Future Prairie Radio Season Four Episode Ten: How Long Everything's Been Going On with Damon Smith
My name is Damon Smith. I'm 28 years old, my pronouns are he, him. I'm from Portland, Oregon, born and raised, grew up mainly in Beaverton. I'm of mixed background; I have a black father and a white mother, which informs my art in many different ways.
Things that influenced me have always been comic books and stuff like that, very animation-influenced growing up. I didn't get into doing murals and street art until after I had received my first box of comics from my dad, who was in prison at the time. It was one of the first gifts I had received from him after probably 8 or 9 years of absence growing up. I cherished those comics and really dug into them. I had this golden vision of him being this really great guy, and I wanted to make him proud, I did all I could to learn as much as possible about the comics he sent me, and in turn, I was already into art. My mom is an artist. She didn't take it professionally, but she's always been painting and influencing my art, as well as my grandmother before she passed.
Once I got the comics, it was kind of this combination of I want to draw these things and being inspired by something my dad gave me. I really want to make both of them proud, and I really thought it'd be a good idea to see how comics are made. That's when I started getting into comic books. It wasn't until about a year or two after that my mom showed me the movie Beach Street. 80s movie about hip-hop all elements, rapping, and graffiti, break dancing, and to this day, it's probably still my favorite movie. She showed me that because my dad was an old school big boy, he was a breakdancer, and dancing was always my hobby as well at that point. I did dancing and art a lot growing up. Once I saw Beach Street, it kind of made me want to push the art in a graffiti direction.
I had this comic book background already, now meeting, seeing those characters in a graffiti typesetting, I thought they look similar, they're very vibrant, very poppy and your face. I wanted to do as much hip hop and art-related things with comics as possible, which was my main focus. All growing up, I was into break dancing. I moved up to do dancing for Nike, and they flew me around here and there to do certain events for them while doing graffiti forum later on for a little while.
It wasn't until about 6 or 7 years ago that I decided that I should transition into only artwork because I saw its longevity. I saw that I could do this the rest of my life; unlike break dancing, it's a minimal timeframe. I was really enjoying break dancing into it. Still, I felt the need and call to really get into doing art entirely. That's when I started expanding into painting portraits and using different mediums, playing with oil, acrylic and trying all sorts of other things. I was doing concept art, comic books, life studies, and anything to advance my skills.
My focus and how I've gotten into art is about trying to make my parents proud. Then I found out I have a real passion for art, and I noticed it was affecting other people; they were enjoying it, it was bringing out different conversations that I might've been afraid to have through my art. That fed the fuel on the fire, kept me going, and that's kind of how I got to where I'm at now.
When I was 16, I lived in Beaverton, and I had a buddy in a gang. I was his best friend; I knew him since I was 5 years old, we always did art together, he was still into break dancing with me, and it wasn't until high school that gangs appeared. It basically came down to his initiation being a robbery of another opposite gang. I got caught up in that. I was there when the initial conversation happened. I was stuck between not feeling like I could tell an adult, and as an adult now, I realize I had different routes I should have taken, but I didn't feel like I could tell anyone. My mom was a single mom, my dad wasn't really around at the time, and I was alone a lot. I felt stuck between trying to help my friend and doing the right thing; I ended up getting caught for the robbery (burglary), I was actually severely beaten, I was stabbed through my hand and pretty beat up by the people in the house, I was left in the place by myself.
But that's what happens. I don't make any excuses for it. I got what I deserved in my eyes. I'm not angry about that. I don't blame any of my friends for leaving me there because I didn't want to be there either. It was a horrible situation to be in without feeling like I had a way to get out of it. Once I was incarcerated, I was sentenced to 5 years, I started receiving mail from my mom while I was imprisoned, and she would send me comic books every week while I was in County jail. That's when I really thought this could be my way out, and this could be something that I can find peace in while I'm in these walls, and it would help me to explore different worlds, different ideas, and study art at the same time, and I ate them up.
I read as many comments as I could, and I would draw pages from them all the time continuously, and the entire time I was incarcerated, I focused on art solely. I ended up only doing 3 years because I got out for good behavior, I had half my time, but then they had to take another 6 months or something to get you situated and find a place to live. I did about as good as you can do while in that situation. I wasn't in any more trouble, I didn't cause any fights, I kept my eyes down and focused on my work. Luckily, many people, regardless of background, respect artists, wanted things for their mothers, for their girlfriends. I didn't have issues as far as gang affiliation or anything like that. I am always about respect. If I give respect, I expect it, and that's a pretty level playing field for everyone. You know, if I'm respectful to them, they were totally fine with me, and I didn't bother anyone, because I was always drawing the whole time.
