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A portrait of artist Paintin’ Manning

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One of Pierick Smith‘s proudest pieces of artwork in his compact Chicago studio features Michael Jordan. The flailing gold chains about his neck. Those idyllic red and black sneakers. The hand in a Spock sign—perhaps because Mike was otherworldly. The painting, like Jordan’s dunk, is fluid, delicate, yet powerful, and full of so much grace Mikhail Baryshnikov would blush in its presence.

Smith has dubbed his paintings “Pop-Pop Art,” owing to the Warhol-esque homage to popular culture icons—particularly athletes—and the use of X-Acto-knifed foamboard of the subject, details, and background which produces a 3-D effect. The Jordan piece epitomizes Pop-Pop: an athlete bigger than his sport and a subject that is literally jumping off the canvas.

The painting, however, is more than a seminal work in Smith’s portfolio. There is something more important Smith wants people to see.

“What is highbrow art?” Smith asked and took a long sip of coffee, letting his rhetorical question hang there beside Jordan. “Matisse is a genius because he painted three practicing ballerinas and I’m a hack because I paint Michael Jordan? Aren’t they both equally beautiful?”

The painting—like most in his ever-burgeoning collection—is an assault on the art world and its exclusionary culture and romantic past. For Smith the art is about embracing the hero in all of us and celebrating—but not living—in the past.

Rolling the dice

For several years Smith commuted from Chicago to Schaumburg for his job at a major supermarket chain. It had been almost 10 years since he picked up a pencil. College debt, society’s expectations, and perhaps the subconscious fear of failure kept that pencil out of his hand. One day he called his wife, Suzy, and said he had quit his job.

“It felt like I was driving in my coffin.”

It was, as he said, a roll of the dice. Art, however, was about to set him free, relieve the chokehold the modern world had on his creative side. Suzy admitted she was surprised, but knew how talented he was. Had the roles been reversed, she insisted, Smith would have supported her.

Without the safety net, Smith concentrated solely on his craft. If there is indeed a genetic predisposition for artistic creativity, Smith possesses it. His great-grandmother worked with water colors and his first memories are of drawing with his mother. Dudley Huppler, an artist who had a working relationship with Andy Warhol, is a distant relative.

Smith grew up in Wisconsin and like most Midwestern kids he played sports. He lettered in soccer, baseball, and basketball before going to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. There he studied art and grew tired of the ubiquitous question, “What’re you going to do with that?” And, worse, people throwing around the expression “artsy-fartsy,” a term Smith finds contemptible, as it seems to insinuate a lack of focus and implies petulance. It was engrained in him that the degree was nothing short of a waste of time. That was why upon graduation he put down the pencil and dove into the corporate world.

Much of art these days has shifted to graphic design, another connection—albeit a thin one—to that corporate world. The pixel has become too prominent and it’s something Smith wanted to avoid in his art. Similar to his challenge of the traditional artistic order he wants his art to be approachable and fun and, most of all, he wants it to be personal.

“I love the hand,” he said. “It makes the art more human.”

And his hands and their uncanny steadiness is what produces the pristine X-Acto cuts. Smith starts by sketching his subject on a piece of paper. From there he draws it onto the foamboard and then flashes his knife skills. Suzy called his cuts “incredible,” noting that the details, from Jordan’s gold chains to Walter Payton’s mouthpiece, are impeccable. Smith then paints the individual parts and pieces it together. The video below of an RGIII work gives you an idea of how labor intensive the paintings are.

Pierick Smith, a painter who lives and works in Chicago, goes by “Paintin’ Manning.” He landed on the name since all of his subjects are sports related.

Hitching his wagon to social media

Smith believes that if there has ever been a time to be an artist it has to be now. Reaching people has never been easier and Twitter connects us not only to those who share our interests, but the sports stars he happens to be painting.

Recently he painted JaVale McGee, the eccentric center for the Denver Nuggets. When he posted the finished product on Twitter and let McGee see what he had done, the center contacted him about purchasing the piece. Smith, however, didn’t feel comfortable with selling McGee a piece of art that featured McGee himself. McGee, instead, sent Smith a signed jersey in exchange for the painting.

Rubbing elbows with celebrities has become second nature to Smith. All of them—including Orioles star Adam Jones, Broncos linebacker Von Miller, and McGee—have been respectful and fun to deal with. He recently had an exchange with Payton’s son, Jarrett, and was again asked how much he would charge for a painting of Payton diving over the Chicago skyline. Smith replied to Jarrett by typing, “A handshake.”

NatsOsPopPop

He recently produced a piece for a giveaway on Ball Hogs Radio. It depicts Jones and Bryce Harper and the site wants listeners to vote on a name for the painting.

This isn’t to say Smith doesn’t want to make money on his art. He simply understands that a person must crawl before they can walk. He has shows at Artopia in Chicago and The Raw Show at the Double Door in Chicago where he hopes to build his business and his name.

A great many of his sales have been from commissioned works. It’s the fan, as many great athletes will tell you, with whom he finds real joy in working.

Challenging traditional artistic order

In most forms of art, from painting to film to literature, there exists the idea that there are distinct compartments for what passes as acceptable. As Smith noted, the commodity of art has kept its momentum through some very rough times. The reason, he explained, is that often the market is driven by the people who “wear the right color black.” An esoteric group drives the prices by cornering the market and deciding what is worthy of a large price tag and what is worthless. It is the classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

Smith’s major goal is for people to realize that art is here for us to enjoy. He has always found it interesting how people have an obsession and affinity for sports and a particular proclivity to spend massive amounts of money on sports. It’s an escape, a way to leave behind the chaos of our lives, if only for a few hours.

In reality there’s not much difference between a game of football and a painting: both are there for our enjoyment, a distraction from the world around us or, at their best, a way to reflect on something profound and wonderful in our own lives.

The question then becomes, “Aren’t they both equally beautiful?”

It doesn’t take an artsy-fartsy person to know that the answer is yes.

You can follow “Paintin’ Manning” on Twitter @PierickSmith and visit his website here. On Sunday, June 23, Smith will be showing his artwork at Artopia at the Congress Theatre in Chicago. He will also appear on Thursday, July 11 at The Raw Show at the Double Door in Chicago