Editor’s note: In these social distancing/life-during-wartime days, one’s opportunities to responsibly poke around wildly are substantially compromised. However, this pre-Orbit era story of Western Pennsylvania outsider artist DeVon Smith comes from a time that feels like another planet: when no one was blogging, no one (I knew) had a cell phone or a digital camera, and we all just sat around waiting for Mark Zuckerberg to give us something to click on. DeVon Smith, though, is absolutely the kind of guy that made me excited about writing, picture-taking, exploration, and adventure … even if there was no outlet for it.
Twenty years ago your narrator found himself abnormally focused on the intense activity of an older gentleman, down on his hands and knees, fidgeting with a snarl of electrical cords, blinking lights, and repurposed oscillating fans. It was there, by the entryway of The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, that DeVon Smith was fussing with a “family” of six human-sized art robots, two of whom were to be wed in a ceremony at the museum later that same day.
DeVon spoke in a fascinating stream-of-consciousness blur that intermixed is-this-guy-for-real? anecdotes of a wild life of round-the-world hitchhiking, bizarre health prescriptions, and an absolute dedication to the life of his creations that felt as legit as anything in, you know, the “real world.” It turned out that DeVon had come to the museum from his home in Wampum, PA, just up the road from Pittsburgh, in Lawrence County. He invited me to visit any time.I got to know DeVon just a little bit, visiting him at his DIY compound in Wampum, helping transport his robots in a flatbed truck to the opening of a new Wal-Mart, and buying him a real lunch at a nearby King’s Family Restaurant where he insisted he would have been just as happy with a no-cost meal of “ketchup soup.”
Filmmaker David Craig and I met with DeVon in the late winter of 2001, which is where he captured DeVon doing his thing while I acted as unprepared interviewer. A link to the short video that came out of that appears below and is highly recommended. The photos I took–you can hear my old 35mm snapping away at various points–appear lost to time; at least, I can’t find them anywhere. (Sigh.) But you’ll get the idea.
David Craig was kind enough to do a little Q&A about his recollections of the visit and making the short film.
Q: How did you first hear about DeVon Smith?
Let’s say it’s all a bit murky. I went to AVAM (American Visionary Art Museum) regularly–every time there was a new show–so if the robots were there I saw them, but there was always so much other stuff I was interested in seeing, like which Howard Finster piece they were showing. You had talked up DeVon. You and [Ms. The Orbit] offered up some suggestions for the public access show I was doing. I mean if you said anything like, “There’s a guy in the country who makes robots,” I was there.
In the original video I set it up by showing us going down this long stretch of winding road and in the narration, using this world-weary tone, saying, “Here we are setting out to find another folk artist.” That wasn’t really the case. Coming out of the zine world and doing some writing, I was always interested in checking things out. But with the show I had more of a reason to seek out stuff to cover. I don’t recall having any particular expectations but you probably built up a little bit of a legend about DeVon. Ultimately the visit was your idea and you had to figure out where he lived. I just brought the camera.
Q: Tell us about the visit to Wampum, PA where you filmed him.
It was March, 2001, around St. Patrick’s day. I know it was the week before he took the robots to Wal-Mart. The one thing that was interesting–that I had forgotten until I looked at all the video footage again–was we arrived fairly early that morning. No one was around. It was his compound with some sheds and a trailer and the robots out in the open behind a long glass window. I shot some video and then we went to New Castle where you scored a thrift store art painting of a horse. It was beautiful. We went back, still no one.
I think we came real close to calling it a day when DeVon’s junk truck rolled up. Then that was it. DeVon was totally accommodating, willing to talk and hang out. I had that thing where there was only one battery so we went inside his place to recharge it for awhile. It was all about keeping the camera rolling. The quotes were great and he introduced us to the “family.”
“Devon Smith, Robot Man”
Q: Nowadays, Orbit readers can watch your short video on the Internet, but what was the purpose/outlet for these kinds of videos in a pre-YouTube world?
The piece was produced for my public access show Odds & Ends in Fairfax County, Virginia. Back then if you wanted people to watch you had to reel off a list of random days and times but it would be screened other times too, not that it wasn’t cool to have a show on TV. I was more into the idea of channel surfers stumbling onto things like the Robot Man.
When I moved to Portland, OR about nine years ago, I edited it again as a calling card, proof that I was a “filmmaker.” I had it at a couple of local screenings and it even won an award at the Teeny Tiny Film Fest in Estacada, Ore. When I first moved to Portland, I was in a Lance Armstrong P.S.A.(!) and a guy asked me if my stuff was online and I was like, “Ah, no.” I realized in order to network I needed to put my videos online. Robot Man was the first thing and with it being close to ten minutes long it may have been too long for YouTube at that time so it was originally posted in two parts.
Q: I understand the American Visionary Art Museum has contacted you about the short DeVon Smith video you produced. How did that connection happen and what will they be doing with the films?
I was contacted by AVAM through my YouTube channel so maybe they were doing a search. I had sent them a copy, possibly VHS, years ago. They’ve been really complimentary about the film and I’m honored because I was a big fan of the museum. I’m hoping they show it on a loop. DeVon really comes alive. All I had to do was turn the camera on. It wouldn’t have worked to have him talk to the camera so I’m glad you were there to keep him talking, which was not hard, but a lot of times you’d ask a follow up so he’d elaborate.
He was more comfortable talking to someone than at a camera. He was a great subject because he was willing to tell us his whole story. He had all kinds of time for us. Looking over all the footage, I think there some more material that could be a separate piece. I think the film was the right length and my instincts were good. I just loved the old style, 1950’s Jimmy Stewart way DeVon talked and I hope to share more of the outtakes at some point.
Q: Do you have any other lasting memories of DeVon Smith that you’d like to share with Orbit readers?
It’s still about the way he said stuff, the way he stretched out his words and his excitement, his spirit and his energy. In the movie he talks about doing stuff under the worst conditions possible and I think about that because he had his trailer and his robot family and maybe some other family around but he survived. He was a junk man and seemed to be into tinkering with stuff and getting by on very little. So he’s an inspiration.
I think you asked but we found out DeVon was a big coffee drinker, about 8 cups a day. I always have that in my mind as some kind of benchmark. Being a part of his legacy is really cool because I’m not sure how many people shot video of him and his home. That’s the thing, as folk/outsider artists go he wasn’t the most prolific or famous but he had a charm and the Robot family and that “double wedding of Robot offspring” is hilarious. I think his story would make anyone feel good.
He created something out of nothing. I think it’s important to know you can create with very little. He was working on a book, one of those crazy, handwritten autobiographies and I wonder if that ever came out. [Editor’s note: it did. Amazing Amusing Adventures of World Traveler DeVon Smith was self-published shortly before Smith’s death in 2003; we’ve never found a copy to read.] I feel like I lucked into documenting something that’s important regardless of how many people know about it but people at AVAM are the niche audience for sure. I think it goes back to your suggestion and AVAM’s interest in DeVon, which you were aware of, that sparked this whole thing.
Postscript: We hipped journalist Julie Mickens to DeVon’s story around this time and she wrote a terrific piece for Pittsburgh City Paper called “DeVon Inspiration.” That May, 2001 article is sadly not available in CP‘s online archive, but Mickens’ obituary for DeVon Smith, from June 12, 2003, is.
David Craig is a writer, filmmaker, musician, and runs our sister blog The Portland Orbit. All video still photos provided by David Craig.