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Hooker Green Paint and A Nervous Breakdown

I hop off of the bus and spend 15 minutes scanning the block for building number 3441—oddly, every number was accounted for, except 3441. I’m searching for a man that doesn’t have an email address, he refuses to use a Samsung Galaxy phone that he won at a street fair because his Sprint flip phone “works just fine,” and he will absolutely not create digital art. This is Anthony Smith, an abstract artist who’s somewhat of a rebel in the art world and life.. “There’s just something about smelling the paint, and using a brush,” he says.

We make a sharp left turn past a large garbage pail, and a tiny courtyard is revealed. “This place is easy to miss,” he says, while leading the way.

When we reach the second flight of stairs Anthony warns, and apologizes for the appearance of his one-bedroom apartment. “You’ll have to excuse the mess, I haven’t been here very long,” he says, for the second time. The apartment is cozy and warm. There are stacks of art supplies in the living room, but no sign of a mess. The walls are a crisp white, yet far from plain, as they are decorated with dozens of Anthony’s original paintings. It’s almost like there’s a surprise at every corner.

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“What’s that?” I ask, pointing to a long sturdy object that appears to be a rope.

“Oh, that just a heater,” he replies.

“Was it like that when you got here?”

“No, I just wrapped rope around it.”

He wanted something different.

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Right above the coat rack hangs a mysterious-looking double oil painting.
It contains streaks of yellow, red and white. The most dominant colors are black and a mud green. He created it after a nasty break up with one of his ex-girlfriends. “When I finished this one,” he said while pointing to the painting, “I had to put it away for a few days; couldn’t look at it.” Something about it had scared him.

Being frightened by, or having an emotional connection to his art isn’t out of the ordinary for Anthony. In fact, he has an entire folder full of art that was created during one of his darkest times: the death of his wife.

The Nervous Breakdown

In 2012, Anthony watched his wife succumb to cancer. Though they had a rocky marriage, and were no longer together, he committed to taking care of her during the last months of her life. This was a very traumatic experience for him since he wasn’t completely over the physical and mental abuse that he had endured at her hands. “I was taking care of someone that had put me through so much hurt and pain,” he says. “I didn’t know how to deal with it, and went into a depression.”

He distanced himself from friends, and couldn’t bear to eat for months — not because he lacked the desire to eat, but because he constantly felt full. “The only thing that I could do was art,” he says. He’d get so caught up in his work that eating would never even cross his mind.

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Anthony disappears to the back and reemerges with the infamous folder that holds the work he did during his ‘nervous breakdown’ “I hope I don’t get nightmares,” he says.

He plops down onto the couch, and proceeds to put on blue latex gloves; left hand first, and then the right. The first piece is multicolored and consists of shapes that flow together as if they are one. This is a theme that carry’s on throughout the entire folder. Each piece is done in pastels (hence, the latex gloves), and is comprised of multiple single shapes, or shapes that fuse together. These shapes are drastically different from the sharp, deliberate, and intricate figures that Anthony is accustomed to creating. It seems the drawings are a direct reflection of Anthony’s state of mind at the time: void of energy. “I was so weak that I literally didn’t have the energy” to draw anything else, he recalls.

Though it’s been at least a year since Anthony has revisited that folder, the emotional impact that it had on him is still present.

He quickly puts it away and returns to look for something else, but finds himself feeling a little drained. “I’m sorry, that took a lot out of me,” he says. “I just need a moment to,” he says while gesturing his hands down in a soothing motion. He inhales and then exhales one more time before grabbing another painting.

Healing through art

Shortly after his wife died, Anthony joined the Healing Arts Initiative (HAI) and began his journey to recovery. HAI is a program that encourages people with a range of mental illnesses to use art as a positive outlet. They lead art therapy sessions every Saturday, where members are prompted to draw whatever they feel.

HAI also organizes a highly anticipated exhibition for its artists to display their work each year. Though Anthony isn’t a huge fan of social gatherings, he enjoys his time at HAI and is making progress. “I’m a lot better than I was when I started, but I still have work to do,” he says.

He recently unveiled a wall that took him about two months to complete at HAI’s annual exhibit. Like the majority of his work, the wall is all about the details; it’s a quirky combination of several of his signature techniques and patterns. From hand drawn ribbons to a Japanese symbol, there is something to appease any set of eyes.

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In the top left corner lies Anthony’s name, etched in a thin curly font that he’s been drawing since he was a child. “I’ve never seen lettering like that before, I just do it,” he says while grinning confidently. According to Anthony, he was drawing before he could even write his name. His parents were traditional, strict and very supportive of his talents. In addition to noticing that he had a knack for drawing at a young age, Anthony’s parents also noticed that he’d often switch from his left to his right hand. He would get tired of drawing with one hand, and start using the other without missing a mark. “I had no idea that it wasn’t ‘normal’,” he says, of being ambidextrous. It’s a unique attribute that Anthony is proud to have been given at birth. “People can teach themselves to write with both hands, but it’s a completely different thing to be born doing it,” he says.

Looking Ahead

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Though Anthony has endured many challenges over the years (including a car accident that could have been fatal), he remains grateful for his experiences. He’s a licensed hair technician (he denounces the commonly used title hairstylist), a chef who “puts passion” in his food, and somewhat of a carpenter. Expressing himself visually is a huge part of who he is. It may even be the only thing that has remained constant in his life, and for that he is grateful. “If it wasn’t for art, I wouldn’t be here right now,” he says.