Johnnie Smith is a self-taught artist, who paints scenes of Delta life, past and present. His body of work includes landscapes, historical buildings, and portraits of famous figures from the region. Over the years, I have gotten to know Johnnie through his work with the Folk & Traditional Arts program at the Mississippi Arts Commission. This essay stems from interviews and conversations that I have had with him about his creative work, and it profiles his development as an artist. To supplement the text, I asked photographer Rory Doyle to capture Johnnie and his paintings at his home studio in Cleveland, Mississippi. Like Johnnie, Rory also calls Cleveland home.
This profile demonstrates Johnnie’s lifelong passion for painting and his talent for capturing the world around him. At 73, he shows no signs of stopping and still paints as much as he can.
Growing up in Cleveland, Mississippi, Johnnie Smith became interested in drawing as a child. “I started drawing in the dirt with sticks in my backyard like kids do,” said Smith. “I just liked to draw as a kid. When I was young, before I became a teenager, my mom bought me a drawing set with pastels, drawing pencils, and acrylic paints. From there I got into painting in addition to my drawing. I would draw from comic books like Superman and Batman. I loved drawing those characters. The whole block of kids in my neighborhood liked my art and they were inspired by me to draw comic book heroes too. They loved drawing and they liked my work, which was a big deal to me. It pushed me to keep on going.”
I used to walk the railroad track, and just dream, and look at the flowers--little wildflowers--[and] just dream about painting.
At age 16, Smith started painting and first tried oil paints. He enjoyed oil painting and explored that medium for several years. When he was 17 or 18, Smith moved to Chicago. He worked at the post office, and while his colleagues urged him to attend art school, he decided not to enroll. “I took my artwork to some schools in downtown Chicago, and the schools were interested in my work. But I was too young when this happened, and I was nervous. I did not have the motivation for art school during that time,” explained Smith. “When you are young, you just don’t think about the future. I had other things on my mind.” In his late 20s, he returned to Mississippi, and he continued practicing art on his own, looking for inspiration from the natural environment. Reflecting on that time in his life, Johnnie said, “I used to walk the railroad track, and just dream, and look at the flowers--little wildflowers--[and] just dream about painting.”
At age 27, he started a demanding job, and he found that the oil paints took too long to dry for his schedule. “I was working from 5:00 am to 10:00 or 11:00 at night, so I didn’t have a lot of time,” explained Smith. “In 1983, I painted my last painting in oil and went to chalk pastels after that. I didn’t want to give up painting but wanted something to do in that same field. I couldn’t stop. Anything in the art field is what makes me breathe,” said Smith. “With pastels you can slide the box out and get to work. Oil painting takes a little more time to get going. Plus, I didn’t have a lot of place to store my paintings when I was young.”
I just paint. Draw, paint, whatever. If I was doing it for money, I would’ve stopped a long time ago. I do it for the love of it. I could have all the money in the world, but if I couldn’t paint when that feeling hit me…
For most of his life, Smith worked in chemical plants, then a warehouse. The physical aspects of the job took a toll on him, but he continued to paint and sell his work. “As my style matured,” explained Smith, “I began to travel to nearby towns, selling my work to individuals at street festivals, and other venues. I was interested in the history and culture of the Delta and focused my paintings on themes of blues, jazz, the Deep South, Delta life, Delta history, including the histories of local businesses, and the natural world around me.”
For a time, Smith also sold his work in his wife’s antique store. Since the store no longer exists, he now sells his work in various places in Cleveland, including the Train Museum, Moonstruck Flea Market, and the Sawdust Shack, as well as a gallery in Rosedale, Mississippi. He frames his paintings himself, collecting frames from flea markets or Walmart. He paints on drawing paper and pastel paper and covers his work with glass to preserve it.
“I just do it,” said Smith. “I just paint. Draw, paint, whatever. If I was doing it for money, I would’ve stopped a long time ago. I do it for the love of it. I could have all the money in the world, but if I couldn’t paint when that feeling hit me…”
I consider my work as a way of preserving the heritage of the Mississippi Delta by creating art that captures local life, history,
character, and texture of the Delta.
His later works feature local businesses and architecture, including the juke joint, Po’ Monkeys, Delta Cream Donuts, and other Delta relics that are no longer in business. These paintings are based on his personal photographs that he takes when he explores the area with his camera. “I try to paint things around here that people recognize,” said Smith. “Those are the ones they buy, so I paint just about everything around here.”
He also gets ideas from his own memories and life. “I am capturing my life in my work,” said Smith. “I grew up picking cotton and chopping cotton and sometimes paint scenes of cotton picking because it is a part of my history. I hated it and wanted to be at home drawing, but I had to do it. It was a way of life back then.” As an avid music fan, Smith likes to paint blues icons like B.B. King and other popular musicians, basing his work off images he finds in magazines.
It’s something I just love to do; if I’m not doing it, I feel like I’m not living.
Now that Smith is retired, he paints in spurts of creativity, and when he is most motivated to work. He welcomes periods of rest and relaxation to foster the joy he gets from painting and to avoid burnout. He accepts occasional commissions and has painted pieces for local organizations like the Bolivar County Literacy Council. Each year, he makes an effort to present his work at the Crosstie Arts and Jazz Festival in Cleveland, and in 2022, Smith won the “Best in Show” trophy at the festival.
“I have dedicated my life to the appreciation of art,” said Smith. “I consider my work as a way of preserving the heritage of the Mississippi Delta by creating art that captures local life, history, character, and texture of the Delta.” After more than 50 years of painting, Johnnie is as passionate as ever, and takes every opportunity to hone his craft while documenting the history of his life and region through his art.
To learn more about Rory Doyle's work, please visit his website.