By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Most artists throughout history didn’t gain fame and notoriety until after they died, hence the term “starving artist.” Being an artist isn’t exactly a superhighway to fame and fortune, save for a select few such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Michaelangelo. Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Monet were highly underappreciated during their lifetime. Art, however, is a labor of love — a calling, if you will.
Tim Smith, a 33-year-old Northfield native, has a common name and just as common an occupation. He’s a grammar school teacher, instructing students at the primary school in Upper Township, Cape May County, and has a master’s degree as a reading specialist. He’s also the father of three young kids along with wife Kim. Oliver is 4 years old, Macie is 3 and “Baby Beau” is just three months old. Smith’s life, like many other teachers, is a hectic, 24/7 juggling act between work, marriage and kids. And he’s also in the midst of a move from Northfield to Upper Township.
But Smith comes from a family of talented artists — his uncle, Mike Bell, is an accomplished local artist, and older brother C.J., also of Northfield, is a talented graphic designer when he’s not doing his full-time job as an electrician and lighting specialist at places such as Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Early in life, Smith developed a love for drawing, and as he got older he started to fiddle around with painting. He never studied art in college, as he was consumed with his baseball career at Arcadia University.
Smith, however, has begun to gain some notoriety on the local level and has had some of his pieces displayed at shows and various businesses. He still struggles with calling himself an artist — how can he, when he paints in a tiny, cramped converted laundry room below his kitchen? But the more he succeeds the more confident he is in saying, “yeah, come to think of it, I am an artist.”
“When we were younger, C.J. was a great artist, so growing up I always watched him and try to draw what he was drawing. He would draw people, athletes and musicians, so I would do that, too. I was never really into landscapes. I also have an uncle, Mike Bell, who is an amazing artist. He’s on a whole different level. He does a lot of pop art and monsters, things like that. He does a lot of labels for Tuckahoe Brewing and if you ever go to Steve & Cookie’s (in Margate) he has the whole piano room with Marilyn Monroe, Sinatra, etc. He’s unbelievable,” Smith said. “I was always into art but I never thought I would be an artist. One of my biggest regrets was when I was in college I had an art class, Drawing 101, and I was like, ‘I’m never going to use this.’ So, I dropped that class. At Arcadia University, I played baseball and I was just into that.”
Despite no formal training, however, Smith has been pressing on in his little laundry room, splashing paint across canvases and seeing what takes shape. He’s now an in-demand commissioned artists for portraits, both of famous people that folks have been fans of as well as local people who may want a piece done of their kids or wife or husband. His schedule is filled up through the end of the year, which makes for a lot of late nights of sneaking away to his studio to get some work in at 1 a.m. while his kids are sleeping.
“I was only drawing in black-and-white for a year and thought I’d like to try painting, but I didn’t know if I could master skin tones and things like that. I did a series of black-and-whites before I started color. I just wanted to see what would happen if I started experimenting and see what goes on with the canvas, just let it go, and I was like, ‘holy cow.’ I was taken aback by the Muhammad Ali piece. Once I started using color, I was addicted and started doing bigger pieces. I did Frank Sinatra, then Notorious B.I.G., then a huge Statue of Liberty. So, I had this series of three giant paintings that I couldn’t even fit in my basement studio,” Smith explained. “I’ve been painting out of my laundry room. All I had was my paint and a big canvas, and once I started doing pieces I started to get a big response on Instagram, and people have been asking me to do paintings for them. I use reference photos and with bigger paintings I use a grid. When it comes to the paint colors, I’ll have an idea of what I might want to use, but I don’t know where anything is going to go. My style, I guess, would be considered spontaneous realism. Wherever the paint goes, that’s where it’s going to be, and I never really know when I’m finished. My backgrounds are abstract and never planned out, but usually I use a reference. I feel like one of my strengths is being able to capture a likeness. I don’t know how creative I am just with looking at something.”
When you have three kids and a full-time job it can be a challenge to follow your dream of one day becoming a true money-making artist, and Smith credits his other half with giving him the time and opportunity to do what he loves on the side by shouldering a lot of the day-to-day responsibilities with the kids. She also has shown a lot of patience with paint being all over the house thanks to her husband, a 2005 Mainland Regional High School graduate.
“Kim is awesome. She sacrifices a lot so I can do this. I do have a lot of late nights, sometimes I’ll be down (in the studio) until one or two in the morning. So, during the school year it can get exhausting because I do have deadlines. My kids are my No. 1 priority and I want to make sure I spend time with them. Sometimes I try to have them come down here with me while I’m painting,” Smith said. “There’s a character on the show Arrested Development who has paint on his hands all the time, and all around his house are paint marks, so Kim calls me that character. There’s paint everywhere. But it’s been good.”
Most of Tim’s recent success has been fueled by positive responses from his clients, but he’s also active on social media, including Instagram and YouTube. That’s given him a lot of respect and credibility to the youngsters he teaches, who figure he must be famous to have his own YouTube channel.
“I do a lot of portraits for people, and since I teach young kids I have a YouTube channel where I teach young kids about art. I get a lot of respect at school because my students are like, ‘you’re on YouTube!’ said Smith, who has even been a featured artist at Borgata in Atlantic City. “Commissioned paintings are keeping me busy. Mostly it’s word-of-mouth but I’ve been getting a lot more through Instagram. I did a video of me painting Dave Portnoy and sent it to him, and somebody who saw that contacted me. I also just finished a show in Linwood and had one in Cape May. So, I’m starting to spread out a little bit. I want to sell my pieces. That’s the biggest goal for me, to be able to do what I love and be able to make money doing it.”
As he gains more notoriety and respect on the local level, it’s been a little easier for Tim to think of himself as an actual artist. And he said he’ll continue to channel inspiration from other artists to try to get better with every piece.
“It’s funny because it’s hard for me to even say that I’m an artist. I still find myself telling people that I do artwork. I didn’t go to school for artwork, so to me, I don’t want to be a phony. I know I’m an artist now, but it took me a while to have that confidence in myself,” he said. “My uncle is my mentor and we’re always talking to each other all the time, and I find a lot of artists online who I like and I’ll try to reach out to them. There are a lot of YouTube artists. There’s a book called Steal Like and Artist and he always talks about if you see something you like, don’t just steal it, appreciate it and make it your own. Find what you like about other artists and put it together. In the beginning, I was using all these random colors, I definitely had an inspiration in my mind, a guy named Voka, who is an Austrian artist. He used a lot of bright colors and does these big, magnificent portraits. When I saw his work it was really amazing.”