Heart of an Artist With an Eye on Evangelism

Cameron Smith enlisted a friend to help him answer a question:

What would Jesus have looked like from the shore as he delivered the parables in Matthew 13?

On a cold day off the North Carolina coast, Smith instructed his friend — a 32-year-old carpenter who dresses up as Jesus for his church's Passion play — to sit in a boat on the rocking water.

“Jesus wouldn't have appeared as an icon, with a halo or anything,” Smith mused. “I wanted to know how it would look as a scene to the people.”

The result is an oil painting of Jesus staring out from a boat, serene but serious, subtly beckoning. As Smith intended, everything in the painting points to one place; the waves and weeds fade to impressionistic fuzziness, but the air snaps into sharp clarity as it brushes Jesus’ face.

“What Cameron does in his art is bring an image that reflects Christ as Cameron views him,” says Father Dan Oschwald, who has watched the artist progress in faith. “But [it's] also an image that invites us who are in search of an image that speaks of who Christ is.”

Just as Christ is the center of the painting, “Christ is the center of my life,” says the young Catholic artist from picturesque Lake Waccamaw, N.C., who founded Smith Catholic Arte in 2002. “I think that even all the pieces that aren't necessarily religious come from spirituality, because I see art as being essentially spiritual. Art comes directly from the Holy Spirit, so anything that's really art is therefore spiritual.”

Catholic Vein

Two years ago Smith and wife Kristen traveled to Rome, bearing a pencil drawing of Pope John Paul II that Smith started shortly after their marriage. “The Holy Father had been such an inspiration to us,” he explains. “His teaching was a guide for our engagement.”

At first Smith just gave copies to friends, but before long he was signing prints at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and taking orders from other churches and bookstores.

In Rome they met a priest who had seen the print in the Philippines.

That print was his first identifiably Catholic piece. His works range from impressionistic to abstract to realistic; they're painted in watercolors, oils and acrylics. His gallery includes paintings of flowers, people leaning against buildings, groves of oak trees, patterned abstracts and portraits on commission. He even carves and decorates wooden frames for some of his work.

Since that first print, Smith has continued in the Catholic vein with prints of St. Pio de Pietrelcina and two more of the Holy Father. His print “Great Warrior” was featured on the cover of the Divine Word Missionaries catalog.

Continuing to develop a larger inventory of Christian art and limited-edition prints is exactly what Smith should concentrate on doing, says Peter Children, an art dealer who represented Vatican painter Jose Fuentes de Salamanca.

He first saw Smith's works on Smith's website — www.frangelico. org — and felt called to contact him, despite nearing retirement.

“I was stunned he was in his 20s. I thought maybe he was middle-aged,” says Children, who now represents the artist. “His work has a great maturity and speaks of reverence that's gained through age.”

Smith still relies on commissioned portraits of people's children and grandchildren to supplement his religious-art sales, although his heart and attention right now are poured into a painting of mother and child — based on Kristen and daughter Amelia — in a moment of tenderness, their close faces swirled in cerulean blues.

But fulfilling a vocational call doesn't always mean financial independence will follow. Although Kristen worked as a nurse to support her husband's artistic aspirations, last fall the couple took a hard look at reality and moved on to the latest in a string of supplemental professions.

Their search landed them at the Lake Waccamaw Boys Home, which provides a family setting for at-risk boys. Every other week the couple and their daughters move onto the campus and live as teaching parents for nine teen-age boys.

“All the doors have been opening and closing very quickly,” Smith says. “God has just remodeled our lives.”

Critic, Cabbie, Clown

As Smith recalls, he was a harsh critic by age 5. As his kindergarten teacher hung the students’ art projects around the classroom's perimeter, young Cameron found his own, a decorated paper bear edged with yarn, and was horrified.

“I thought I'd done so much better,” he remembers. “I was tormented.”

That same teacher told Smith's mother he would be an artist. She was right, in a way. He is indeed an artist but also counts cab driver, carpenter and circus clown among his past professions as he struggled to create, sell and make a name for himself in the fickle world of art.

Art was the mainstay in his life through the North Carolina State University School of Design and the opening of an art gallery with friends. But the money wasn't there and neither, Smith says in hindsight, was the discipline.

Before marriage and the start of his family, he had no obligations. He jumped around, always dedicated to becoming an artist but always “a little bit restless, like I wasn't ready to just paint.”

A job designing pre-show props with Ringling Brothers Circus led to clown college and a year of literal clowning around. Daily encounters with fans gave the introverted Smith an insight into success.

“People are people everywhere, and success is more of a personal thing rather than what other people think,” he says. “If you want to be successful, be approved of by God, not other people.”

He returned to the Carolina coast and settled down. Soon, painting held his attention for six to eight hours each day. He made his first big sale.

There are days, of course, when he doesn't want to paint, when discipline wrestles with his will. But after a few strokes his mind clears, progress happens and his thoughts refocus.

“I'll think about the subject, obviously, if it's the Holy Father or Padre Pio,” Smith says of painting, “and that'll lead to different theological thoughts or moral questions that I have. My mind usually stays in a real contemplative place.”

These thoughts often turn to his wife and daughters, the “great blessings” of his life. And, he has realized, “The more I paint, the more I'm inspired.”

Dana Lorelle writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.