While I was in there, I got my GED right away, and then my high school diploma. I even started getting some of the college credits as much as I could, all in there. My senior project was what career path are you going to take? I said, multimedia artist. I'm trying to live up to the thoughts I had of myself while I was away from the world.
I did the life of Frederick Douglas graphic novel with a guy I met at Rose City Comic-Con, named David F Walker. He does many professional comic books. He was a mutual friend of another guy, Abraham Mustapha, another Portland citizen who does comic books that were also a breakdancer growing up. That's how we knew each other. It was through dancing. It wasn't until years later that we realized we were both into art. But he connected us… he had a deal coming up for a book that he wrote, and they were looking for an artist. He threw my name in the hat, he told me they had gone through like 20 different artists trying to figure out who and kind of how I was like the last resort.
I guess they liked my work and said that they wanted to see me draw quickly — something that I would be able to do really fast, not take much time on. I went on my break, went to my car in the middle of winter, drew Frederick, and sent it in, and then later that week, I got a call saying that I got the job. The book was basically about Fredrick Douglas's life from beginning to end, fighting against slavery and for women's rights and equality for people. It was about how you started out as a slave and ended up a free man and his journey. I mainly worked in pencil for that book. Usually, you do pencil and ink, but the publisher thought it would be a good idea because he like my pencil work to get in there and add hard lines, really sick outlines. I decided to do it in real pencil instead of thinking about it, to give it that texture of being worn down.
I was not super precious about all the forms and everything being precisely correct because I wanted it to convey the mood more than looking pretty. It wasn't a pretty time, and I thought studying old photos that are already grainy, and the expressions on the people's faces that I saw during that time, and the audio that I was listening to, talking to you about the events that were going on and the documentaries and all those things kind of made me feel like I had to do more about a rugged look to it.
As far as the murals I've been doing lately, during quarantine, it's…Because I did that book, I've always been aware of racism and inequality and all these issues. I've had plenty of racist things done in my life. I'm not the darkest skin, but most people know that I'm different, and I had a big fro growing up, and braids and you could tell that I was mixed. I've had people write nigga on my artwork and call me mud and all sorts of stuff like that. When I did the book, I was very aware that it really opened my eyes to even more of the issues and how long everything's been going on because I had to dive into his life. I had to study this stuff for a year.
Once George Floyd was killed, I felt like I needed to do something with my art. I felt called to do it. I couldn't sit around and do nothing. It took me a while at first because I have a 3-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, and I work long hours, and between commissions and whatnot, I didn't have time to really get out there. But when I saw people were doing murals and painting and showing their support and getting it out there for the world to know, I felt it would be wrong of me if I didn't do something to shine some light on the situation or give some hope or anything that art does. I thought I need to go out there and do these paintings and let it be known that these are people, and regardless of any background or wherever you're from, no one deserves to be killed, and everyone should be treated equally no matter what. It's a human right, that's as simple as it gets, and that people don't understand that is where the conflict lies, that's where it becomes problematic.
I'm not the kind to start busting people's heads out there. I respect everyone on every part of the protests going on, but I know I had a specific skill set, and I know that an image can speak a thousand words. I thought I would do that. If it's in your face, you can't ignore it. You're forced to see it, whether you said you did or you didn't. If that can shine some light, then I'll keep doing it, and that's the reasoning behind why I got out there. Because after Frederick Douglas and being stuck in that world for a while, and everything that's been going on lately, I couldn't sit by and do nothing.
I tried to find imagery with good lighting and capture as much of their essence as I'd want to see, or I want people to be introduced to if they have never seen them before.
I did a lot of photo reference, and then went in there with aerosol spray paint and did it very old school, didn't use very many different caps or anything, straight can on the wall.
I tried to make the pieces pop; I wanted them to be kind of in your face. I wanted there to be good contrast of color. The first one I did was a blue man, a head shot of a black man and an orange around him. To kind of get your attention, I want you to look at it. I wasn't trying to do something that you could walk by quickly. I wanted it to be something that catches your eye.
The next one was Breonna Taylor. I thought a grayscale with yellow, bright yellow around her would make her glow. I wanted her to shine because she's gorgeous. I liked that to transfer through to my artwork the best I could, and then the blue is very mellow and kind of welcoming, but then we have the orange around that as well, around the blue lettering to drive it home. Those were the ideas behind that.
The next mural I did was "protect your future," which I did with a couple of buddies I've worked with. On three of the projects, I worked with an artist named Steve Limits. I grew up with him as well, and that was nice.
