How, Not What

Zack Smithey's works of art are all about the process.

By Kellie Hynes
Photography by Colin Miller/Strauss Peyton


Zack Smithey’s art is work in process. A piece starts as an idea, corralled on the clipboard that is always within his reach. The thought percolates until Smithey is inspired to express it. He studies the results. Adjusts his technique. And repeats. Over and over, with each painting, sculpture and even his shipping-container home representing a single point in Smithey’s personal, non-linear, art education. 

“I’m more focused on the ‘how’ of the art process than the ‘what’,” Smithey says. “I want to learn a much as I can while I’m here.” He learns by doing, exploring materials and techniques in work that lends itself to series. Smithey’s portraits of horses, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and Audrey Hepburn all start with a single iconic image. Smithey then evolves the image in a myriad of styles, from photorealist to abstract, using materials as varied as oil-based enamel paint and highway-grade reflective glass beads. “I keep the subject the same because that’s the conduit that allows people to make a quick connection. They say, ‘Oh, that’s a horse.’ Then they can be drawn in to whatever [technique] is happening in that piece,” Smithey says.

Smithey strives for artistic growth. “I leave a lot of products in my wake as I keep moving forward,” he laughs. While each work is a progression from the last, Smithey is tender and appreciative about his past pieces. He noted that the processes he has explored in previous compositions often work their way into new. For example, Smithey recently completed a commissioned portrait of Jay Z, using a technique he learned while working in set design for the MUNY many years ago. “Everything is an evolution. People will ask me how long a piece took to paint, and I’ll say 35 years.” Which is, perhaps, why Smithey’s pieces are in the moment, with the depth of a lifetime. 

Smithey’s work can be viewed at the Houska Gallery in the Central West End, and on Instagram To inquire about a painting or a commissioned work, email [email protected].