Melrose & Vinton
Dolph Smith is a longtime educator, painter, and bookmaker from Memphis. He taught for many years at Memphis College of Art and now lives in Ripley, Tennessee, where he calls his home Tennarkippi.
MM: Can you tell us about this piece?
Dolph Smith: Do you have room for 30 years of memories of that corner in the heart of Midtown? We lived at 1458 Vinton. My wife, Jessie, and I moved there in 1965. We were the first family there with young kids. We hadn’t lived there for long when, one day, I was watching the kids while Jes was out on an errand. I got involved in the studio and time slipped away. Jessie returns and finds no boys, and me wondering where the boys were. Well, they were nowhere to be found! I went to the front porch and checked the street.
Here they came. Almost dancing, full of themselves. As it turned out, they had found a box with their Halloween costumes. Now this was August, but no matter, they had been “trick or treating.” They came in with all sorts of goodies. Well, days go by and we begin to meet the neighbors. First words out of the neighbors’ mouths? “Hello, nice to meet you, we have already met your boys ... and your dog!” The neighborhood was so open and welcoming. They did not run the kids away. They spent some effort finding treats for these newcomers. We knew from that afternoon that we were in a special place.
Can I tell one more? A few years went by. We were resting in the front room and heard a mild commotion outside. We looked and there was a young couple with an older man gazing at the house. He began to point. We were puzzled, of course. The young couple then knocked on the door, and, when we answered, they explained they were taking their Dad back through the places where he had made his career moves.
It turns out that my studio had been the older man’s tiny office at the beginning of his medical practice. Of course, we invited them in. We began to lead him through the house and into his former clinic. We chatted and then our son Tim remembered something that we had found in the attic when we moved in. He ran and fetched it and brought it to the doctor saying, “This is something you should have!” It was his shingle the doctor had over the door. He turned it around and looked down. It was a moving moment and we all let the tears roll.
When we took him to the dining room, he looked around and said, “We used to have dances in this room. Yes, I remember a band group. Played over in that corner. I think the name was Handy.”
A pause. Then one of us found our voice and and asked, “Was it W.C.?”
“Yes, yes, that was it!”
Another walk back through history. We were dazed.
So for Christmas that year, I had a small bronze plate made for Jessie.
It said: THE W.C. HANDY MEMORIAL BALLROOM.
It still hangs in that room.
You’ve lived in and around Memphis for a long time — how does your work relate (or not) to this region?
Memphis and the environs were the only places I ever went to paint and draw inspiration. For 30 years from my studio window I could see a corner of the Methodist Hospital where I was born. My kids would tease me so! “Dad, you sure haven’t come very far in life!”
Since I haven’t come very far, I began years ago to create a mythological region I call Tennarkippi. It is an apolitical partisan community. Upbeat and a bit loony. It is my version of the Mid-South. ... and I can go as far as my imagination can take me.
Tennarkippi has somehow allowed me to scratch my wannabe itch to narrate ... to tell stories. One of the joys in what I do is to make up titles for my work. There were times when I would have a title that was in need of a painting!
For example, I always saw our regional landscape, with great fields of Johnson grass, as an inland sea. The wind blowing causing rolling waves. The shacks and barns were ships at sea.
A shack tossed about at the top of a hill: Pull Of The Briny Deep.
A barn toiling through a low trough in the field: All The Ships At Sea.
Yes, it is all about this region, and all about memory.
What do you have coming up?
I have curated an exhibition which will be opening at Askew Nixon Ferguson on April 8th. It is in honor of a collection of artists/friends who have been profound partners in seeing to the execution of the three public commissions I have had over the years. They are Tom Lee, Don DuMont, Bill Price, and Adam Hawk from Memphis College of Art, and Jim Masterson and Jeannie Saltmarsh from the National Ornamental Metal Museum.
Between them they saw me through the accomplishment of “Confluence” at the Cannon Center, and two pieces at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, The Le Bonheur Story: A History Written In Steel and Lift.
For the show, I am doing a series of books and sculptures on Tennarkippi theme. There will be The Detritus Tower In Tennarkippi and The Tennarkippi Retirement Home For Ladders ... as well as a post office and a savings and loan bank and more thoughts stirring in my feeble mind. (I often told my students, “It is better to think than to know; knowledge can get in the way.”)
One more thing: There won’t be people in the images. I never used people in my work. I wanted the viewer to wonder what was happening to them rather than what the folks were doing in the piece.