GWEN FRAZIER-SMITH: Norman Rockwell of Savannah | Visual Arts | Savannah News, Events, Restaurants, Music


A former convenience store on DeLesseps Avenue, located between Truman Parkway and Skidaway Road, now houses Gwen Frazier-Smith’s Urbeau Art Gallery.

The artist coined the word ‘urbeau’, explaining, “It’s just a word I came up with to describe my work…painting everything I see around me. It’s a mix of urban and beautiful.

A commissioned portrait of Susie King Taylor was prominently displayed in the entrance to the spacious building when I visited. Earlier this month it was installed in the eponymous Women’s Institute and Ecology Center in Midway. Taylor was born into slavery in 1848, was allowed to leave her plantation at the age of seven to live with her free grandmother in Savannah, and despite laws prohibiting formal education for African Americans, attended two secret schools before escaping slavery by fleeing to a gunboat near Confederate. -held Port Pulaski in 1862.

Taylor moved to Union-occupied St. Simons Island and continued to openly teach African Americans and serve as a nurse for the United States 33rd Colored Infantry. In 1866, she returned to Savannah to open a school for African-American children before moving to Boston in the early 1870s. Frazier-Smith, who still wore a Taylor cameo pendant, was part of the mission to rename Calhoun Square from Savannah in honor of this educator and the only African-American woman to publish a memoir of her Civil War experiences.

Click to enlarge

Portrait of a friend’s granddaughter.

“I consider myself an artist, a philanthropist and an activist,” Frazier-Smith tells me. “My philanthropy is about giving back by volunteering and donating paintings to causes I believe in. As for the activist part, I think it’s an artist’s duty to paint to reflect the times .”

For example, she shows me her painting “That’s enough!” which refers to voter suppression. A jar of marbles and a soapy bar recall the cancellation of southern state literacy tests, a common practice before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In addition to constitutional issues, testing , administered disproportionately to black voters, often contained nonsensical questions such as “how many bubbles in a bar of soap?” or “how many candies in a jar?”

Click to enlarge GWEN FRAZIER-SMITH: Norman Rockwell of Savannah

“Enough” refers to voter suppression.

Frazier-Smith then shows me a portrait of Alicia Garza, the young activist who coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” but is quick to point out that “we can’t just blame the police,” showing me a beautiful portrait of a little boy in front of a blackboard covered with repeated lines of cursive writing that says: “We must stop killing each other”.

Born in Hardeeville, SC, in 1959, Frazier-Smith grew up in New Jersey where she was always considered an artist. She learned to paint in oils at the age of 11 when three Jewish women from her neighborhood opened a small studio and gallery. It is heartwarming to see how, almost unconsciously, she passes on the encouragement she received as a young girl. She loves teaching children to paint…

“One day a little boy in the neighborhood said, ‘Miss Gwen, can you hang one of my pictures in your window?’ So I did, and when he passed, he saw it. He is the greatest artist! And then there was a little girl named Jade passing by with her babysitter. She asked if she could come and help Miss Gwen paint. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I would put a paintbrush in the hands of any two year old. I love children!

Frazier-Smith’s family moved back to Hardeeville before he entered high school. A Chicago lawyer heard about his artistic talents, and with his help, she received a scholarship to a summer program at the Art Institute of Chicago at the age of 14. in the art and publicity department of the Miller Brewing Company.

Click to enlarge GWEN FRAZIER-SMITH: Norman Rockwell of Savannah

Frazier-Smith and his portrayal of Paula Wallace as Joan of Arc

For many years, Frazier-Smith’s career consisted of hand-painting Millers’ advertisements and signs – a skill she had learned as a teenager in South Carolina working with a sign painter who traveled the state fireworks stands. Later, she took graphic design classes and switched from paintbrush to computer, eventually coming to Savannah to work for another sign company, then to Kinko’s store on Abercorn Extension.

At Kinko, more and more people saw his works and started asking him to paint portraits of their children. Eventually, feeling restricted and wanting to do more art, she quit her corporate career in 2014.

“Resigning from my job was so uplifting and life changing. I was able to break free and paint. Everything just opened up. I started traveling all over the world.

Frazier-Smith acquired his gallery space at the start of the pandemic. Since becoming a full-time artist, she has visited London, Australia, Thailand, Egypt, Paris and Mexico, and plans to go to Ghana next year.

A portrait of Serena William’s baby girl traveled with her to the Australian Open in 2019, while a painting of Amy Sherald, the artist who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, traveled with her to the National Portrait Gallery in DC.

“They didn’t allow me to take her inside, but I stood on the steps and people started to gather and take pictures of me,” she laughs.

“I also have pictures of me holding a copy of my Medea Lisa in front of the real Mona Lisa in Paris!” Frazier-Smith continues. (The Medea Lisa is a whimsical copy of Da Vinci’s famous portrait that features Tyler Perry as his character Medea.) When she traveled to London, she took a portrait of Sheku Kenneth-Mason, MBE, the 19-year-old black British musician. who played the cello at the royal wedding.

Primarily drawn to portraiture, Frazier-Smith works from photographs as she considers herself a slow, cautious oil painter “with a very short attention span!”

One of my favorites, a toddler wearing a green t-shirt, was “a photo of a friend of mine’s granddaughter that I saw on Facebook. I loved that face!” The artist is particularly proud of his portrait of SCAD President Paula Wallace, depicted as a warrior resembling Joan of Arc on horseback, carrying a shield adorned with a tassel and a bee.

Another portrait is of Sandra Lindsey, the intensive care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center who was the first person in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Lindsey, an African-American woman who understands the legacy of unequal medical treatment and experimentation on people of color, said she trusts science and wants to “inspire people like me.”

Frazier-Smith says, “I love Norman Rockwell, and it looked like something he might have painted.”

Indeed, the more I look at his paintings of women chatting on park benches, of a homeless woman with her belongings in a grocery cart, of her nephew playing the saxophone, of the “bad guys who live in my neighborhood” that others may perceive “as frightening or menacing because of their clothes and gold-capped teeth”, the more the idea of ​​the artist looking like an African-American Norman Rockwell resonates with me.

His often humorous and highly realistic illustrative style echoes Rockwell’s depictions of everyday scenes in America of his day.

Frazier-Smith’s America also deserves our attention.

Check out Frazier-Smith’s work at his Urbeau Art Gallery at 2016 DeLesseps Avenue, the Savannah Art Association’s Savannah International Airport Gallery, and on Instagram @urbeau_art_bygwen.

Ask about Paint-n-Sip classes at 912.272.7978 and look for the recently released book she illustrated and designed, titled “Taig’s Gift: The Kulture Keepers’ Cookbook.” Available at lulu.com and written by Deborah Johnson-Simon, it features recipes and stories that celebrate Black museums in Chatham County.

There will be a book launch party on Saturday, October 22 between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the WW Law Community Center, 900 E. Bolton St.

Previous Frontier X Studio announces its political board game, Lock 'em Up!, coming to Kickstarter on October 4
Next 'Unity' Art Guild Exhibit to Open at ACYC - Chronicle Express