O'Fallon artist doesn't think much of the modern art world

News-DemocratJune 23, 2013 

O'Fallon artist Bill Smith calls the round, wiry object hanging next to his retro kitchen appliances a "spherodendron."

He has sold variations all over the country, including one 7 feet in diameter to St. Louis Art Museum.

The system of steel wiring and plastic beads that branch out to form the sphere is based on a mathematical formula, although most people don't know it.

"They like the way it looks more than the idea behind it," Bill said.

That's often the case with Bill's work. His multimedia sculptures incorporate biology, math, chemistry, engineering, architecture, even computer programming.

He sees art as an educational tool, helping people understand the world's structure and behavior, patterns and interactions. Visual beauty is a byproduct.

"I got into this thinking that maybe I could do some good," Bill said. "I thought I could put some art out there and people could learn something.

"It's not about me. It's about the natural world and how it works. If people understood the world more, maybe they would treat it better."

Bill, 50, keeps a low profile in the metro-east, but his pieces have appeared in museums and galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Montreal and Toronto.

The World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis is hosting an exhibit called "Bill Smith: Beyond the Humanities" through Sept. 15.

"Smith sees the celebration of the human condition as being overrepresented in contemporary art and believes that, by focusing on the universe at large, art can attain broader significance," according to exhibit notes.

Translation: Bill doesn't think much of the modern art world.

He calls paintings "dinosaurs" in light of computer technology and sees many in the art establishment as elitist, arrogant, unsophisticated and closed to new ideas.

"I don't like the art world," he said. "I want to change it. That's my motive right now.

"There's so much ridiculous stuff out there. It's not good for society. It's not good for anything. It's a waste of time."

Bill works out of a Lebanon studio, using materials ranging from salvaged stainless-steel parts to copper rods, plastic tubing to paintbrush bristles, electromagnets to carbon fiber.

His resume contains an impressive list of degrees, exhibits, grants and commissions. His sculptures sell for $10,000 to $50,000.

But Bill still supplements his art income by working as a maintenance man for his mother, who operates a Calhoun County hunting camp.

"I've sold stuff to the president of the Guggenheim, but (the art business is) not linear," he said. "Sometimes things happen and sometimes they don't. You just never know."

Bill grew up in O'Fallon, studied microbiology and chemistry at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and got a job running a "cell-sorting" machine at Washington University School of Medicine.

A night class in art inspired him to earn a master's degree in sculpture at University of Illinois.

"I was well-received up there because I was doing things that no one else was doing," he said. "In art school, you can do anything you want as long as it's creative. But you get out into the art world and it's a business."

Bill sold his first piece to a California science center in 1997. He described it as an "electromechanical ecosystem."

The following year, the late Bob Cassilly gave him his own display room at the new City Museum in St. Louis.

Bill divided his time between creating sculptures, remodeling houses and repairing cars. He got a mechanics certificate from Ranken Technical Institute, which has influenced his art.

"The things I build are all functional, like machines, but they're kind of organic or natural machines," he said.

For the past 20 years, Bill also has been restoring a 1904 two-story home and barn he inherited from his grandparents.

It's half living quarters, half warehouse. Boxes of art supplies and disassembled sculptures are stacked among antique furniture, lamps, fans and other collectibles from nearly every decade of the past 100 years.

Bill sometimes uses props from nature in exhibits. An opossum skeleton hangs from the ceiling in one of his bedrooms. A giant hornet's nest hovers over the staircase.

"I even take some of this furniture when I exhibit and use it as pedestals," Bill said. "It looks better than a white box."

Bill is optimistic about the future of art, mainly because of a new national movement known as STEAM, which promotes a reconnection of science, technology, engineering, art and math.

It harkens back to the days of Leonardo DaVinci, who was not only an artist but an engineer, architect and scientist.

"The art world is changing," Bill said. "It's becoming more interdisciplinary. It's not going to be just people coming out of art school where they studied art history."

At a glance

What: "Bill Smith: Beyond the Humanities" exhibit

Where: World Chess Hall of Fame, 4652 Maryland Ave. in St. Louis (Central West End)

When: Through Sept. 15

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays

Admission: Free; suggested donation is $3 per person or $5 per family

Information: 314-367-9243 or visit worldchesshof.org

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