Then the last one I did was Elijah Woods, and I did that one myself, and I really liked the idea of it being like a purple, cool purple with a bright background to really make you look at him. I wanted you to look at his face, how kind he was, how sweet he was, and how sad it was that his life was taken for no reason.
I would love to keep making art that impacts people and that I feel matters and needs to be seen. My hope is that people that see my work in the future and in the past can put me into a kind of different category of caring for people and know that it's not a way to make money or that I'm trying to draw superheroes in capes, that I'm trying to send a message of equality, and that people need to be accepted, and…I guess my goal is to hopefully make a living off of doing these things, I'm not currently making a full-time living off my art, I'm still in the trenches trying to work my way there. But the goal for the future is to support my kids and my life by telling these stories and continuing to do murals and work on comic books and anything that people can consume and just…I don't want to limit myself to one thing. Right now, I'm teaching myself more airbrushing, trying to learn the digital side of things. I'm doing whatever I can to continue moving forward, creating content that matters.
I've come to realize that if you're not feeling it, don't force it. We're our most prominent critics, right? We don't like our own art. I try to find what's good about it, I try to get pumped upon myself, it's essential to see where you're going, what you've done, what you feel like you can do better, pointing out your own flaws to yourself and seeing what did work. The main thing I try to do is look back through my whole post on Instagram, and see how my videos come together, or mild illustrations, or flip through my book and get into the mindset of okay, I've done this before, I can do it now. What did I enjoy about it, what didn't I enjoy about it, what works, and what was I feeling during that time. How do I like the lines and how the lines came out, how do I like the figure, what about the composition that works? I found looking at your work helps loads.
Obviously, you're looking at people that inspire you. I would do that sparingly because you can also discourage yourself a little bit. After all, you're like, oh, I'm not that good, or I'm not going to be like that, or it's not going to come out how you want, but I would try and capture the essence of what inspired you by their work. Look at someone else's work that you like, and instead of looking at the image or listening to the piece or whatever art form it may be, think about why you like it and what inspires you about it, and then try to put that into your own work. Because I feel like if you're inspired, it's much more comfortable, right? If you're not inspired, if you're sitting there unsure of what to do, you need to get that spark going by seeing something you enjoy, whether it be your work or someone else's.
Future Prairie Radio Season Four Episode Nine: How To Talk About It with John Akira Harrold
My name's John Akira Harrold. I am a fourth-generation Japanese American of mixed heritage. My dad is white, and my mom's Japanese-American. I'm 33 years old, and I've been living in Portland for 7 going on 8 years, I think. I'm originally from Colorado. I was born and raised there. In terms of how identity intersects with the work, I feel it's primarily through the lens of race. The current job that I do now tends to be around the concept of publishing and is frequently—although not exclusively in print. I'm interested in thinking about how publishing can work to coalesce either a group of people, or a conversation, or this moment around whatever thing you want to connect that energy around. It commemorates or culminates that or expresses it within the physicality of a printed item, a book.
That hasn't always been how I've approached creative work and printed work, but it's what's interesting to me now, about creative work. I'm also in a place where a lot of what I'm interested in changes, and I don't have a strong sense of who I am as a creative person. More than anything, I actually respond to whatever interests me at the moment, and then I try to pursue that.
Another thing that informs what I do creatively is also this interest in graphic design and art. ever since I learned about typography and image-making, I've never looked at the world the same, and studying those disciplines, has opened up things creatively for me even though their primary application is commercial. Thinking about visual languages and visual work through the lens of graphic design has helped me create new work and find ways to problem solve in the creative process.
Before that, I didn't go to school for anything creative. I did get the opportunity to go to school to study a discipline called ethnic studies. I majored in Asian-American studies, which was a hybrid degree. Which was an exciting experience, and I learned a lot about political things, and got to do a lot of self-exploration during that time as well, to understand more about my identity and my own family history, and what my role was in society and what responsibilities I would have because of certain privileges.
I carry a lot of that with me today, although my politics have changed. But then again, similar to my art practice, I don't even know how to put words to it. I guess it's just-- I don't comfortably fit into a category of wokeness. I would have when I was in college, and now my politics are grappling with finding a political home. It seems part of being a politically active, creative person is also engaging in developing your politics and its consequences. Again, I feel this is a constantly changing process that I have a hard time articulating and setting in stone.
When about bookmaking and typography, I definitely think of this non-profit in Portland called the independent publishing resource center. I got involved with them maybe 5 years ago and learned about letterpress printing. It's a traditional form of printing used to create various printed media types, from books to posters to newspapers. But it rests on this idea of setting type by hand, so, putting individual letters of words together in a string. Something about being able to pick the letters and construct the words without picking up a pencil: I was able to make marks on paper, and for me, that was new because I've never felt compelled to illustrate. It's coupled with you also using letters, and you can say something and articulate something and communicate.
