The World of Robert E. Smith


Robert E. Smith, a self-taught outsider artist who has been featured in the Museum of American Folk Art, will be 80 next month. To put together this show at the MSU Art & Design Gallery that spans over thirty years of work, collectors loaned 140 of his paintings for the exhibition. It’s a rare opportunity to become immersed in the wacky and entertaining world of Robert E.

One of the paintings that we loaned is the basis for this downtown mural, and we won it at the auction to raise funds for the mural. But our painting is better because the artists who interpreted the mural for Robert smashed the painting a bit — ours is longer and skinnier.


But they did pretty much capture the spirit of the original painting. In this detail you can see some of the trademarks of Robert’s story-paintings — famous people like Ray Charles or Santa Claus appear frequently, as does Baby Jane, current events, and personal landmarks from Robert’s memory. If you haven’t already figured it out, Robert has been a major influence on my art.


I love the busy activity and texture of his paintings, the tiny details that you have to get in close to see, but most importantly, the humor of the mysterious stories. This painting that I had never seen before is called, “Mercy Hospital, County Jail.”


Robert sometimes records his stories on tape, attaching the cassette tapes to the back of his paintings. He also writes cartoon books, giving himself titles that he fancies such as “moody artist” or “notable folk-artist.” To see more paintings, go to the Good Girl Art Gallery.

14 thoughts on “The World of Robert E. Smith”

  1. I have one of Robert’s paintings on canvas, maybe one of only two. I also have a cassette tape of Robert talking about his thoughts on ‘Grand Canyon’…the name of my painting. I would enjoy knowing more about the man.

  2. I have a Robert Smith but it is signed R Smith. It is as good as any folk art I’ve seen very busy and colorful. It looks like the style of the folk art on Askart by Robert E. Smith., along with his outsider art style paintings. Although
    I am sure it is one of his. why did he change his style?How many of those did he do. What made him change his art style? Does anybody know?
    It seems to me it was a life changing move? I sure wish I knew?Sarah McPherson

  3. Hi Don,

    My husband and I were both working at the Annex when Robert used to come through. He would trade you a painting for a granola bar — now his paintings sell for the much more!

    I wish I knew where you could shop for some, this was a special exhibit, but I think maybe The Good Girl Art Gallery downtown might know where you buy one.

  4. I was a art student at S.M.S.U. [now M.S.U.] back in the early 80’s and used to see Mr. Smith going thru the Art Annex looking for materials on which to paint on or to paint with. To see his success is a joy. I want to visit Springfield this summer sometime and would like to shop for a Smith painting as a remembrance of my days at the University. His work is so much fun, I love it!

  5. I grew up in Springfield and have had the pleasure of meeting Robert E. on many occasions. I love his work and am so glad he is appreciated by people everywhere!

  6. Hi Mary Ann, yep you’re right, he is similar to Red Grooms, another artist I like, although Grooms is a much more educated artist.

    BTW just saw your article in the new issue of Quilting Arts Magazine and it looks fab! They have such great photography so it’s nice you got a several page spread.

  7. I loved Richard Scarry, but never heard of Verticalvile, so looked it up on. Apparently they were puzzles designed by Bob Martin for Sprinkbok in the 70’s.

    I bid on a couple on Ebay, so will let you know if I get one. Never thought of having to put a puzzle together to see the art, but it should be fun — I like doing puzzles too!

  8. Fascinating. What great paintings.

    They immediately made me think of the Richard Scarry books my kids had. And some of the wild and busy puzzles we loved. I remember one of them was called Verticalville. 🙂

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