By: Eileen Townsend
Before I knew Dolph Smith, I knew about his home. It’s named Tennarkippi, so-called for Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, the tri-states where Smith has spent his life as a teacher, painter, paper-maker, bookmaker, and woodworker. Tennarkippi is located in Ripley, Tennessee. It is a slate-grey house with lots of books inside and a pond and a gravel drive, down the road from farmland and tomato stands.
Tennarkippi is a house, but it is more: it is a mythic origin ground, a place created and re-created in the cosmos of Smith’s art. It turns up in his watercolors and hand-bound daybooks, in sculptures and in fiction. Tennarkippi is Dolph’s headwaters, the place where all the stories in the world are born.
I visited Tennarkippi on a Saturday in late June, tomato season in Ripley. I was excited to see Dolph’s studio, where, most recently, he has been making tiny wooden ladders, which he distributes to friends (“for if you need a lift.”) I visited from Memphis with a loose collective of Smith fans: from the Brooks Museum, Emily Neff, director, Marina Pacini, chief curator and Kim Williams, who leads the Brooks’ development, and from the Metal Museum, Ann Klicka, a blacksmithing apprentice.
I’ve always loved Dolph Smith’s paintings. My grandfather owned a few of them. I have a distinct childhood memory of examining two watercolors of abandoned barns in my grandfather’s hallway, and noticing a detail: a small collage of photos of naked women, almost obscured in the window of one of the barns. I felt as if I’d discovered an unnamable secret. I never mentioned it to anyone.
Years later, when I happened on a show of Smith’s paintings, the memory came back to me. That I’d kept the secret of the naked women seemed fitting, because Dolph’s work is all about things that are hidden.
Dolph is in his early 80s. He has large, expressive eyes, and speaks in sentences that feel as if they should be written in longhand. His outfits always have handcrafted details, like a small metal box on a bolo tie, or a handmade lapel pin. When we arrived on Saturday, he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt with an orchid print. We met his wife, Jessie, whose name I recognized from the titles of his paintings (a favorite: “The Unfinished Bridge — Attempting to Cross the Rapids of Jessie.”) They offered us almond tea.
The Smiths’ home is full of careworn items, acquired through a lifetime of exchange with artists, objects that exude a velveteen-rabbit like magic. There are wooden birds’ nests with marble eggs, metal pendulums, quilts, and, of course, handmade books. There is a sign on their fridge that reads “Don’t Postpone Joy.” At Tennarkippi, it feels like the obvious thing.
Dolph’s studio is located towards the east side of his home. It has high ceilings and big windows. The first thing that caught my eye when we entered it was a tall, house-like structure, with a base the size of a stretched breadbox and a sloping roof. Inside the structure were small wood scraps, attached in an Escherian fashion. This, according to a sign, was Tennarkippi’s detritus tower. Next to it on a worktable was a similar structure, full of miniature ladders. “That is a retirement home for Tennarkippi ladders,” Dolph said.
There are two types of artists: artists who focus on one thing for their whole career, who go deep, and artists who cast lines out in all directions, whose practice gradually widens. It’s evident from even a passing glance at his workspace that Dolph Smith goes wide. He had early success painting southern landscapes, but mid-career he felt as if he was repeating himself, so he started making paper. He took over a studio at Memphis College of Art and filled it with papermaking equipment. The college trusted him, and left him largely to his own devices (though, he told us, at one point an administrator noted that his was the only studio where they couldn’t put a computer.) He learned alongside his students.
But the papermaking era, according to Dolph, “didn’t quite work out” and he directed his energies towards becoming a book maker and sculptor of things you can “touch, that you can pick up and hold.” He uses powdered graphite and shellac to make metal-like surfaces out of paper, and sometimes incorporates a lightweight copper usually used for making duck decoys. Woodworker friends bring him samples of wood from their travels (recently, a piece of the house where Elvis Presley was born.) The small buildings he crafts often correlate to a story. While at Tennarkippi, he handed us a miniature box, sculpted to look like an old-timey movie house. “This,” he said, “is where Jillie got his first kiss.”
He loves books because they are beautiful, and because their function is hidden. They are machines with mythic intention. “I make books because it’s a perfect match of form and function,” Smith said as we thumbed through his homemade library. He often adds swell to his books in order to incorporate three-dimensional features into their centers, in order to extend a reader’s sense of the book as an object with a presence in space. There’s something both mystical and obvious about Dolph’s belief that the object that holds the story affects how someone can receive it. It’s hard to imagine learning about Jillie’s first kiss from an iPad, and taking from it the same sense of history and meaning.
While we were wandering around his studio, Emily Neff noticed a frequent motif in the work: a paper airplane. The paper airplane — a basic model, with two crisp wings and a creased underbelly — shows up in books and in sculptures. Dolph explained: When his children were young, he took up gliding. “I wanted to do it,” said Smith, “because I was painting all these skies and I wanted to feel what it feels like up in the sky. It just felt like I could find out about the sky if I got up in it…..The paper airplane is like us, it is fragile bit it can soar.”
To me, the paper airplane is a directive. The directive is this: as artists and writers and humans that exist in a world that is constantly made and remade, we have to explore. In order to find out about the sky, we have to get up in it. We have to invest the real with the possibility of the magical.
Smith’s work poses questions: How can we fold stories into symbols? How can an object communicate the feeling behind the words? The mystery lies in the fact that the myths that he makes can’t be magic without the physical objects that bring them out into the world, and the objects have no meaning without the stories. Dolph’s work comes from the grey waters that separate the real and the transcendent, between heaven and earth.