Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hidden Memphis: Nelson Smith III

Some time ago, my sister, Elizabeth, was working for the UrbanArt Commission and made a studio visit to check on a project she was managing. The project was a monument for Manassas High School being cast from concrete and bronze. The artist was Nelson Smith III. She told me later all about the studio, how packed it was with art, the crappy part of town it's in, the vastness of the space and the friends Mr. Smith had sitting around chatting with him, passing time in the middle of the day.

More recently, one of my editors at The Commercial Appeal told me that Chris Peck, THE editor at the CA, had an idea for a series on people and places around town that many people might not know about. These subjects would almost define Memphis, yet live in near-obscurity. Did I have any ideas? Would I be interested in writing it? What to call it?

Well, of course I was interested, and the first person I thought of was Nelson Smith III (Prodigious output of 'general practitioner' found everywhere from hotel rooms to dashboards to clubs; CA 12/26/10). Mr. Smith approached those who ran the Shoney's restaurants in Memphis back in the 70s and told them he could make a Big Boy statue for the cost they were having them shipped from California. They gave Smith a statue and he fashioned a mold from it, cast a new Big Boy on spec and put the two side-by-side. "Which one is yours?" he asked. They couldn't tell and he had the job. He made over 20 for the restaurants over the years.

Elizabeth told me about some of the work he had done, but also about what a nice and gentle man he is. Part of what I love about my job, about freelance journalism, is the people I get to meet day in and day out. Not just meet, but nearly inhabit for a time. I drove to Smith's studio at the corner of Thomas and Huron, in a part of Memphis that is nearly deserted now, save for the clump of houses at the end of Huron, a dead end street. There was wash hanging on lines outside these homes and people sitting on their porches. Dogs ran through the street and there were cars that looked long-abandoned in yards and at the curb. The man who answered the door of the squat, brick building appeared kind and open to questions. For the next hour, he told me all about his life and his work. He showed me around his studio, pulling sculptures from piles and telling me the stories behind them.

The studio itself is the old Currie's Club Tropicana, and Smith told me that any black artist who was anybody back in the day played there - B.B. King, Ray Charles, Isaac Hayes ... he showed me where the stage had been and you could almost hear the guitar and the Hammond B3 organ oozing from the plaster and lumber he had laying about. Smith would think of something - a mold or a piece of cornice he'd sculpted - and could go straight to it, wherever it was and whatever it might have been buried under.

The series, by the way, is to be called "Hidden Memphis." It will be semi-regular and I look forward to meeting and researching the subjects, be they people or places. If you have any ideas, any at all, please let me know at richard@richardalley.com. The story in the CA got some nice comments and one e-mail from a local children's book author, Alice Faye Duncan, who said that her father had a portrait of her painted as a child, when she must have been two or three, but never knew who the artist was. It was simply signed 'Nelson III.' My story led her to the artist and she has contacted him to buy some of his artwork. Helping with these connections is another reason I love my job.

Nelson Smith III is a fascinating subject, he is locked into the modern history of Memphis through the artwork and signage he's produced for some of our most iconic establishments - Libertyland, Mark Twain restaurant, Holiday Inn, Shoney's, Shakey's Pizza ...  the list goes on. And so does Nelson.