After working a slew of restaurant gigs right out of high school, Billy Smith was hired by a truck-axle manufacturer in Fletcher. But each time he clocked in, he felt like he was drowning.
“I wasn’t alive,” Smith tells Asheville Made. “I was going through the motions.”
In his mid-twenties, he quit the blue-collar job and fell into a deep depression, hitting a spiritual nadir when he was convicted for growing marijuana—a felony offense. “I lost everything I had,” Smith says, also revealing that his father passed away in 2008. “But while I was in that dark place, I started to sketch — and I could feel myself coming back to life. I found art again.”
Growing up in Pisgah Forest, Smith always identified as an artist. He says that in elementary school, God taught him to paint by observing the white pines fringing Davidson River and the thick fog embracing Looking Glass Rock. (Today, Smith refers to himself as a “God Taught Artist.”)
In high school, Smith’s teachers recognized his talent, particularly his gift for portraiture. They moved him to advanced-placement art classes and mentioned various universities.
But others weren’t so supportive. “As a kid, people would tell me I couldn’t make it as an artist. ‘Don’t even try,’ they would say,” Smith remembers. “That took a toll on me. So when I graduated, I decided I was going to live the American Dream and get a normal job.”
But Smith was never destined for normal. After his father died, he started walking from his mom’s house to Brevard (seven miles roundtrip) to sketch live musical performances. That’s when the owner of Art and Soul Marketplace, a former gallery in downtown Brevard, took notice. She offered to feature three of Smith’s paintings.
The smallest of them—a portrait of Jimi Hendrix—sold in two hours.
Since then, Smith has emerged as an artistic juggernaut with a presence that ripples through Transylvania County. This March, for instance, he was commissioned to paint a crosswalk mural on Jordan Street in downtown. The mural features pools of brook trout with such hyper-realistic shading and layering that the asphalt seems to babble. “Growing up, I would go fishing with my father and my brother, who also passed away,” says Smith. “I would stand on rocks and look into the water, loving that I could see the fish but also the river bottom.”
In addition to a long list of public art installations, including a “selfie spot” at Brevard Insurance Agency and in-progress murals at Foggy Bottom Cabins and on King Street, Smith is busy with other projects—planning more murals, creating short films, and founding and running the nonprofit Carolina Creative Arts with his fiancée, Sarah Siskind. The organization seeks to “enrich lives through creative arts”—a mission that truly resonates with Smith.
“As a kid, I knew I was an artist. I knew because when I made art, I felt alive,” says Smith. “Then, as an adult, art became my lifeline. It helped me find my way out of the darkness.”
Billy Smith, life-drawing classes at Aura Gallery and Studios, 40 West Jordan St., Brevard. Smith’s work can also be found at the Transylvania Community Arts Council (349 South Caldwell St., Brevard, tcarts.org). For more on Smith, see billysmithart.com, find him on Facebook as “Billy Smith Art,” or on Instagram: @billysmith378. To learn more about Carolina Creative Arts, visit carolinacreativearts.org.