It is also a rich medium for people interested in language, specifically poets, because setting many words by hand can take a long time. People who can have an economy of speech can find a home in letterpress. Letterpress led to this interest in print, and it also led to an interest in type and typography. From there, I figured out how to learn all the Adobe programs, and I still consider myself learning. Even though I use them daily, there's so much depth to them.
Then I also spent a couple of years apprenticing with this guy named Spina, who recently moved to Arizona about a year ago. He ran a small print shop in Portland that was a unique business where he worked mostly with artists and made custom books. He was embedded in Portland's music community, did many show posters, and did a lot of art prints. I learned more about what it would take to run a small shop, make books, find ways to have more time where I'm spending actually making stuff, and printing and learning how to do it and learn how to put everything together.
So I'd say type and bookmaking come together with the political stuff, is…well, to put something out into the world, you have to figure out what you want to be saying. Combining it all together is thinking in a way that, for me, still feels very academic and heady, but then trying to represent that a bit abstracted and then also graphically, and wrapping it all together in the format of a book. I feel sometimes I do that, sometimes I don't do that, but I think generally, that's kind of, I don't know, a process that I feel would resonate with my experience.
A project I did last year that was meaningful was this book that I made in my grandpa's memory commissioned by my grandma. My grandpa passed away a couple of years ago. At his memorial service, my grandma wanted to find a way to get the community's memories together and share them. as someone from a different generation, very comfortable with print media, she was let's try to get people to write letters. We'll put them together in a book, we'll include some photos, and then we can give it out, because they live in a small town, and my grandma still does. It's called Alamosa Colorado, It's a unique place in southern Colorado.
, that project was great because I got to read through 70 or 80 handwritten letters that were all of the people sharing stories about the time they had spent with my grandpa, and funny times, sad times, meaningful times, everything in between. So, we put them together in a layout and print it off, maybe 130 copies or so, and my grandma gave them out to everyone who came to the service, or anyone who's in her network in that in that community. That was a cool project because I felt I got to use all these skills I've been trying to acquire for the past 5, 6 years and put them into something that I thought I would want to look back on in years and be oh, this was a very worthwhile thing to do.
Another noteworthy project is one that I recently completed, and it was actually funded—partially funded by RAAC, so, thank you, Regional Arts and Culture Council. It's called ACNBF, and it took years to make. It took a long time to figure out how I wanted this book to speak, and I wanted to do it in collectivity with other people. I reached out to nine different people who all have a background of either full Asian or mixed or mixed Asian and something else. They have various sexual orientations, mostly men, but not all men but most men and primarily male.
I wanted to talk about masculinity, and I wanted to talk about the unique position of the intersection of Asian-ness and masculinity. It's an exciting position that is rich, in the sense that there's a lot there, but we don't have a framework for understanding it or how to talk about it. I interviewed people, and many were creatives and had casual conversations with them about their lives. I asked about their relationships, upbringing, relationship with their parents, how they deal with racism, how they want to grow personally, off the cuff, but meaning—I would consider them to be meaningful. Hopefully, others did too.
I transcribed all the audio. It was over a hundred pages of audio. Then, it categorized every sentence into a category, then printed out those sheets, then chop them up into sentences, and then rearranged them to form composite poems. , each line from the poem is from a different interviewee, and you don't know who. They're not attributed to anyone, so, in that sense, they're a little more anonymous. I then gave every interviewee a disposable camera and paid them a stipend to fill it up with photos, show me what their life is like, and give me a perspective through their eyes. So, everything got put together in this book called AZMBF, and it was set to be released right when COVID hit, and so the release got canceled, and so, that was also a particular project that I'm still excited to release into the world, and I have no idea. I've given it to a few people, and they're oh, this is sweet, but I haven't had the opportunity to get a ton of feedback on it or see how it's going to land with folks, so I'm excited and interested to see what's going to happen with that.
I also feel too I should shout out Dao S. Dow's work was part of a collective of Vietnamese American women writers called "She who has no masters." some of their work inspired the format for AZMBF. , I feel it's important to acknowledge that-- they didn't do the same exact thing, but the idea of how do you speak in collectivity, as a group coming from a position, but also like, I don't know, they do way more stuff, but the idea of that inspired this book.
The book is basically a combination of image and text. The images are the 35-millimeter photographs from the disposable cameras from the nine different people I interviewed for the project. The text is pretty big on the page, it's basically set in Arial, a stock font, but it looks pretty all right. It was printed on a reason graph printer, which gives the images a distinct texture, its a bit grainy maybe, and it also prints one color at a time, so each image is one color. The photos are either red, yellow, turquoise green, blue, or purple, and they change throughout the book. Then all the text is white, and all the negative space is black.
