Caricature artists are usually found along boardwalks, places like Atlantic City and Myrtle Beach. But most Saturdays in Wilmington, you can find Bill Smith at the Cotton Exchange. The 77-year-old caricature artist grew up in Long Island, New York. He worked as a sign painter for more than 50 years until computers put him out of business.
Smith believes sketching the good side of people is more important than making fun of them.
When the hand-painted sign business took a nose dive, Bill Smith taught himself to draw caricatures. He says the hardest part of the learning curve wasn’t the actual drawing. It was figuring people out.
“Everybody goes through this; they see people every day of the week. But what they don’t do is really see them. They see the face, but they don’t really see the person.”
Smith sits quietly at a table scattered with paper, pencils and rubber bands. Leaning over a clipboard, he sketches furiously on a white page. Sometimes he wears his glasses, and sometimes they remain on top of his head, nestled in his white hair.
“Caricatures is my thing because, if I draw you perfectly, my camera can do that. So, the camera can’t do what I do.”
Smith explains a caricature like this: it’s just an essence of a person. And if you can’t tell who it is, then he didn’t do it right.
“They usually ask me, ‘Do you want me to pose?’ Well I ask them, what do you want to look like? ‘Well, this that and the other thing.’ Sometimes they come to me and tell me what they want. Make me 10 years younger, make me 30 pounds lighter, and you can tell it’s something that bothers them.”
Smith says he doesn’t want to be the best caricature artist in the world, but he’d like to be the fastest. He can clock in a caricature in two minutes. Smith spends most Saturdays in the Cotton Exchange, but he’s often hired for events like weddings, company parties, and fund raisers. He says people have more in common than they’d like to think.
“I’ve learned a lot about people. A lot of people are lonely. They won’t be the ones to connect to me. I’ll have to speak first. And, they light up, because somebody is paying attention to them. Oh, I might see four-five older women coming down the hall in the Cotton Exchange and I might say, ‘How are you girls today? What is this, a beauty contest?’”
Smith draws many marines and their families who travel down to Wilmington from Jacksonville on the weekends.
“I don’t even charge them because they’ve already paid, they’ve been to Afghanistan, they’ve been to Iraq and places like that, and I just draw their kids and a lot of those kids need to smile.”
He sometimes works in assisted living homes, drawing people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and unable to keep hold of memories.
“But they looked at the picture and something in their mind says, “That looks familiar to me, or that looks maybe like I did a while ago.”
Caricatures usually poke fun at physical features, but this has never been Smith’s aim. As a kid, he received a toxic immunization that paralyzed the muscles in his right eye.
“I took a lot of abuse from the kids at school so they would laugh at me or something like that, and because I’ve been through it, I know what it’s like and I don’t do that to people. You take up on people’s great points, whatever they are, you know? Because they have something inside of them that they need to share with other people.”
Smith makes a decent living drawing caricatures, but says he definitely doesn’t do it for the money.
“I enjoy working with people, and I try to give them something that’s truly affordable and I try to take it home and put it on the wall. I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing. And as long as I’m able, that’s good with me.”