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The life and times of Chuck Smart
The late Bremerton artist leaves lasting impact and a definitive body of work, both of which will be on display in his memory for First Friday.
There’s an eerie feeling around Studio 68 in downtown Bremerton.
The Fourth Street studio which Des Moines poet and photographer Anne Sweet and Collective Visions Gallery president Alan Newberg shared with the late Chuck Smart has been quiet ever since Smart passed away in the waning days of 2008. But strangely, you can somehow still feel his presence.
It permeates the body of work that he’s left behind.
“Especially in the last two or three years of his life, it really became an important thing to him to leave behind a body of work,” Sweet said. “A legacy I guess you would call it.”
She and Smart’s widow Dawn have taken on the project of cataloguing and preserving that legacy. There’s a vault in Smart’s basement, I’ve been told, where he kept all the work that he’d created and collected over the span of his life. It was also a jam room and gathering space for friends and fellow musicians.
“It has a lot of his energy and his spirit down there for sure,” Sweet said. “There’s a lot of rhythm down there, you can still feel the vibrations.”
In addition to being a self-made, staunchly independent, somewhat underground artist, Smart was also a world-traveled, globally influenced, improvisational musician. In his formative years, he became a gypsy of sorts, after buying a one-way ticket to the Netherlands expatriating amidst the madness of the 1960s American south.
“Chuck Smart is a man with some stories to tell,” I remember writing after first meeting him a few years back.
His death, at age 67 on Dec. 29, 2008, didn’t really come as much of a surprise. He’d been secretly fighting pancreatic cancer for sometime, in the late stages of which, he’d decided to discontinue treatment. But even before that, you could see it somewhere in his gaze that he saw it coming. There was a painful sort of acceptance in his eyes.
One of the last times I talked to Smart, in an interview for a show which unfortunately never made its way to print, we toasted rum in a silent, though somehow somber exchange, pondering life and art at Studio 68.
We talked about a lot of things that day — from Miles Davis to the muse of creation to the beauty of improvisation and creating a body of work. We talked about the Best of Show award he won for a piece in Bremerton’s inaugural statewide CVG art show in 2007, and the piece he’d planned on entering this year’s show, a multi-media work titled “Life and Death,” which was later accepted into the show.
We listened to jazz and perused his newest work that day. We even jammed on an impromptu bit of rhythm and vocal improv. Even though he was quietly facing the most grim of realizations in life, Smart’s energy was still infectious.
That spirit is likely one of the things for which he will be remembered most.
“As soon as he put his foot on the ground in the morning, he was making art,” Sweet remembers. “It kind of goes back to that Miles Davis line ... it was all about art for Chuck. Everything had some artistic vein to it, and one vein fed another.”
“A musician and artist born into a family of musicians and artists in a culture of music and art,” Smart became a full-time visual artist late in life, finding his master medium by locking himself in the basement with a Mac computer and creating his own strain of digital art. He’s noted as a local pioneer in the art form, with his digitally enhanced photography collages and other multimedia works.
While he’s mostly an unknown artist to the outside world, he’s held in very high regard in the local arts community, called a “true creative spirit” and a “visionary” by local gallery owners and community members.
“People need to look at his work,” Old Town Custom Framing and Gallery owner Maria Mackovjack said of Smart. “I don’t care if it is here or at Collective Visions or at Amy Burnett or even on the back of a truck somewhere, they need to just look at it.”
Smart came to Kitsap County in the mid-1980s from Ohio, where he had been an assistant dean, teaching percussion at Antioch College. He and Dawn came here when he lost his job to downsizing, because this is where she had been raised. Interestingly enough, at the time, they’d been thinking of moving to Brazil, but, Smart said, they liked it here. And they’d been here ever since. Throughout the 1990s, Smart commuted to Bellevue as a volunteer DJ for jazz and world music radio shows on KBCS-FM (91.3). He also worked at Bud’s Jazz Records and also wrote and contributed art work for Seattle’s Earshot Jazz newsletter. But since the turn of the century, he’d focused his energy as a full-time independent artist in Bremerton.
In the typical bittersweet fashion, Sweet said, sales in his work have been climbing since his death. It will remain for sale, Sweet said, on the web and locally at Maria’s Old Town Custom Framing in Silverdale.
“A Gathering for Chuck and final First Friday for Studio 68,” a gathering featuring his work and impact on the local community, will be tonight during First Friday festivities at Studio 68, 608 Fourth St. in Bremerton.
Also in remembrance at the next quarterly art walk March 13 in Old Town Silverdale, Smart will be the featured artist at Maria’s Old Town Custom Framing and Gallery at 2533 Lowell Street.
For more on the Life and Times of Chuck Smart, go to www.chucksmart.com.