, when you print, you have to print on white. Well, you don't have to, but I printed on white paper and basically didn't print the text itself. I printed everything around the letters. , it's a lot of blacks, it's when you open up the book, I wanted it to feel you were going into this space of emo darkness because that's my jam, or at least it was. Or it's this space that I, for some reason, feel comfortable communicating from, but I wanted that not to be so overpowering that it was aesthetic in and of itself, but I wanted it to be an element of it. I would say there's this element of a little bit of darkness to the book, but in a way that I hope actually helps further the message and give it a distinct tone.
Then I guess the last thing I'll say aesthetically about the book is that it was all done a hundred percent in my studio. It was a run of 150, and so, each copy was handled quite a bit, and I put more care into this project, into this physical production than I've probably had any other thing in my life. My hope is that some of the detailed work shines and comes through visually when people are…visually and effectively compelling when you're actually engaging with the result. The book is bound using this method called Japanese stabbed binding, and it is an old way of binding books, where you take a stack of loose pages, and on the edge that you're going to bind, you drill holes through the top and out the bottom, and then you stitch them together with this thread that's called waxed linen thread. It's a specific type of thread that basically is meant to be archival so that it doesn't have any acids in it, so that if you have the book 20 years from now, hopefully, it won't leach any chemicals into the paper and ruin the quality of the book, and it will hopefully still last.
Then, each cover was debossed, which is a way of saying a graphic or a shape was scored or engraved into the cover paper, the cover paper's thick, and I use this machine called the digital dye cutter. It's very tactile, it's very textural, as well as functional.
The future is a lot of anxiety right now, and that is affecting my work in the sense of—like, I'm not sure what's important to be doing right now. There's a lot of stuff happening in the world right now, everything feels very urgent, and I think work should be engaging with that urgency and responding to current social and political life. I know this is going to change things for me creatively. I would like to continue to teach. The IPRC, who I mentioned earlier, allowed me to create a class last year and lead in this program that was a 9-month program. Last year was the second year that we did it, and I enjoy teaching, so I would love to someday have a more stable teaching gig, preferably at a university or somewhere that's working with adults or young adults, that's an age group that I'm interested in working with. Doing that may be a part-time gig, teaching one course a term, or something that.
I'm interested in trying to make a living more in the design space as well, whether that's totally commercial work or whether it's at that intersection of art and design, it's definitely something I'm interested in for myself, both creatively and professionally and what I would say, I spend a lot of time working towards now. Ideally, in the future, I would have some set up to where the creative world and the professional world continue to merge and merge even more so. that that could be possible in Portland and as a Portland person living here in the future, what I want is leadership in place that responds to the community's needs. I want the community to feel they're heard in our local government and that local government is by the people, for the people, accountable and effective.
Take advantage of the fact that Portland is a smaller place. We can try things out here, make changes, and do things that can meet the specific needs of what people in Portland need. I want civic leadership that is doing a great job and effective.
Art can help shape hearts and minds, and I'm not sure how it can help us get there. Still, I guess in the past, I've seen a lot of art change how people think about otherness and perception and representation, by putting creators from marginalized backgrounds at the helm and letting them dictate what content is gonna look like. That can be effective, and that's necessary.
I want to create work that makes me feel that it was a worthwhile endeavor, but coming into a project with that mindset is sometimes challenging. I'm a big fan of developing a practice, it could be daily, it could be three times a week, where you engage in something, set a timer, and do it no matter what, and you might come up with stuff you're not stoked on. But what I find is usually when you start getting into things at about 15 to 18 minutes. You typically are at a place that seems inspiring, and maybe something creative could happen that otherwise would not have happened had you not force yourself to sit down or force yourself to engage in whatever it is you want to be doing.
I liked the concept of an archive, and I liked people making their own archives out of ordinary, mundane things in their lives. That smartphones for those who have them, have opened up a lot of opportunities for individuals to be able to document their daily experience, whether that's taking a picture of something every day and having a record of that, or whether that's… you get so much data from your phone. So, I feel there are creative ways that you can mind through that information and take the time to represent it in some way visually. That's a fun thing to do that gives you insight into something you may not otherwise think of — then for people who are visually oriented, to be able to take that and put that into something that's a visually appealing package, I love that stuff, I love it when people make archives of their own experience, in whatever way they want to and see how they do it and what they choose to pay attention to. It is a fascinating practice, both as someone who's doing it and as someone who's experiencing it.