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Editor's Note: This is the second in a series featuring each of the ten working artists to have joined the Group Ten Gallery, located at 138 E. Main St. in Kent.
The uniqueness of John Smolko's art is undeniable. Just ask his colleagues in The Colored Pencil Society of America.
Smolko, one of six children, grew up east of Cleveland. His older brother, Dave, was a good artist and as a child Smolko tried to copy his drawings. He copied comic book art and holy pictures he was exposed to at church. By the time he was in third grade, he was considered the class artist. He remembers helping his teachers with their bulletin boards. He majored in studio art at Cuyahoga Community College and transferred to Kent State University after completion of his Associate of Art degree.
The portfolio he submitted for admittance into the School of Art at KSU was not initially accepted due to the wide variety of art it contained. The committee found it unusual that someone could produce such high quality in so wide a variety. However, Smolko's explanation was accepted and, although he was put on probation, he was accepted into the school and proved to be an outstanding student.
Following graduation, Smolko began teaching art at the middle school in Tallmadge. Then he was offered a position teaching art at Tallmadge High School. Smolko found teaching at that level offered him the opportunity to help students with portfolios and other things to prepare them for art schools at colleges and universities .
Smolko resigned from his teaching job to return to KSU to work toward his Master of Fine Arts Degree. Because of his four years of teaching, he was eventually able to teach his own courses as a Graduate Assistant. He also was a Visiting Assistant Professor for three years in the KSU Art Education Department.
After earning his MFA, Smolko accepted a teaching position at Aurora High School. He retired five years ago filled with fond memories of his many years working with talented art students there. During his final year teaching, his students received nearly $700,000 in art scholarships. "I had eighteen advanced placement kids and colleges were fighting to get them. The highest score in advanced placement was a five and five was our average grade." "I was sort of a nuts and bolts teacher. I knew what the kids needed to get where they wanted to go, and I knew the information that I wish I had when I was their age," Smolko said. "It was tough to retire, but I had plans for other things I wanted to do."
Smolko is practicing what he preached to his students during thirty five years of teaching. "You have to look for the shape, for shadows and highlights and middle tones of the face. The more shapes you find, the more you can break it up and the more success you have when choosing your colors and doing your rendering from light to dark." Smolko is proficient in a cross hatch style, linearly blended lines done in pen and ink or colored pencil. He took samples of his work to a critique and Tom Lehnert, another co-op partner of Group Ten Gallery, suggested he start scribbling. "Scribbling is the most honest line you could make. It's your signature," Lehnert told him.
"It was gut wrenching to start scribbling, but I loved it. It's gotten a little wilder now at this stage and it keeps getting looser and looser," he added. His work begins with line drawing for several days. "The rest of it is just icing on the cake because blocking in the color is just so enjoyable and fun."
Smolko finds some of his models around his neighborhood. He looks for facial character and strong features. He has used a neighbor, a tree trimmer and even a man who walks in his neighborhood when visiting his mother. Smolko chooses the lighting, takes the photos and selects the poses. He usually does a series with the same model in different poses.
Smolko is a signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America. "This organization has been a real shot in the arm for me as far as getting some clientele and helping to get my work out". There's all this colored pencil work, mostly super realism and then there's me - and I kind of like that." "I must have done thirty workshops with society members all over the country. They do some beautiful stuff in my workshops , no two people scribble alike, and then they go back to what they were doing before. During a three-day workshop, I told them come into the water, the water's fine, you guys will have fun with this. Then later on I told them I just was informed by my wife that the piece I have in a show in New Mexico just won an award, so you know all that stuff I told you before - forget it," he said laughing." So I have this market. I'm getting a lot of recognition and a lot of exposure, but art is for everybody. I don't like to see art as a competition. There is a uniqueness to art and you want to celebrate that." Smolko's scribbling style keeps changing. "You don't want to get successful at something and then just keep regurgitating the same thing."
Smolko said he is honored to be one of the featured artists at GroupTen Gallery. "These are all prolific, working artists and the art is high quality and so diverse. There is something for everyone. These artists are working every day and yet they find the time to roll up their sleeves and pitch right in at the gallery to do whatever is needed."
Smolko resides in Kent with his wife, Gigi. They are the parents of two grown sons.
For further information about Smolko, including a list of his exhibits and awards, visit www.grouptengallery.com. The gallery's hours are noon to 5 p.m. Thurs. through Sat. The phone number is 330-678-7890.