- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 12, 2008

He has hand-painted Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, created an ad for Absolut Vodka and updated Taco Bell’s image. His artwork is collected by such celebrities as comedian Jay Leno, pop star Elton John and singer Neil Diamond.

Now Mark T. Smith, who divides his time between Washington and Miami, has become one of 10 “official” Olympic artists chosen to create pieces to commemorate the 2008 summer games in Beijing. A series of his colorful paintings and drawings will be reproduced as limited-edition prints, posters and souvenirs to raise money for the American athletes competing this August.

“I’ve never done a piece before that will be seen by people from every country in the world,” the 40-year-old artist says during a recent interview at his Penn Quarter condo. “It’s really exciting.”

In mid-January, Mr. Smith was selected by Jack Scharr, owner and president of Fine Art Ltd. in Chesterfield, Mo., who has commissioned art to represent the U.S. Olympics team since 1987. “We were trying to reach out to new artists who could represent China in a modern image,” Mr. Scharr says. “His work is very colorful and appeals to the youth of America and the world.”

Mr. Scharr encouraged Mr. Smith and the nine other “official” artists “to bring a lot of China into the art because it’s the first time the games are being held in China.” So, instead of depicting a sports theme, Mr. Smith pictured a stylized dragon blowing flames onto the top of the Olympic torch. The imaginary blue beast, a Chinese symbol of power, is shown on a background of red, a color associated with good luck, prosperity and happiness.

Although intended as a playful interpretation of Chinese culture, the painting of the fire-breathing dragon has taken on an ominous vibe as Chinese authorities continue to crack down on protesters in Tibet and Beijing. It might well symbolize China’s efforts to keep the Olympics alive in the face of growing criticism — including numerous protests this week in this country and Europe during the torch relay — of its military actions against dissidents.

“I’m being called a lot to talk about the situation,” says Mr. Smith, who recently has aired his views on local radio and TV shows. “I’ve come down on the side of the athletes because, as somebody who has spent [his] entire life perfecting an artistic pursuit, I understand how much discipline and sacrifice it takes for them to train and compete. For the athletes to be used as political pawns in all this and deny them the opportunity to compete would be a shame.”

Mr. Smith says he believes any boycotting of the games is a bad idea. “That would take the media pressure off the Chinese and would isolate them,” he says. “We have to engage them. That’s not to say they are going to do exactly what we think is right, but our actions aren’t exactly in concert with the rest of the world, either.”

Mr. Smith, who swam competitively during high school in Wilmington, Del., says Olympic gold medalist Mark Spitz was one of his childhood heroes. He plans to attend the summer games in Beijing, where his painting will be included in an exhibition of Olympics-related art from 1972 to the present.

Politics, he says, “isn’t my thing,” but since moving to Washington, Mr. Smith has attended many a political event with his 32-year-old wife of two years, Lani Hay, chief executive and president of the government contracting firm Lanmark Technology Inc. of Fairfax. She was named the 2007 National Minority Small Business Person of the Year. Photographs of the artist and his wife with President Bush and former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are displayed in the couple’s contemporary-style apartment, where one of the bedrooms has been turned into a small studio.

Mr. Smith is spending more time in Washington these days, but he still creates most of his larger paintings in a Miami Beach loft. He moved to that city in 2003 after working in New York City as a freelance illustrator for ad agencies and magazines such as Rolling Stone.

In his paintings, the artist depicts subjects including horses and human figures and also produces satires on celebrity drug rehabilitation. His exuberant, decorative style suggests a cross between the fauvist works of Henri Matisse and the cartoonish doodles of 1980s New York artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “His paintings are abstract but not overly abstract,” says Jay Scott, co-owner of the Habatat Galleries in McLean. “The color is amazing.”

Now on view in this Tysons Corner gallery through the summer are a black-and-red version of Mr. Smith’s original dragon painting (cost: $15,000) and two preliminary sketches of the painting ($1,500 each). They are among several variations on his Olympics painting, which already has been turned into a poster and will be sold at the gallery for $40 starting on May 15.

In contrast to Mr. Smith’s vibrant image, the other “official” artworks approved by the U.S. Olympics Committee are more conventional. They include a painting of a Chinese peony by actress Jane Seymour; sculptures and paintings of three jumping dolphins by marine artist Wyland to convey the Olympics’ motto of “swifter, higher, stronger”; and a scene of the Great Wall by Alexander Chen, one of three Chinese artists selected.

According to Mr. Smith, 15 percent of all proceeds from his licensed posters and merchandise and 100 percent of his profits from the sale of his original paintings will go to the U.S. Olympics Committee.

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