which will remain and which ones get tossed out.

Thanks for looking at the series.
-Elwood
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