Paint by numbers

Kelly Anne Smith creatively combines art and economics

| November 20, 2008
Kelly Anne Smith’s wood panel drawings include, clockwise, “Wilson,” “Helen,” “Pepper and George” and “Sam and Grandma Jewel.”
Kelly Anne Smith’s wood panel drawings include, clockwise, “Wilson,” “Helen,” “Pepper and George” and “Sam and Grandma Jewel.”
Economists aren’t exactly the first group of people one turns to for artistic inspiration. But Kelly Anne Smith, an economics student at the University of Montana and an artist, proved recently that the two disciplines are not as mutually exclusive as they may seem. For her senior undergraduate project, Smith compiled a book about basic economic concepts illustrated with animé-like characters: large eyes, long necks, some with a Tim Burton-esque gothic feel, others more goofy.

“I thought it would be fun to have an A to Z guide, kind of Shel Silverstein-style,” she says. “It was supposed to be a snarky coffee table book for economists and so I talked to one of my teachers about it. I just asked if she would be willing to make sure that all the concepts were right before I actually did anything with it. She went to the chair with my idea and they said that I should just do it as my thesis project. I was blown away. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Smith tweaked the original coffee table book idea for her thesis and created something tailored more to middle and high school students. An A to Z Guide to Basic Economic Concepts, a 39-page self-published soft cover, now provides some educational use to young number crunchers.

“I got a lot of support,” she says. “You would think of economists as really dry but they all have these great personalities and they’re quirky and fun. And most of them have bought the book.”

Smith, 29, has no formal artistic training. It was only in the last year that she went from drawing realistic portraits to drawing these more otherworldly characters. She says she’d always wanted to write a book about a character named Unconventional Ida, an orphan who had been born to giants but wasn’t one herself; her large eyes and long neck were telltale of her heritage. But Smith was busy with other projects, and she didn’t think much more about Ida beyond that. Last summer, however, while working at her father-in-law’s cabinetry shop, she was inspired by discarded wood.

“My father-in-law would just have these random scraps of wood around,” she says. “So I took some home with me one day and just played around and the characters just kind of came out.”

She started slow, using a pen to draw each character on different types of wood—hickory, cherry and birch—and then filling them in with colored pencil. Two weeks after she started drawing the characters, the dog she’d had for 8 years , Humbert, was diagnosed with a terminal illness. That, says Smith, pushed her to start churning out four characters a day. Since Humbert’s death Smith’s sold numerous panels of her work and shown her art at shops and galleries. And she has essentially created a community of characters.

Though they all stem from the same idea—that their large eyes and stringy necks come from giant genetics—each character has his or her own story. Helen, for instance, is a pink-haired, weepy-eyed girl with tree branches for eyelashes. One bushy haired man is “the man who was raised by lions.” Bean holds a green balloon, which helps her float through the Forest of a Thousand Eyes. Sadie, with her ashen face and raven hair, is a ghost. And Danberg, one of Smith’s first characters, wears nothing but a wooden barrel around his body.

“I made it that he was from the Great Depression,” she says. “He has all of these particular values and for fun and entertainment he jumps over the waterfalls in his barrel.”

Smith’s characters are part of an artistic tradition that evokes childhood books—Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, for instance, or Mercer Mayer’s Mrs. Beggs and the Wizard. She strives to be part of an illustrative culture that is as sinister as it is playful.

Smith’s A to Z guide is more toned down than her wood panels. The characters’ stories have been set aside and replaced with the book’s quirky economic lessons. Jacob is a jobseeker and Isobel talks about inflation. Unis illustrates the concept of utility by buying shoes. A somber-looking Sarah meditates on one lone piece of fruit and its value in terms of substitutes and supply.

“I kind of want to lighten up the field of economics a little bit because so many people hate it and that started getting to me,” Smith says. “Economics really is fun. You can twist it and turn it and look at any relationship.”

Smith just returned from an art show in Helena and she’s getting ready to display her work at Missoula’s Holiday Made Fair in mid-December. Meanwhile, she’s been working on her master’s degree in economics, which she says eats into her drawing time—though it won’t stifle her creativity.

“Classes will be over in a year and then I’ll get to write a giant thesis,” she says. “I made a joke that I would take it to another level and for my master’s thesis I would write and produce a musical about economics. We’ll see. I don’t know if I can stretch things that far.”

Kelly Anne Smith’s wood panel drawings and copies of An A to Z Guide to Basic Economic Concepts can be found at idassketchbook.blogspot.com.

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