Alim Smith: Fire Under Pressure
The minute we saw Alim Smith’s surrealist campaign for season three of Atlanta, I booked this interview. His unique stylization and processing of pop culture twists icons into new, immortalized moments. He’s hit several sweet spots this year, holding it down in Delaware, where the quiet life gives him space for ambitious endeavors.
Kristin Farr: What’s Wilmington like?
Alim Smith: It's a very plain place, just a bunch of parks. It closes down at about seven o’clock. It’s a great space for starting and building my family, and exploring the imagination, because there's literally nothing to do.
When did you start painting?
I’ve been drawing my entire life and painting since 2015. Instagram was getting popular and friends and nephews were sending me pictures of different artists’ work. I didn’t know if they wanted me to enjoy it, or they were trying to troll me because I was super competitive, since I went to art school. So I thought, oh, you think I can’t do this? I can do this! I started to go full in because I thought my friends and family didn’t believe in me as an artist. [laughs]
How did the Atlanta project come up?
It was summertime, August. A month before, I had been talking to a friend about how I felt I hadn’t been using my talents at all. I let Covid just suck me dry, and I felt the world was gonna end, so I just didn’t do anything creative. I was crying to her, and really going through it. After that little episode, like two weeks later, I got an email saying, “Hey, we saw your art, would you be interested in doing the artwork for Atlanta?” I thought it was a lie because I wasn’t doing anything for two years, so I was like… this is a sham. I’ve had commissions that seemed like they were a big deal fall through, so I stopped getting excited. But they kept hitting me up, and the process lasted about six months. Initially they gave me a test to see if I could handle the workload, like an audition.
It was mad stressful because I had no idea if I was gonna get it yet, and there were three rounds of doing the exact same drawings, but with color and way more detail every time. Each character portrait on the billboard artwork is an individual painting. I painted, like, ten portraits, two backgrounds, eight different symbols—over twenty paintings with three or four hundred edits before I could even start painting the final pieces. They had me every single day for six months straight. It was ridiculous, but awesome.
I’m surprised you didn’t get to meet Donald Glover.
I know, right? I feel like when we do meet, the world will explode or something. I feel like we’re so similar and I’ve been told that, even before working on the Atlanta project, so I gotta meet him.
Do you mind if we talk about your unreleased Mac Miller album art?
Mac Miller was one of the first celebrities to hit me up. Others have tagged me or commented, but he was the first to say he wanted to do work with me. I was texting with him for months about ideas, philosophy and life. He was a really cool dude. I was in D.C. and I had just finished painting the picture, and I was excited to wrap it on the canvas and show it to him. Then I was at my art show and my girlfriend told me he passed, and I was like… what the fuck? That was crazy.
Your painting is still associated with his music.
Nobody reached out to me about that, but I guess whoever sees my Instagram post must know about it.
Your Instagram is so good. Back to Atlanta—what did you consider when making art for season three, and did you re-watch the other seasons to prepare?
Once it was confirmed, I made my mom and dad watch the first two seasons with me, front to back. I drew so many weird, weird ideas for Atlanta that I wish I could share. Even though I think they made a great decision with the final choices, if it was on me, that ad would’ve been so weird. I had Donald Glover’s face as a donut you could see through, and it was going to include every single easter egg about the show. It would’ve been way too much.
I’d like to see all those sketches as a book. Do you want to talk about how you once won an award for a painting that your mom made?
I come from a pretty artsy family on mom mom’s side. My Aunt Earline went to NYU. She had a whole bunch of art shows in New York, Atlanta and LA. She had a newspaper clipping from before I was born where Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby and Danny Glover were all at her art show. My mom used to live in New York and make hats for the jazz musicians. She says one day she woke up in her apartment and heard James Earl Jones’s voice! So, artsy family—anyway, fast forward, I had this project in school where we’re supposed to take a landscape, zoom in on it, and magnify a section as a painting. I thought it was so beneath me, like just coloring in the lines, so I asked my mom if she wanted to paint it and she said she’d love to. She was really getting into it. I entered it into the Scholastic contest and it won the gold key award! I won another art award in high school, but the most impressive award I got was for my mom. She was ecstatic
What are you working on now?
A series called Google Me, about where we are in society, and what people look like to me currently. I feel like we’re turning into another thing. We’re almost not humans anymore because we don’t have to depend on any of our human instincts. I’m digging into all these things that are helpful to us, but have also played a role in turning us into a completely different creature. I’m also working on some digital stuff, and a lot of music lately, on the low.
Of course you’re multi-talented. What else can you do?
I feel like I can do absolutely anything in the visual arts arena, like in the movie, Drumline, with Nick Cannon. He got accepted into college for being this elite drummer, but couldn’t read music, so he just picked it up by ear. I feel like I can pick up by hand, any kind of visual art. I’m working on sculptures right now, making some of the faces from these Google pieces into African-looking masks.
Do you always focus on figures?
I actually like landscapes more than people would probably think, and tessellations and weird shapes, but I just can’t get around people for some reason.
Your paintings of memes are like pop history art. What is it about certain memes that makes you want to paint them? Crying Jordan is a classic.
That whole meme thing started back in an art school competition. I was scrolling, thinking about what my next series would be, and I just kept seeing memes. They were all so viral and had so many likes and shares, and I thought, there’s nothing I’m gonna create that will be as interesting as a meme. I don’t know if I will make anything in my life that will get as much attention as a meme. I thought, you know what? These are Black people too… I might as well just make a Black history month meme series! And that’s how it all started.
And then you had a show…
When the Atlanta stuff was done, I thought I’d have two months to prepare and be ready for all of the attention, but right at the tail end of painting stuff for Atlanta, Instagram hit me up and asked if I’d like to be part of an art show in LA, and they said, “You have to paint 25 pieces in two weeks.”
Did you not sleep?
I didn’t sleep. I was covered in paint. The movers who were coming to package the art were helping me. Everybody was helping me, and I made it in time, and the show was insane. It was the perfect leap off of the Atlanta stuff. The show was for Black History month, with my paintings hung throughout a whole maze they designed. They had a couple of comedians and a girl type-writing love letters, and even the drinks were named after my paintings. It was very ridiculous. My first time in LA!
So now you’re working on that series about how we’re evolving. I wonder if you have synesthesia.
My mom always said I was a better writer than a painter, and I got it… art is like letters and symbols and stuff. I think I might have something else though—Aphantasia. It means you don’t have a lot of mental imagery. I don’t see a lot of pictures in my head.
Then where do they come from?