Harry E Smith

Friday, May 01, 2009 | |

Photo by Eric Schwartz

At last night's film screening at the Horticultural Society, I was introduced to the amazing work of Harry E Smith (1923-1991), an American experimental filmmaker, musicologist, and spiritualist. A prolific artist working across mediums—animation, filmmaking, batik, collage, painting, music, graphic design— he displayed a lifelong passion for exploring the spiritual and interconnected nature of things through artmaking.

In 1952, Folkways Records released a 6-disc compilation culled from Smith's own collection of 78s that he had amassed over the course of his travels throughout America. Smith wrote that he selected recordings from between "1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932, when the Depression halted folk music sales." Loosely filed under the Folk genre, this collection of blues, spiritual, country and cajun music was hugely influential not only because of the music, but because of the cosmologic cover art, extensive linernotes (that Smith penned himself), and sequencing of the collection. The Anthology of American Folk Music was re-released in '97 on CD. A lifetime collector of "things" he was crate-digging before it was cool and had amassed several thousand records before pitching the compilation idea to Folkways. Check the reissue here.

The series of shorts, collectively known as Early Abstractions, is a phenomenal journey in mid-century avant garde filmmaking. Cellular shapes take on organismic forms to morph and pulse to a universal beat, geometries formed of light overlap and tumble across the screen and hand batik-ed patterns emerge from an unknown texture to fade in and out. Created to accompany any piece of music (the images will magically sync to the beat!), Early Abstractions was created over the course of about 20 years and combines elements of collage to explore Smith's lifelong interest in the occult and higher realms of spirituality.

Smith's work really touched me in a profound way and learning more about the artist behind the work fueled a deep appreciation for his contributions to creative culture. Contemporary artists like Fred Tomaselli (whose work I fell in love with at the Prospect New Orleans Biennial) owe a huge debt to Smith's explorations on film and canvas. Check out more from Harry here.