Review: The Sculptures of Dr. Charles Smith Address Racism from a Historical Perspective

The current exhibition at the National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM) displays the artwork of Dr. Charles Smith (born 1940) who is a sculptor, a US Marine Corps Veteran of Vietnam, and also the founder of the African Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive.

Dr. Charles Smith: Holding the Dream in My Hand is a compelling exhibition because it not only focuses on a wide range of narratives about African American history, but also brings insights into the African American experience. On display are over 30 works, many of them created in 2022, as well as his works from NVAM’s permanent collection.

Smith is a self-taught artist who began making sculpture a few years after returning from Vietnam with a Purple Heart. Suffering from the debilitating effects of PTSD from his war experience, he found a healing process through the act of creating art. He gave himself the title “Doctor” to honor the knowledge and experience he had accumulated throughout his life.

His sculptures for this exhibition are constructed in his signature painted concrete while also incorporating found objects. When walking through this exhibition, we experience how his artworks not only act as a means of education, but also as inspiration to take part in social activism.

Dr. Charles Smith
Works by Dr. Charles Smith. National Veterans Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Carma Lynn Park for NVAM.

It is interesting to note that many of the sculptures are three to four feet in height, and rather than placing them on pedestals, they are placed on the floor.  While at first it may seem uncomfortable to look downward rather than at eye level at his work, one can see why this choice works in the end. By placing them on the floor, each figure seems alive with its own life force rather than as decorative objects placed on a pedestal. Also by placing them on the floor, the viewer truly engages with each work because one either needs to bend or go down on a knee to take a closer look and appreciate the details.

Through his art, Smith pays homage to historical figures such as Carter G. Woodson (founder of Black History observance) and Madam C.J. Walker (an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social activist). Also on display is a framed letter that Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, wrote to Smith as well as a framed street sign of Emmett Till Rd. Through these works, Smith reminds us that history is never static, but instead is constantly changing as we develop a new understanding and gain new perspectives about the past.

Dr. Charles Smith
Works by Dr. Charles Smith. National Veterans Art Museum, Chicago, Illinois. Photo Courtesy of Carma Lynn Park for NVAM.

His art also allows us to peek into his psyche as he shares his experience of being a war veteran. His work such as in Beheaded Marine is a haunting look at the violence of war while Memorial to Staff Sgt. Ramey reminds us there is a name and face rather than just a number for those killed in action.  And Memorial for Ukraine acts as a stark reminder that there is always another war that replaces a past war, where death, destruction and the displacement of people can leave us feeling overwhelmed.

Also on display is a five-minute slide show that depicts Smith working in his studio space and surrounded by his many sculptures. While viewing this slide show, we get an inside look at where he lives and works.

Dr. Charles Smith: Holding the Dream in My Hand is a thought-provoking exhibition because his art not only challenges us on how we view history, particularly Black history, but also acts as a call to social action.

Smith’s work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago; John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan; National Veterans Art Museum, Chicago; The Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History, Augusta; and the Milwaukee Art Museum, among others.

Dr. Charles Smith: Holding the Dream in My Hand will be on view through June 1. The National Veterans Art Museum is located at 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave. (second floor). Hours: Tuesday thru Saturday, 10am to 5pm. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. For more information about other exhibitions at the museum, visit their website or call 312-326-0270.

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Thomas Wawzenek