by Dilpreet BhullarJan 13, 2021
American artist and illustrator Casey Jex Smith creates highly involved and intricate illustrations that stand at a crossroads of several influences. His work is generally composed in its entirety using black micron pens and presents a masterful melding of subtlety and visual heaviness, with Smith filling his sheets with delicate flora, fauna and various less-defined forms that swirl and meld seamlessly, yet never break away from a certain sense of balance. His artistry perpetuates the distinct sense that it has been created by a tirelessly practiced and altogether masterful hand, yet manages to difference itself from comparable practitioners that all too often fall into the sort of rigid thematic clubbing that are non-conducive to creating the startlingly original and imaginative world Smith crafts. A resident of Utah, Smith has received extensive training in painting and drawing, and lives with his artist wife Amanda Smith and their two children. He has worked in various professional capacities in the past, having spent the last five years as a UX Designer in the tech industry, and having been involved with art education at the school and collegiate level for nearly a decade prior. Of late, he is spending a greater amount of time focusing on his personal artistic practice, having worked comparatively slowly in the past, especially during the recession when he would take up to a year to create one of his highly intricate pieces.
Smith’s aesthetic sensibilities are fundamentally grounded within the visual motifs of Mormonism, which is a religious group that is centred around the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day saints, Utah, and combines Christian principles with the teachings of the group’s founder, Joseph Smith. The artist explains, “I was a devout Mormon up until a few years ago. At the centre of Mormon belief is an expanded narrative built around the Garden of Eden. When you attend temple ceremonies, you watch films that go into this narrative in great detail, and they tend to be made using elaborate Hollywood-type sets of the biblical garden as paradise. It's a place I want to be in. Unintentionally it's also a sexually charged place where you and your perfect mate tromp around in the nude, eat fruit, and pet goats. Who wouldn't want to be there!” He also connects the bountiful nature of his landscapes to an aspirational sensibility arising from him having grown up in Utah. Smith explains, “My draw to these lush landscapes is also due to growing up in a desert with very little rain. To escape it you would have to drive up a canyon and hike trails to higher elevations where the landscape would change into a more paradisiacal form. I have always longed for a landscape that I didn't have to water or weed myself”.
Along with his religious and native history, Smith also draws upon the aesthetics of Dungeons and Dragons, possibly the most culturally influential tabletop fantasy roleplaying game franchise. He mentions that post-graduation, he was quite content to experiment with various styles and didn’t make any attempts to streamline his technique until 2010, when he organised an art project called Doomslangers. This undertaking saw Smith play the role of a Dungeon Master, who is the game organiser and principal point of narrative continuity within a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Smith created many illustrations to flesh out his game world, and invited eight geographically distanced artists to participate in it through video chat over a period of five months. He says, “I fished out some old books I had used as a teenager playing D&D. These were called Monster Manuals and they had these beautifully simple pen drawings of goblins, nymphs, and mummies by artists like Erol Otus, David A Trampier, David C Sutherland III and others. The drawings were done by artists that were in the periphery of its makers and were not necessarily trained illustrators who would have cost much more money to hire. The drawings were a little bit better than what the teenagers who were playing the game would have made themselves.
However, there is a third category of creative lineages that must be explored in any reading of Smith’s work, and that is the broad family of Heavy Metal aesthetics that have typified so many albums cover and comic panels since the 80s. In fact, at first glance, it seems to be the principal practitioners within this brash and typically over-the-top genre of visual artistry that Smith both draws upon and eschews in equal measure. The clubbing of this style, as they were referenced at the beginning of this article, have formed a sort of baseline for Smith to tread, and with careful consideration, he picks and chooses the elements he wishes to utilise within his own work. In doing so, Smith at once references the visual language of so many creatives who came before him, yet adds a certain crucial degree of subtlety in order to make the style truly his own. He agrees with this reading, and, comparing Heavy Metal sensibilities to the artistry associated with Dungeons and Dragons, Smith tells STIR, “The Venn diagram of D&D illustrations and Heavy Metal album cover art overlap quite a bit. They are both phallocentric fantasies of monsters, magic, and the occult”.
A doting family-man, Smith is happy at the fact that his last exhibition before the coronavirus outbreak and the ensuing lockdowns it perpetuated was in February, in Los Angeles, wherein he exhibited in collaboration with his wife and children. He explains, “We made it a family trip and hit Lego Land, Chinatown, LACMA, and the beach. I am so glad we were able to fill our souls with good memories right before COVID hit. Since then, I haven't exhibited and have instead put on another 10 pounds”. On questions of the future and the prospects and opportunities it may bring, Smith mentions that he would be happy to exhibit his work anywhere outside Utah. In particular, he wants an excuse to fly out to Italy, where he hasn’t been yet. For now, however, he is housebound and content to occupy his time with enjoying the company of his wife and children, and with playing video games.