Retired AHS art teacher among a new artists group in Kent

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FROM STAFF REPORTS

Kent -- The uniqueness of John Smolko's art is undeniable. Just ask his colleagues in the Colored Pencil Society of America.

Smolko, who is one of 10 working artists who have joined the Group Ten Gallery in downtown Kent and is a retired Aurora High School art teacher, grew up east of Cleveland in a family of six children.

His older brother, Dave, was a good artist and as a child Smolko tried to copy his drawings. He copied comic book art and holy pictures he was exposed to at church. By the time he was in third grade, he was considered the class artist.

He remembers helping his teachers with their bulletin boards. He majored in studio art at Cuyahoga Community College and transferred to Kent State University after completion of his associate of art degree.

The portfolio he submitted for admittance into the School of Art at KSU was not initially accepted due to the wide variety of art it contained. The panel found it unusual that someone could produce such high quality in so wide a variety. Alhough he was put on probation, he was accepted into the school.

Following graduation, Smolko began teaching art at the middle school in Tallmadge. Then he was offered a position teaching art at Tallmadge High School, and he found teaching at that level offered him the opportunity to help students with portfolios and other things to prepare them for art schools in college.

Smolko resigned from his job to return to KSU to work toward his master of fine arts degree. He then taught as as a graduate assistant and was a visiting assistant professor for three years at KSU.

AFTER EARNING his MFA, Smolko went to work teaching art at AHS. He retired five years ago filled with fond memories of his many years working with talented art students there. During his final year teaching, his students received nearly $700,000 in art scholarships.

"I had 18 advanced placement kids and colleges were fighting to get them," he said. "The highest score in advanced placement was a 5, and 5 was our average grade.

"I was sort of a nuts and bolts teacher. I knew what the kids needed to get where they wanted to go, and I knew the information that I wish I had when I was their age. It was tough to retire, but I had plans for other things I wanted to do."

Smolko is practicing what he preached to his students during 35 years of teaching.

"You have to look for the shape, for shadows and highlights and middle tones of the face. The more shapes you find, the more you can break it up and the more success you have when choosing your colors and doing your rendering from light to dark," he said.

Smolko is proficient in a cross hatch style, linearly blended lines done in pen and ink or colored pencil. He took samples of his work to a critique and Tom Lehnert, another co-op partner of Group Ten Gallery, suggested he start scribbling.

"Scribbling is the most honest line you could make. It's your signature," Lehnert told him.

"It was gut-wrenching to start scribbling, but I loved it," Smolko said. "It's gotten a little wilder now at this stage and it keeps getting looser and looser."

His work begins with line drawing for several days. "The rest of it is just icing on the cake because blocking in the color is just so enjoyable and fun," he said, adding he finds some of his models around his neighborhood. He looks for facial character and strong features.

He has used a neighbor, a tree trimmer and even a man who walks in his neighborhood when visiting his mother. He chooses the lighting, takes photos and selects poses. He usually does a series with the same model in different poses.

SMOLKO IS A signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America.

"It has been a shot in the arm for me as far as getting some clientele and helping to get my work out," he said. "There's all this colored pencil work, mostly super realism and then there's me - and I kind of like that.

"I must have done 30 workshops with society members all over the country. They do some beautiful stuff in my workshops , no two people scribble alike, and then they go back to what they were doing before.

"During a three-day workshop, I told them come on in, the water's fine, you guys will have fun with this. Then later on I told them I just was informed by my wife that the piece I have in a show in New Mexico just won an award, so you know all that stuff I told you before - forget it.

"So I have this market. I'm getting a lot of recognition and a lot of exposure, but art is for everybody. I don't like to see art as a competition. There is a uniqueness to art and you want to celebrate that."

Smolko's scribbling style keeps changing. "You don't want to get successful at something and then just keep regurgitating it," he said.

Smolko said he is honored to be one of the featured artists at GroupTen Gallery. "These are all prolific, working artists and the art is high quality and so diverse; there is something for everyone," he explained.

"These artists are working every day and yet they find the time to roll up their sleeves and pitch right in at the gallery."

Smolko resides in Kent with his wife Gigi. They are the parents of two grown sons.

For details about Smolko, including a list of his exhibits and awards, visit www.grouptengallery.com. The gallery's hours are noon to 5 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. The phone number is 330-678-7890.

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