More than a year before Mike was set to retire from teaching, we discussed the prospect of creating an exhibition to coincide with his retirement. We wanted to gather together students who had studied with Mike. The artists included in the show were eager to participate. Many of them have continued their careers in the arts and maintain regular communication with Mike. While at East Tennessee State University, Mike Smith taught for 36 years, beginning in 1981 and retiring in 2017.
Something Mike said to me has always stuck with me: “Life is the sum of your decisions.” In a way this show is a fitting representation of that sentiment. The images included in the following pages are but a small portion of the students Mike taught in those years. The format for this show is influenced by a previous exhibit of John Steele (former ETSU painting professor) and his students’ work. Our goal for this exhibition is to create a visual connection, contradiction, and conversation between students and their teacher.
The 34 photographs in the show are an important testament to the hard work of dedicated and sincere teachers who help develop students into artists. Mike shared a formula that has been successful for him in his own life: the ability to continually make work that looks at everyday life, in the place where one lives. Mike has always been generous with his time, and continues to encourage us to learn and apply new knowledge to our practice of photography.
This catalog would not be possible without the generous contributions from everyone sharing their work, Patrick McInerney and Travis Brown’s design and visual concept of the catalog, and for the thoughtful essays by Erin Florence, John Hathaway and Shawne Brown. Also, many thanks go to Mike Smith, for his friendship, continued mentoring, and the contribution he’s made to the university.