As an after-school art class in Vermont was about to end, Peter Robinson Smith remembers asking the 12-year-olds to store their recycled wire mesh masks somewhere safe, so that they could return to them the next day. But it was a sunny day in 1987 and the kids ran out of the classroom, some leaving their projects by an open window instead. Irritated, Smith walked over and saw a mesmerizing image: sunlight on a wire mesh screen mask had created a bouncing silhouette of a human face on the curtain behind it.
“I know at some point, I’m going to pursue it a great deal more,” he told himself.
Years later, after a decade teaching at the University of Vermont, Smith decided to leave his post and do serious artwork with recycled wire mesh.
“I kept being drawn back to wire mesh screens,” said Smith, now 76. “It wasn’t an overnight thing where an epiphany occurred,” he explained. “I am obsessed with shadow and light and wanted to do more experimental work.”
Unlike other wire mesh artists, Smith’s pieces evoke unique shadow optics similar to the cross-hatching commonly used in line drawings. In a video posted on his website, he demonstrated in his Vermont studio how to sculpt with industrial wire meshes. His fingers moved magically; even his nails became essential tools to carve delicate details. Within minutes, a pony’s head appeared, but most of Smith’s works depict dynamic human figures. He loves capturing fleeting moments, as in a work showing dancer soaring through the air.
Though they live on a mountain east of Springfield, Vermont, Smith and his wife Mae drive a van laden with artwork to Manhattan nearly every Sunday to sell his pieces at Grand Bazaar Market on West 77th Street and Columbus Avenue.
On a late fall Sunday, wearing a black T-shirt and a bandana neckerchief, Smith put on his iconic vintage wool fedora and walked out to greet customers. His delicately trimmed beard and sunglasses gave him a movie star look. “This is my own innovation through a very rare medium,” he called as a group of visitors passed by. “Only around 15 artists in the world do serious artwork with industrial mesh.”
Smith’s artwork varies in price, from $300 to thousands of dollars, depending on the size and material used. His income from sales is sufficient to care for himself, his wife and a 17-year-old daughter, but it can be stressful.
On a typical Sunday, he may not be able to sell a single piece. His monthly sales swing from just above poverty threshold to an ability to catch up on bills. “I’ve never wanted super wealth from my art,” he said.
Though he has been a lifelong educator, Smith himself left school at 15. “I didn’t have a childhood,” he said. “I was deterred by my alcoholic parents. There was a lot of homelessness in the first quarter of my life.”
Smith’s parents split up when he was seven. “I knew something was wrong,” he said. “I don’t remember anybody ever reading to me or really hugging me.”
Raised in Massachusetts, Smith taught himself art. At 20, he was directed to a program for troubled youth at the Rhode Island School of Design, a six-week program that changed his life.
“I realized that I don’t want to mess up again, so I was truly devoted to painting,” he said. He later audited classes at RISD and became a well-known watercolorist in Vermont.
“There is an unpolished raw folk-art quality that is otherworldly and dreamlike about Peter’s work,” said Hendrik Glaeser, a former art teacher at Burlington College, who has known Smith since 1980 when they met through the state’s art council. “Smith would paint eccentric people, like the woman who would wave at all the passing cars in front of her house in the town of Jericho.”
In a 2008 art review in the Vermont newspaper Seven Days, critic Marc Awodey wrote, “Robinson-Smith’s aesthetic of the human figure is consistent across media, and is more abstract than his approach to animals. The proportions are robust and a bit askew, emphasizing spirit rather than realistic representation.”
Nick McDougal, Smith’s close friend who owns several pieces of his wire mesh artwork, said that his work “prompts one to experience hidden feelings about life.”
Art provides necessary therapy for Smith. Earlier in life, he became depressed without medical care, attempted suicide in 1995. Then, he was able to take advantage of the federal funded Section 8 rental subsidy program and found a psychologist.
Though he feels more stable now, he remains something of an outsider in the art world.
He often found himself confronting art dealers and gallerists. “My personal experiences have damaged me and my trust for others,” he said. “I met many top art representatives in New York, but many of them just withdrew my contract the next day without giving out any reasons.”
“But I’ve always been a difficult guy,” he added with a shrug. “If somebody’s interested in my work, I always ask myself, ‘How is this gonna work out between us?’” he reckoned. “I failed so many times in relationships, how am I going to make this one work best?”
So he began selling his pieces on the streets in Soho during the holidays. “I’m very comfortable with making my art the way it is and having personal exchanges with the public,” he said. Now, he alternates between Soho and the Upper West Side.
While Smith often called himself shy, his friend Glaeser sees him differently. “He was always wide open and loved to engage with people.”
An hour before the market closed, Smith was still standing by his booth, joking with customers.
“I have to be honest with you. Your work is spectacular,” a customer said, taking Smith’s business card.
“Well, thank you for your honesty,” Smith replied.
Between Manhattan visits, he is working on a large-scale wire mesh piece for an European gallery, Galeria Frank Krüger, in Mallorca. It is Smith’s fourth commissioned artwork in five years with this gallery. “If the chance arrives for that, I’m ready to move to Europe, where the appreciation is significantly greater,” he said.
How successful does he feel right now? Smith burst out laughing at the question.
“Only time would tell,” he said. “Long after I’m deceased.”