Lewis Smith’s artwork features strong, muscular women set against backdrops of trains, bars, diners, and other scenes of daily American life. Born in 1907, Smith did not begin to draw until, after the death of his mother, he found himself an aging man alone in the woods of Ohio without electricity, a telephone, or any connection to the outside world. Smith went completely unnoticed by anyone until a tax assessor found him and his home, which was filled with thousands of drawings of strong women and the local scenes he remembered from train trips his on which his mother had taken him. These drawings were made on any material he could access, from paper bags and cardboard to the side of his own house.
In near total isolation (broken only by occasional bicycle trips to libraries and auctions), Smith’s primary connection to the outside world came from the more than one hundred newspapers to which he subscribed. Smith’s fascination with tough femininity begs many questions considering his simultaneous isolation from the surrounding cultural environment and his deep immersion in print media. As a voracious consumer of newspapers, he was no doubt exposed to the more commercialized female form through advertisements and other forms of cultural messaging through print. Nevertheless, his interpretation of the female form, while still sexualizing and objectifying (see the faceless wrestling women in pictures 4 and 6), is radically different from contemporaneous norms of docile femininity and body size. With their feet firmly planted and their arms cocked to display their biceps, Smith’s strong women appear fearless and secure in their right to space, size, and power. Was Smith truly as comfortable with a dominant female presence as his art implies, or did he intend the women to be more like sideshow attractions? While the woman accompanied by the words “Ozark State Fair, 25 cents, Tough Cowgirls” suggests the latter, there is something so winning and autonomous about the woman painted on the side of his house in picture 3, or the words “B True N Tough” on the dress of the woman in picture 1. The essence of his work lies in this ambiguity.
For more images of Smith, click here.