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 Wes (Wess) Smith  (1958 - )

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Lived/Active: California      Known for: airbrush painting

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Wes Smith
An example of work by Wes (Wess) Smith
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"From the time I was a young boy I enjoyed things that were imagined as much as what was real . . . a total daydreamer you might say." - Wess
Fortunately for Wess one of his teachers had a better eye for talent. One day in Junior High School Wess drew a hot rod on his school desk - his teacher saw it but instead of scolding him he was so impressed that he told Wes to leave it there. That positive school experience encouraged Wess to pursue art as a career.

Wess realized he had talent when: "when somebody liked what I drew that made me feel
good, making something from a blank 'canvas'. I drew because I had a passion to create."

Wess also discovered the airbrush in school. A teacher was demonstrating how cavemen painted walls on caves. Students blew paint through straw reeds onto a canvas. Wess called it "a poor man's airbrush". Fascinated, he immediately went out and bought a real airbrush.

While still a High School student in the central California valley town of Bakersfield he landed a part time job as a painter's helper. There he received a special gift: a box of old paints. From then on he taught himself to airbrush by painting anything that was flat and not nailed down including walls, cardboard boxes and even his mom's station wagon tailgate. Before long he was making money by paining his friend's cars and vans and yes their bedroom walls too.

In 1976 after graduating, Wess' step-dad "strongly encouraged" him to get a real job like his, working in the Bakersfield Oil Fields. Instead Wess followed one of his brothers south to San Diego where his love of art found an appreciative home in the famous Pacific Beach Air Brush Shop. There he met owners Robbie Adkins and Andy Anderson who immediately hired the oil field refugee. All three are still best friends today.

L to R Janice Crawfton, Diane Gerard, Catherine Bailey (R.I.P.), Andy Anderson, Rhonda Pettit Anderson, Robbie Adkins, Wess (at 18 years old)

Adkins remembers a funny story about this photo: "(Wess) was always so broke and wouldn't have gas money to get home so he would often sleep on the shop floor. One payday, he bought that white Levi suit (pictured) and painted it, and again for the next two weeks he had no gas money to get home . . . but he looked really good!"

Adkins had assembled a team of creative artists who took airbrushing to a new level. They invented unique templates; cut out shapes of art taped one on top of each other, which allowed for creative and efficient t-shirt art production. The shop's trademark was painted wings in multiple pastel hues on the shoulders of their t-shirts. Wes fit in with the group like a complimentary color.

It was at the Airbrush Shop that Wess was introduced to surfboard foam as a new canvas. Board shaper Barry "Bemo" was looking for someone to paint his surfboards and approached Adkins. She introduced him to Wess who had already fallen in love with surfing or as he calls it "playing on waves. Bemo, also a central California valley transplant, struck up a friendship with Wess who would become a popular surfboard artist, painting boards for famous shapers like the legendary Skip Frye of Gordon and Smith Surfboards and Steve Lis and John Holley of Seagull Surfboards in San Diego.

Back at the Airbrush Shop Wess' work habits were a bit sketchy: "Adkins fired me several times but kept hiring me back, probably because she knew I was still a teenager (18 years old) and had a lot of talent."

Eventually, Wess got homesick and moved back to Bakersfield and took his step-father's advice and got a "real job" (in the oilfields). But Wess says it was a big mistake: "that experience made it quite clear to me that I never wanted a so-called real job ever again."

Wess continued to airbrush, mostly seascapes some of which he sold for $100 each . . . his mission was "to paint the perfect wave".

Eventually he left Bakersfield but this time he followed another brother north to Eureka, Ca. where he was welcomed into a hippy commune of vegetarians living in a turn-of-century farm house called "The Funk Farm". Wess found work in neighboring Ferndale, Ca. painting Queen Ann Victorian "ginger-bread" houses. But after three months of solid rain he headed south again.

Back in San Diego Wess found out that the Airbrush shop had closed. Always the survivor, Wess saw an ad from a sign shop called "Fisk Design Studio". Lyle Fisk, the famous hot rod pin-striper, hired Wess on the spot and promise to teach him how to paint signs.

Fisk introduced Wes to some of his childhood heroes like custom car builder and painter Ed "Big Daddy" Roth of the "Rat Fink" cartoon fame.

For several years Wes fine tuned his artistic talent under the tutelage of Fisk until one day, out of the blue, a voice from his past called him. It was Robbie Adkins of the old Airbrush Shop who was then working for Figi Giftware with the new art medium cast-paper. Adkins asked Wes to join her in airbrushing cast paper.

Eventually Adkins left Figi and Wes was offered the cast paper position. Wes worked at Figi for next seventeen years from 1984 until 2001.

With his experience airbrushing surfboards, Wes decided to try surfboard foam for the cast paper mold. At home Wes carved his first wave out of the close cell foam and it worked perfect. Wes' airbrushed cast paper waves became the most successful piece of art the Figi Corporation ever sold! His cast paper art started showing up in J.C. Penny's, Hallmark stores and even around the world. One piece of his art was seen in the window display of a war-torn Beirut, Lebanon store front. Recently a fan base of his cast paper artwork has developed on the internet.

Wess was creating so many pieces of art that Figi decided to have him sign his art with other names like Carlos and Sue. There were times when Wess was designing one new piece of art every day. However, in 2001 counterfeit art from Asia started showing up in the US and Figi went out of business.

Back in his survival mode, Wess found occasional airbrushing jobs with Fisk and it was through the pin-stripper's contacts that he landed a new job at a custom car shop called Autoworks International in El Cajon, Ca. Along with airbrushing custom art on hot rods Wess used his sculpting skills he learned at Figi to design retail products for companies like Orange County Choppers of the famed reality television show.

The shop's owner, Matt Couper, asked Wess to design some body parts for the shop's signature 1967 "bad-ass", ground up customized, pearl black, 900 horse powered, Obsidan SG1 Mustang. Wes designed interior parts and many of the cars unique body parts (see pictured hood scoop below) and an aluminum intake manifold for the car's twin turbos.

The exploits of the shop attracted the producers of the Speed Channel's television show "Chop, Cut and Rebuild". Wes' fifteen minutes of fame was airbrushing on the featured car's Candy Apple paint job. (Episode: Mustang Mystique, 1967 Mustang Fastback)

It was at Autoworks that Wess is introduced to Computer graphics and website artwork. From that point on Wess would be also responsible for designing and maintaining the company's extensive, ever-changing website, nearly as customized looking as the custom cars he was airbrushing.

In the summer of 2009 Wess' art career took another unusual turn. He was hired to airbrushing life-like props for Stu Seagull Productions, a movie and television studio in San Diego. The studio produces television shows like Renegade, Silk Stalkings and Pensacola: Wings of Gold. Wess still works there today.

Wess says what pleases him most about his about his life is he never knows what interesting projects he'll get next like the work he was doing when we talked, airbrushing a three inch long, inflatable "Flea" for a retail point-of-purchase display.

Wess' heroes include his "crazy" aunt Hazel, an artist herself; his mom who taught him to appreciate the good things in life; all the artists at the former Airbrush shop; Pin Striper Lyle Fisk; airbrush pioneer Charles White III; Salvador Dally; and cavemen Wess calls the first "airbrushers".

His goals are pretty simple, to be painting tomorrow and making people happy with his art." His lovely wife Dex and their five year old, energetic son Nicky compliment his positive outlook. While interviewing Wess I noticed a sign hanging on the wall behind him that read: "It is still a beautiful world, strive to be happy!"

- Mike Ryan

Published in Airbrush Technique Magazine

Shown on AskART with the artist's consent.

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