Clark Ashton Smith: The Artist

Dennis Rickard

The man whose art is discussed in this booklet was a unique artist of almost phenomenal scope, range of talent and ability to express his mind and soul, yet his fame has generally been limited to a relatively small group of aficionados. His poetry and prose have won him his widest recognition, and it is as a writer that he is usually remembered. Very little serious attention has been paid to his drawings, paintings, and sculptures carved from rocks and minerals, although he probably devoted more time to these pursuits in his lifetime than he did to writing. Only a very few of his works, or representations of them, have been seen outside the circle of his friends, associates and correspondents. As his writings are becoming increasingly read, both in this country and abroad, his carvings and paintings deserve the consideration that they have not yet received.

Clark Ashton Smith was born January 13, 1893 in Long Valley, California, a few miles south of the larger town of Auburn. When he was nine, he and his parents moved to Boulder Ridge, about a mile from Auburn, into a cabin that he helped his father build. He spent most of his life living there, until he married Carol Jones Dorman and moved to Pacific Grove, near Monterey, California. He died there on August 14, 1961.

Smith began writing short stories at the age of eleven, and poetry when he was thirteen. His early stories were Oriental adventures in the style of "The Arabian Nights," while his verse was largely influenced by his reading of Edgar Allen Poe. A few years later, he discovered the poetry of George Sterling, a prominent West Coast poet and member of a literary circle that included Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Edwin Markham, and many others. When Smith was eighteen, some of his poems were brought to Sterling's attention. He was favorably impressed, became a close friend, mentor and booster to Smith until his death in 1926.

In 1912, The Star-Treader and Others, Smith's first volume of poetry, was published in San Francisco. Critics considered him a prodigy and genius, and a leading San Francisco newspaper called him "the Keats of the Pacific Coast." However, shortly after publication, Smith suffered both an attack of tuberculosis and a nervous breakdown. He later said that this combination left him weakened to the point of having vivid and horrible nightmares, that were to recur throughout his life. His fevered dreams often served as inspirations for poems, stories, paintings and sculptures. At least one poem and one story are direct recollections of dreams. Any artistic influences derived from his illness and the associated dreams was accentuated by the fact that he was extremely sensitive. He never attended high school or college for this reason, and because he preferred to educate himself through his own voluminous reading. It has been said that part of this experiment in self-education took the form of the reading of every word in the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary and the complete Britannica . . . several times. He also taught himself French and Spanish well enough to compose verse in both languages, and translate poetry from those tongues, including a number of translations of Baudelaire that are considered excellent.

Smith was more or less a recluse during all the time that he lived in Auburn. He lived with, and tried his best to support, his parents, to whom he was very devoted, until their deaths a few years apart in the 1930s. He did very little travelling, and nearly all of that was within a triangle with points just north of Auburn, in San Francisco, and in the Monterey area. No doubt he received much of his fascination for the exotic and the far-away from his father, Timeus, who travelled widely as a youth.

Smith and his family were never really able to escape from financial worries. He largely turned to the writing of short stories during the Depression because he could make more money for them than through the sale of poetry. Apart from writing and the sale of some of his art, he did such manual labor as wood-chopping, fruit-picking, and hard-rock mining. Friends would do what they could to help him out whenever possible, and although very generous himself, Smith and his family were acutely conscious of anything they considered "charity," including a Guggenheim fellowship that he was offered and declined.

In the late 1920s and through most of the 1930s, most of Smith's literary attention was given to the writing of fantasy and science fiction stories, usually for Weird Tales magazine and a few of the other pulp magazines in these fields. It was also during this time that he began his carving work. What writing he did do after this time was again primarily poetry. Other collections of poetical works include Ebony and Crystal (1922), Sandal-wood (1925), Odes and Sonnetts (1918), Nero and Other Poems (1938), The Dark Chateau (1951), Spells and Philtres (1958), Poems in Prose (1964), and Collected Poems (1971). He has had six hardcover collections of his short stories published by Arkham House, a company that was established to publish the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Smith and others of the Weird Tales authors. In addition, his work has seen print in numerous magazines, anthologies, and more recently, in British, French and German editions, and in paperback under the Bal-lentine imprint. A series of tributes to Smith were assembled by Jack L. Chalker for In Memoriam: Clark Ashton Smith, published by Mirage Press in 1963, in which fellow writer and friends such as Ray Bradbury, Fritz Lieber, and Theodore Sturgeon told of memories and acknowledgments toward Smith's influence on their writing. A new and revised edition of this work will be published in 1973 by this publisher.

In 1959, Smith was asked by August Derleth, the director of Arkham House, to write a chapbook on his carvings. The title was to be Cthulhu and Others in Stone. Some work was begun on this project, but apparently Smith's health declined to the point where he was unable to spend much time working at it. Thus, although there have been many scattered references to his carvings and paintings, and a very few photographs used on jackets of two of his own books and one of Lovecraft's, and some drawings in the old Weird Tales, there has been very little in the way of a treatment of this side of his talents.

His art is unique, and is valuable for several reasons. It forms, along with his writing, a complementary unit, as was his intention. Further, art in science fiction and weird fantasy veins is by no means a wide field, and these works form perhaps the finest artistic comment on the literary mythos constructed by Lovecraft, Smith and a few other writers, as well as on many other realms of fantasy and mythology.

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