Charles Smith’s Natural Inspiration


charles smith face rock



No boundaries contain us.

Straight jackets of conformity

Have been discarded

As we quiver on the

Summit of forever

“We are Tigers” by Tut Riddick


In the white studio behind Charles Smith’s house in Mobile, phone numbers are written on walls by the door, kilns are in the corner, potters’ wheels are on floors and tables, and shelves are filled with black, tan, and blue clay pots. “We Are Tigers,” a poem by good friend and supporter Tut Riddick is taped to a pole in the center of the room. Smith’s strong, calm hands hold a pot as he looks through his bifocals to carve lines with his sgraffito tool. The lines shaped into blades of grass are instinctive and quick, but fine lines have become more difficult after four decades. “I don’t have eagle eyes now and my stomach gets in the way,” laughs Smith. “I have to stabilize my body to get the lines right, but I can’t hold my breath like I used to.”

charles smith wheel 5

Photo by Stephanie Drake

Smith has exhibited in the National Museum of American Art in the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the American Craft Museum in New York City. “Charles is a world-class artist and you won’t find anyone as good as him in New York City,” says Riddick. “I photographed his work when he first came out of potter’s school and I knew then that he was special. Behind every pot is a great person. Only a great person can do what he does.”

Years of making mistakes and fighting demons led to his classic, Art Nouveau style. An experiment with a dot made out of a drill bit grew into the stylized schools of fish, whales, serpents, or birds that became the identifying images of his work.

“I always dissect the last pot in a batch to try and find something new,” says Smith. “I gave a drill bit that I had used for carving one little twist to put a dot on a blade of grass and it became a fish. That dot was it. I found my style. Right there everything blossomed open. I knew what I was looking for, but I didn’t know how to get there until it happened. For years, I took the first batch out of the kiln, didn’t like them and broke them up and buried them in the back yard. I took the second batch out of kiln and realized that the first batch looked a hell of a lot better and I shouldn’t have broken them.”

charles smith plate

Photo by Stephanie Drake

Collectors search for Smith’s pots in estate sales, online auctions, and the pieces he puts away in his attic for his children. “There are people who have personal galleries of my pieces in their homes and know more about my work than I do,” says Smith. “Someone found a two-headed snake on my pot and he was right. I was studying grass outside my door and that became a part of the pots, but someone saw the grass as whale tails. I had to refocus, but I see the whale tails now. “

“Charles shows the bays, fauna, and wildlife that make Mobile unique,” says Sheila Flanagan – Assistant Director Mobile History Museum. “I collect his pots because he expresses who we are as Mobilians. There is an automatic attachment to his style and he has a strong following because his work is so distinctive. If you see it, you know it is his. “

“My wife told me for years that I was doing water themes, I just didn’t know it,” says Smith. “Today my work reflects life on the Gulf coast. It surprises some people that African-Americans know about water, the beach and boats, and swimming.”

charles vase 3

Photo by Stephanie Drake

Forty years ago, Smith attended Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi and majored in arts education with a minor in ceramics, planning to become a teacher. “I was a Vietnam veteran and they didn’t tell us anything about PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder),” says Smith. “We just came back pissed off because we had been pissed on. I was working on a masters degree in education but found out I don’t like teaching kids. That was six years shot to hell.”

Smith did not teach in the classroom, but the school’s clay and kilns shaped him into a potter. “Working with clay in that studio became a natural part of my muscle memory,” says Smith. “When you develop the technical skills and have the muscle memory you can concentrate more on the creativity. One of my instructors suggested I use my drawing designs, but I threw that out. It was years before I realized he was right.”

Smith’s work started with faces in the 70’s and he still occasionally adds them to the sides or the lids of his vases for hope, sorrow, or humor. “Faces are important in African tribal art,” says Smith. “In pottery, they can be three-dimensional and cast a shadow.”

charles smith face

Photo by Stephanie Drake

The images on Smith’s pots begin with guidelines at the top and bottom of the pot to give the designs boundaries and help Smith stay in control with his blade to scratch on patterns and texture. “The lines are the guides to start downward and work from right to left. Each line has a purpose and it has to be done clean and right and without fumbling as I work through the problems and start filling in. I later buff out the guidelines so they aren’t seen.”

Smith doesn’t get excited about a pot until it is finished. “I have 3,000 pots, but if I really like one, guess which one is going to blow up,” says Smith. “The rule is to hate everything until the last fire. Once it comes out, then you can give yourself an ovation.   I once thought I knew what was going on then got cocky when it was exactly what I wanted. I picked the thing up and the damn lip fell off. Instead of throwing the whole thing away, I regrouped and figured it out. Figuring out how to take that screw up and turn it into a process is when the creativity comes in and you start making a body of work. I had to learn how to use it to my advantage.”

His pots were flatuntil he once lost his concentration and trimmed a pot too far down and the bottom fell out. “I was mad, but the legs popped up,” says Smith. “I liked it, but it took three years to figure out how to recreate it. They don’t tell you in school that if you are doing this for a living you need to make sure you have health insurance with mental health coverage. Making art is going to make you crazy and there is no one that can help you but yourself.”


“I will be doing this until my last day and I will probably die with my hand on that wheel,” says Smith. “I want to make pieces that are something I will be proud of. I want people to recognize my work without looking at the name at the bottom of the pot and 100 years from now I hope these will be proof that I existed and there was creative thinking in Mobile. “


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Photos by Stephanie Drake