Jeff Gibson-Smith could barely muster the energy to get up from his recliner a year ago.
Now, he leans his weight into his drawing arm. Abstract images emerge from his forceful strokes.
The artist has channeled injury and pain from a 1996 car accident and, in the process, found bold expression.
“This is one of the only times since the accident when I feel like I’m in control,” said the Four Lakes resident. “The drawings I do are me working through my healing.”
“It’s a journey. I’m coming back.”
Two of his post-accident abstracts were featured last month in an exhibit of college art at the Chase Gallery at City Hall. The untitled works were done in charcoal and white conte crayon.
“They have all of the qualities you would expect to find in any mature work of art,” said Jeanette Kirishian, an art instructor at Spokane Falls Community College.
“I think they would hold their own in any gallery,” she said.
Gibson-Smith, 37, began discovering his potential only a few years ago. He grew up in Yakima, dropped out of high school and got married while still in his teens.
A father with two children, Gibson-Smith took jobs as a herdsman, a nurse’s aide, a dock worker and factory assembler.
He used to be a leather-wearing biker-mechanic type, he said, and confined his art to doing a few tattoos for friends.
He was divorced from his first wife and, five years ago, met his second wife at a blues concert on his birthday.
On their honeymoon, they stopped at a professional conference where he was inspired to pursue his art.
Gibson-Smith quit his job and enrolled at SFCC. At the time, his goal was to become an illustrator of photo-realistic drawings.
Then his life changed.
On Aug. 22, 1996, just after 4 p.m., Gibson-Smith suffered a head injury in a traffic accident in Spokane.
He and his wife were heading home. Paula Gibson-Smith was driving. Jeff was in the passenger seat.
Their small car collided with another compact in an intersection in Browne’s Addition. Jeff’s head slammed against the door window.
A few days later, he began having vision problems. He started feeling anxious, and he had trouble reading. Sequences of thought were impossible.
He was diagnosed with a brain injury. Depression set in. He lost 30 pounds.
Except for doctor appointments, “The first four months, I didn’t leave the house,” he said.
“Six hours would go by, and I thought it was 10 minutes.”
He would glance up and see confusion: “Sometimes my hands would disappear in front of me.”
As part of his therapy, he joined a support group for people with head injuries. In addition, his instructor at SFCC urged him to go back to his drawing as a way to work through his recovery.
Before the accident, Gibson-Smith produced exquisitely detailed pieces. He still shows off an eagle and an owl he drew in stipple, an art form composed of tiny dots of ink or graphite.
The wreck robbed him of the fine motor control he once possessed. Now, his hands shake when he concentrates, making delicate drawings impossible.
To get around the problem, Kirishian urged him to use larger strokes and abstract images.
Now, he anchors his easel with bags of clay. He uses strong paper made of heavy fibers so it won’t shred beneath his calloused fingers.
When he draws, he moves his arm like a symphony conductor.
The injury caused other changes, too.
Before the accident, he was right-handed. Now he’s ambidextrous.
He used to like rock music. Now he listens to classical sounds in his studio in the family’s extra bedroom.
His first abstracts were intentional expressions of his suffering, he said.
They have bones and skulls and broken glass interspersed among patterns that weave and flow through the elements.
“Some people see flowers. Some people see fairies in there. One guy said he saw Dante’s Inferno,” he said.
“I see shapes. It’s like it’s already gridded out for me.”
The art has helped him transcend his disabilities.
“It’s not ugly,” he said. “It’s not bones and broken glass anymore.”
Paula Gibson-Smith said the pain in the drawings wasn’t immediately apparent to her. When she discovered the message, “It was very moving,” she said.
The injury changed their relationship, and they’ve spent the past year making adjustments.
For example, the couple used to take turns reading a novel aloud to each other at bedtime. Jeff can’t concentrate enough to do the reading now, so he listens.
“He’s a different person. He wouldn’t be this way if he had a choice,” Paula said.
Jeff hasn’t confined his healing to the canvas. He’s also a regular visitor at area elementary schools.
He has a part-time job teaching children for the Spokane Art School and has become popular with youngsters.
Last week, he appeared at Balboa Elementary on the North Side and at South Pines Elementary in the Spokane Valley.
At South Pines, Gibson-Smith was the guest of his daughter, Becky Smith, a high school senior who is studying child development and is working in teacher Kathryn Byrne’s second-grade class.
Becky introduced her dad by telling the children the story of his accident and how he uses his art to help recover.
“I see things a little differently now,” Gibson-Smith told the children.
The students were captivated, peering into the abstract images Gibson-Smith brought and trying to find faces and shapes.
“Don’t lose your imagination,” he urged them.
Gibson-Smith said he still hopes to finish his two-year degree and wants to continue teaching art to children because they respond so enthusiastically to visual expression.
He also said he wants to expand his range of art work with the use of color. Kirishian has suggested Gibson-Smith tackle lithography so he can produce prints.
The idea of making money off the art still hasn’t sunk in for Gibson-Smith.
“Right now, it’s not important to me to sell my art,” he said. “To me, I’m happy I found some way to express myself.”
As difficult as the recovery has been, Gibson-Smith said the injury has a positive side.
“Before, I was extremely tight, technical, my left brain controlling my art.”
“Now, it’s more of an experience.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)
MEMO: See related story in Valley Voice, “Injury brought him creativity he now shares with others”