‘Dee’ Smith Tribute exhibit being hosted by Qualla Arts & Crafts

by Feb 24, 2020A&E, COMMUNITY sgadugi





Qualla Arts and Crafts will be hosting an art exhibit open house on Friday, Feb. 28, to honor the late John Daniel ‘Dee’ Smith.

Smith, a Cherokee painter, passed away in 2013. He was known for his use of color, detail, and experimentation for paint surfaces. Along with classic canvas, he would also paint on animal skulls, elk antlers, feathers, and more.

Dr. R Michael Abram, the curator of an upcoming exhibit at Qualla Arts and Crafts honoring the late John Daniel ‘Dee’ Smith, explains the background behind Smith’s paintings. (JONAH LOSSIAH/One Feather photo)

The exhibit has been curated by Dr. R Michael Abram, who owns all the work as well.  Abram owned and operated the Cherokee Heritage Museum in Saunooke Village with his wife from 1983-2010. They have been collecting Cherokee art since 1973.

Abram has been gathering the work of Smith since the 1980s and got to know him well over the years.

“He lived here (Cherokee), but he had also moved to Oklahoma. And so, he would drive back once or twice a year must every year. And when he would come back, he would bring paintings. He would stop at our place first,” said Abram.

He said that one of the many things he liked about Smith was his willingness to speak with him about his work. Smith would often drop off his work and let Abram analyze it before he would come back to the museum.

“He would come back, and we would go upstairs in the museum when there was no one up there. And we would sit there, either in a chair or sometimes just on the floor in one of the museum rooms. And he would talk to me about the paintings and why he painted them, and the subjects. Often times though he wouldn’t say anything, he’d just hand me a painting and say, ‘what do you see in here and how do you interpret it?'”

Abram estimates that he has close to 100 pieces created by Smith. When his wife, Susan Abram, had her book published in 2015, they used one of Smith’s paintings as the cover image.

“His style is very realistic…and the thing that really draws you to his paintings is how he puts in his colors and expresses and evokes emotions through the color choices. And also, and the colors are pertinent to the subject matter of the painting.”

Along with the color, he said that the intricacy of many of the paintings is remarkable.

“One time he told me, ‘now the miniatures, the way I do them, they have lots of detail to them.’ He said, ‘to do the hair (on a person), I will take one hair out of the paintbrush, and I will use that to paint in the hair.'” 

He went on to say that the most important aspect of Smith’s work is his ability to portray Cherokee culture.

“This exhibit is a good cross-section of the paintings that he did. And when I say cross-section, how he honored his Cherokee heritage through what he expressed with his artistic talents.”

This is why Abram set up the exhibit the way it is. One case is dedicated to Smith’s depictions of Cherokee culture and legends, and the other is to Cherokee’s history. There are also several passages to place context on the work.

“A person can go. I can do this, you can do this, any human being can do this. Whenever you go in and look at a piece of artwork, wherever you are in the world, and you try to make meaning to it to yourself. If you do that, you will interpret it only through your background culture. So, therefore for people to really appreciate this…I put that interpretation in there so that the viewer can understand the Cherokee artist’s work from the Cherokee perspective,” said Abram.

He said that he is putting the final touches on the display now and has brought in a few people to give him notes. Abram said that he was honored that one of those was Bud Smith, Dee’s brother.

“He went around those two long cases several times, looking and studying. And then he looked up at me and he said, ‘You’ve really done a good job, I really like this. There’s nothing I would change.'”

Vicki Cruz, manager at Qualla Arts and Crafts, says that she is excited to have these paintings on display.

“I always liked the colors and the gentleness of some of them. Some had an evil aspect to them, and on others, the colors were really nice and pleasing,” said Cruz.

“We’ve spoken about it once or twice over the last two or three years, and it just kind of happen this year,” she continued.

The pieces on display are primarily on canvas, though there are a few of the elk antler miniatures. The open house is set for 5 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 28, and the exhibit will be up until March 31.