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Sean ‘Smitty’ Smith doubles his pleasure

Sean Smith sits in Zola in downtown Spokane, where he outfitted the interior with carnival ride buckets, among other décor. (Jesse Tinsley)
Sean Smith sits in Zola in downtown Spokane, where he outfitted the interior with carnival ride buckets, among other décor. (Jesse Tinsley)

Thirty-six-year-old Sean “Smitty” Smith grew up in a household teeming with art. So naturally he determined early on to pursue a different career path. Yet today his imaginative creations can be found throughout Spokane. He took a break from remodeling the old Geno’s Italian restaurant on North Hamilton to explain why his life didn’t work out as he’d planned.

S-R: How do you describe what you do?

Smith: I’m a general contractor and an artist. I like straddling the two realms. It seems if you’re considered strictly an artist, people (with projects) see that as a limitation and don’t want to talk with you. I like coming in as a contractor where someone gives me a bunch of directions, but then is wide open to how I interpret that.

S-R: Were you encouraged to be artistic as a child?

Smith: I grew up with my mother (potter Jill Smith) working in the house as an artist and I was around it every day, so all the time I was growing up I swore I was going away from that.

S-R: Did you take shop classes in school?

Smith: I spent a lot of time in shop. That’s where I learned to weld when I was 16. The first cool thing I ever made was a life-size dolphin sculpture that’s still in my parents’ yard.

S-R: What did you think you’d be when you grew up?

Smith: I thought I’d be a water-quality engineer. But when I got out of college, I realized I’d have to leave town to find a job, and I wanted to stay here. So I screwed around in the climbing world trying to sell gear. Then I starting doing some construction, and one thing led to another.

S-R: Why did you add the art element?

Smith: I realized the part of contracting I liked wasn’t the framing – the part that you look in the phone book and find 50 people doing. What I love is the part that requires a math mind or a scientific mind to solve the problem, as well as a creative sense that makes the solution interesting, even unique.

S-R: Is your job recession-proof?

Smith: I don’t know that my job is recession-proof, but I have no lack of work. People continue to build bars and restaurants. When the Geno’s remodel is done, I have a stack of people I’m supposed to call for railings and all sorts of weird stuff.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Smith: That I never do the exact same thing twice. Sometimes that’s hard, because you have to make new things up every day, but that’s also what’s awesome about it.

S-R: What will Geno’s look like in a couple of months when you’re done?

Smith: We have a bunch of canvas tarps left over from a circus that are going to be part of something I’m not sure of yet. I want different wall coverings used in ways that aren’t just stuff on a wall.

S-R: Where do you find inspiration?

Smith: Everywhere. I’ll be driving down the road and see some random thing and think, “Wow, I could …” People say everything has been done, so when I see something you like, I think, “How am I going to change that and make it mine?”

S-R: Where do you find materials?

Smith: All over. The hardest part is figuring out where to store it until I have a use for it. I have this silly revolving darkroom door tucked away that’s going to be cool for something, I just don’t know what yet. I have an airplane tail section stashed in a barn that I’m still trying to figure out what to do with.

S-R: What’s the biggest item you’ve salvaged?

Smith: The hull of a wooden sailboat. We cut it in half lengthwise and then wedged it into Zola after the bar was almost finished. The hull was 30 feet long, and my truck was only about 12 feet, so I drove through town with almost 10 feet of boat hanging off the front and the back.

S-R: How do you relax?

Smith: Lately I’ve been competing a lot in three-gun events, where you run around and shoot at targets with a rifle, a pistol and a shotgun – kind of my version of golf. And I probably skied 30 or 40 days last winter. That’s why I like working for myself. When it snowed I was the first person on the lift, then back in town by noon and working until 7 or 8 at night.

S-R: Is the metalwork side of your job dangerous?

Smith: It’s hot and stuff catches on fire, but I don’t really see it as dangerous. I welded my finger once and it almost fell off, but other than that …

Spokane freelance writer and editor Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at

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