Kansas City artist and surface designer Tammy Smith likes to turn common images into “uncommon art for unconventional minds.”

Drawing inspiration from celebrated figures-from people like Frida Kahlo, to major cities and landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge-Smith usually starts with wire sculpture to repurpose these icons into her free-hand style originals.


After working as a commercial artist for companies like Hallmark, Smith has created a successful freelance career out of her own line, selling her designs on an assortment of canvases, from prints and posters to household items like tea towels and pillows. She even gives customers the opportunity to add their own touch to her illustrations with stitch kits.

She recently took time out of her busy schedule of gallery shows and finishing up the most recent addition to her City Series, a Kansas City tablecloth, to talk about her inspiration, her process and the place she calls home.

Can you discuss what led you on the path to becoming an artist? What especially got you into the surface design medium?

My dad taught me how to draw and ever since I was little I was sketching. I’d usually draw house plans and animals! I got into the surface design medium when I met a woman named Cheryl Phelps who taught surface design classes at the Art Institute. She was a Hallmark artist at the time. I was hooked once I started her classes, and Cheryl and I are friends to this day.

In what ways is Kansas City a good place to be an artist?

KC is a good place to be an artist because we have a huge group of diverse and talented visual and performing artists here. Plus it’s also pretty inexpensive to live here. I think KC is welcoming to new artists and very supportive.

Does it offer any unique kind of inspiration, or have any artist community that outsiders may not be aware of?

I’ve heard people describe KC as somewhat “sleepy” when compared to larger cities like San Francisco, New York, or Chicago. I agree in that we’re not as large a metropolitan area as those other cities so our population is smaller. However I just got back from Chicago and, after sitting in traffic for hours at any time of the day, I prefer the size of KC. That brings with it a unique kind of inspiration because it’s still somewhat undiscovered. I like that quality because in some ways it’s still got that small town feel.


As for artist communities that outsiders aren’t aware of, if I told you about them I’d have to kill you…so, no there aren’t any. Ok, for real I’ll tell you about one that I really like and that’s Dr. Sketchy’s. It’s not just local but a worldwide thing where artists get together for life drawing sessions in a place that combines music, food, and drink in combination with models that are burlesque dancers, aerialists, etc. I really like the vibe there.

In moving from being a commercial artist to a freelance one, has your experience as the former helped you at all as the latter?

Oh definitely. I rely on my past experience as a “corporate artist” all the time, especially since I was an art director also. It helps to be your own A.D. when you work alone!

I thought it was really interesting that on your website you mention that you like to start out sketching in wire, because it keeps things from “looking too perfect.” How can perfection be a disadvantage in an artistic creation?

Well, with the advent of the computer it’s just way too easy to start and finish an entire design there. Personally I think my designs turn out better when I start by sketching in wire or do really rough sketches in pencil.


You also note on your site that you illustrate subjects that “inspire or mean something to you, not just what you think will sell.” Is there any particular element of a subject that tends to inspire you?

Yes, structure inspires me, whether it be the structure of a building, a bridge, or a person’s face. Also, the people I chose to illustrate are people that have done unusual things in their lives and some of them were even infamous for doing those things. Like Marie Antoinette-but somehow she managed to survive as an icon throughout history. She didn’t care what others thought about her, which is also true of the other people in my illustrations like Puccini, Mata Hari, or Josephine Baker.  tammypostcard

Have you noticed anything positive about the reaction of your customers since you’ve decided to take the above approach to your work? (In other words, do the topics that inspire you still manage to sell well anyway?)

Yeah, it’s funny once you sort of put your stake in the ground and decide not to just do what appeals to the mass market consumer, then those like-minded people find you and your product speaks to them. It’s really a great feeling.

How has the reaction been to your latest City Series?

I’m overwhelmed by the positive reaction to the city series, so much so that I also decided to add Chicago and St. Louis, since I have shows I’m doing there. I was gratified to see that Chicago people responded well to my series there too.

Anything I forgot to cover that you’d like to add? Any gallery shows coming up, or new pieces to look out for in the near future?

Thanks for asking! As for new product, I’ll be debuting my KC tablecloth at my October shows and I’m really excited about that! I’ll have two versions: a turquoise and grey silkscreened limited edition one and a full color one that matches my tea towels, prints, and cards.

I have a whole slew of shows coming up before Christmas. Here’s a list with dates:

Oct. 3-First Fridays at the Bauer Event Space, 18th and Wyandotte KC

Oct. 10-Hobbs Open Studios KC

Nov. 1-Crafts & Drafts KC

Nov. 13-16 Chick Events Holiday Show at Town Center Plaza Leawood, KS

Nov. 22-The Artist Is IN Program at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Dec. 5-6 Holiday Swing in the West Bottoms KC

For products and more information, visit https://tammysmithdesign.com


2 thoughts on “Turning Famous Icons into Original Illustrations: An Interview with Artist Tammy Smith

  1. This beautiful artist, Tammy Smith has all of the world’s philosophy in her work, in her dream and in her pores. Wherever she lands she will take hear big time talent with her. Beautiful art, beautiful sentiments. Thank you for sharing. I agree K C looks good to me for many all American reasons.


  2. Great article about an amazing “home grown” talent! Tammy Smith has a unique way of looking at things while making her art so appealing to everyone.


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