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"Thelma Smith: Will Quilt for Food" posted: 10/16/2003
by Carolyn Lee Vehslage Printable Page
Category: General Method: All Series: In the Studio
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Arizona artist Thelma Smith is haunted by the knowledge that her eldest son chooses to be homeless. Her personal search for Norman is documented in her Left Turn Lane series of life sized portraits of what she affectionately calls 'the bums.'

There's Wild Bill the newspaper hawker and Dondi the Capoeira instructor. There's the very strange Chain Mail Bob who wears a woven metal ski mask in the heat of the day. There's Spud and his four-year-old daughter who live under the Trout River Bridge. Thelma herself is in a few of the pieces. She strikes a flasher's pose in #1 "Artist: Will Quilt for Food" and squats on the sidewalk holding a cardboard sign in number #9 "Have You Seen Norman?" Even her son makes an appearance in #11. He's holding a sign with Tim Robbins' quote "Believe, Belong, Behave, or Be Damned".

As Thelma runs her daily errands, she keeps a camera by her side. When she sees a street person, she asks first if she can take their photograph. She tries to engage them in conversation and learn their stories. She asked Wild Bill, "How'd you get here?" and he answered her with his stunning smile, "That was yesterday. Yesterday is gone. Today is a good day."

Back in her Green Valley studio, she projects the image on to an 84" high by 52" wide sheet of Peruvian Pima Cotton Sateen and draws the figure's outline in soft pencil. Thelma paints the canvas with quick strokes of Procion MX reactive fiber dyes. Because of the intense light of the southwest, the figures cast no shadows. It's almost as if they are floating in time and space. To finish her artwork, Thelma uses a sewing machine to stitch texture into the cloth.

An important aspect of Thelma's artwork is to capture the unusual flatness of the bright sunlight of the Arizonian/Mexican border. Her palette for the Left Turn Series are very washed out robin egg blues, roses, celadon greens, light yellows, street grays, touches of browns, and the ever present stark whites of the sidewalks.

What sets Thelma's portraits apart from other artists is she purposely leaves the faces blank. She is making a strong statement about how as a society we don't even see the homeless as people anymore. They are faceless. By choice, Thelma paints in a primitive manner. She uses saturated color with a paint-by-numbers style. The simpler her portraits appear, the more powerful their meaning becomes.

Thelma says of her artwork, "What began as an exploration of a difficult life, became a study of the universality of the human condition. The physical making of the artwork carried me from darkness to equilibrium. I believe that the public reason for art is to provoke questions and thoughts. The Left Turn Lane series, while not pretty, both asks and answers questions. It has something to say."

Her Left Turn Lane portraits have hung in the National Civil Rights Museum in Tennessee, Oceanside Museum of Art in California, and Buckham Gallery in Flint, MI. Eight more portraits will hang in the Greater Flint Arts Council during Quilts at the Cross Roads in September 2003.

She is the curator of "Wrapped in Cloth: the Human Figure in Textiles" at the Tubac Center of the Arts, 9 Plaza Road, Tubac, AZ 85646, October 11-November 16, 2003. Portions of the exhibition are view online from September 1-January 31, 2004 at

To see a portion of Thelma's artwork visit

©2003 Carolyn Lee Vehslage maintains an onboard studio on her Mariner Yacht "Fandango". Several of her quilted wall hangings that were created while cruising, are viewable online at Her award winning artwork is in private, corporate, gallery and museum collections around the world.

About the Quilts Shown Above:
Left Turn Lane #1 Self Portrait, Artist Will Quilt For Food
81 1/2" high by 52" wide ©2000

Left Turn Lane #4 Capoeirista (Dondi the Capoeira instructor)
82 1/2" high by 52" wide ©2000

Left Turn Lane #6 Wild Bill The Newspaper Seller
82" high by 51 1/2" wide ©2001

Left Turn Lane #9 Looking for my Son - Have You Seen Norman?
42 12" high by 32" wide ©2000

Left Turn Lane #10 the Chain Mail Ski Mask - Ultimate Facelessness
70 1/4" high by 51 1/4" wide ©2001

Left Turn Lane #11 (Norman) Believe, Belong, Behave, or Be Damned
©quote by Tom Robbins with permission
75 3//4" high by 51 3/4" wide ©2001

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