Stephanie Smith: Visionary Artist in Progress

Stephanie Smith: Visionary Artist in Progress

By Ann Wlazelek

Stephanie Smith saw an image on the Internet and was instantly intrigued. It was a mandala, or circular art form created in one siting while meditating. She took out her notebook, started drawing and could not stop. “I liked the repetition,” she said of the circular designs that calm her creative clamor.

That was almost seven years ago. Today, the 44-year-old Bethlehem native has produced thousands of brightly colored, intricately designed, mixed-media mandalas in her notebook, on canvases and mat boards – original works that sell from $40 to $8,000. She has her own studio at the Banana Factory and conducts workshops to teach others the therapeutic benefits of such artistic expression.

Not bad for a Liberty High School dropout who chose to leave home at an early age and never took a formal art class.

Smith’s relatively rapid stardom even surprised herself. “I wouldn’t call myself an artist for a long time,” she said. “I thought what I was doing was expressing who I was in that moment: like a cosmic sneeze.”

The sneezes (mandalas), she believes, are part of the path she is on to transform, grow and share what she’s learned. The path began with jobs she took to pay her bills – selling cameras, writing employee training manuals and promoting drumming workshops for a professional musician who would become her mentor. Each job proved a pivotal step that not only led her to artistic self-expression, she said, but also gave her the business skills to market her work through social media and teach the techniques through her workshops.  She went from making jewelry to drumming to making art.

It’s my judgment that she is at the tip of the iceberg with regards to what is possible for her.

When she first started creating mandalas, Smith would start in the center, using pencil, pen and marker – whatever was at hand.  She would not stop until the paper or canvas was covered. She would work 10-15 minutes or hours at a time, sometimes producing seven or eight mandalas at a sitting.

The thousands of smaller works “built the muscle memory” in her hands to transfer what she was doing to the larger, bolder works she now creates with a paintbrush.

But unlike a lot of artists who envision a design or image before sitting down to recreate it, Smith said she seldom knows what will emerge until she begins. Once, when preparing to work on a themed piece, she said, she created a series of six other mandalas. “I sit down and play with shapes, colors and stuff just happens,” she said.

Each piece is very personal and influenced by Smith’s spirituality and interest in meditative mantras, yoga and Native Americans. Faceless female forms, reminiscent of the late local artist Keith Haring’s primitive male forms outlined in black, often surface and reflect Smith’s evolution in responding to some of society’s negative pressures toward women.

Smith said she was not familiar with Haring’s graffiti-style work, but after doing some research found a parallel: “He came without thought with a paint brush and can and started creating,” she said. “That’s me.”

Smith describes her art as visionary, which the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore defines as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” One of the best known visionary artists today is New York’s Alex Grey whose psychedelic images are influenced by dreams and altered or heightened states of consciousness.

Jim Donovan, the professional drummer from the band Rusted Root and Smith’s mentor, said he believes Smith’s success revolves around the fact she reveals her true nature through her images and colors. “Stephanie is restless like many truly creative people and it is her restlessness that I feel gives her the kind of edge that allows one to express authentically,” something Donovan said audiences/fans want most in an artists. “I believe audiences want this from artists so that they may feel their own emotion and authenticity.”

“Stephanie does all of this and more through her art, her writing and inspirational mandala workshops,” Donovan added. “It’s my judgment that she is at the tip of the iceberg with regards to what is possible for her.”

Smith doesn’t recall the first mandala she sold but she is particularly proud of a large piece she created to showcase her work as the Banana Factory’s featured artist in March 2012, three months after opening her studio there.The piece was 5.5 feet tall and 9 feet wide, with Smith’s female form in transformation. Titled “She Continues to Grow,” the work took a lot out of her, she said, having photographed and posted her progress online.

When it was finished, a prominent woman in the Lehigh Valley – Heather Rodale of the Rodale publishing family, bought it to display in her healing art center. Rodale also took Smith’s mandala workshop and now creates her own by arranging and photographing 3-D objects.

Smith, who is married but has no children, considers many of the people who have taken her workshop to be her children who grow and carry the techniques around the world.  One program is called “Fearless Art Making” and emphasizes non-judgmental teaching and story-telling. Her workshops can be held at her studio, an art school, college campus or in a person’s home.

Smith would like to meet other artists who create visionary art and has enrolled in one of Grey’s psychedelic art institute workshops to do just that.  She loves to write, is paid to blog for a French stationery company and believes her creative path will lead her to write a book one day – at least one book.

“All of this has been my therapy,” she said. “That’s why I don’t know if [creating mandalas] is the end.”

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