Flying Dreams > Sex

by Gareth Tobago

Harry Everett Smith and the Tale of the Abandoned Paper Airplanes
Incomparable American polymath Harry Everett Smith was born in Portland, OR in 1923, schooled in Bellingham in the 30s, and died in the Chelsea Hotel in 1991, period. Yet infinity lies between. Though raised in a, (according to Smith), “low house” with a knack for the arts—folk music, for one—Smith went on to electrify radical American cultures: the Beat Generation, the Hippie movement, and everything mind-alteringly in-between. Smith’s violent dialectic between creator and archivist defines the challenge to understanding him completely. Case in point: besides inveterately collecting artifacts over the course of decades—string figures, Seminole textiles, Ukrainian Easter eggs—the Ginsberg-insolent, Beat-inspiring, folk-archiving, rent-skipping, debt-accruing polymath pioneered abstract film techniques, a feat itself worthy of long-lasting legacy. Smith left behind innumerable hand-drawn celluloid animations, many lost, others traded, some destroyed by the artist himself.

Over a 20-year period, besides his other obsessions, Smith collected at least 251 paper airplanes, discarded throughout the grease and grime of New York City streets. In honor of the iconoclastic visionary, J&L Books has released Paper Airplanes (Volume 1), an impressive archive of Smith’s found airborne specimens. Preservationists and editors John Klacsmann and Andrew Lampert join us to discuss the luminary Harry Everett Smith.

What do you think are the elements that go in to making a person a “collector”? 

Collectors see something special, derive certain pleasure from or simply identify with the objects that they gather. This is true whether we are talking about records, books, or in Smith’s case paper airplanes, string figures, and Ukrainian Easter eggs. Many collectors are completists, and their activities include a lot of scouring, research, and cross-referencing. It’s a bit more complex than just being a hunter or gatherer. For them, the pursuit is as meaningful as actual possession.

Having spent so much time with Smith’s work, what question(s) would you ask him if he were here now?

There are tons of things we could ask Harry if given the opportunity—how did he make his masterpiece, Film No. 12 (Heaven And Earth Magic), or what techniques did he employ when making his hand-painted Film Nos. 1-3, and lots of other questions about the influence of the cornucopia of drugs he imbibed—but mostly we would just listen. He had a lot to say without being asked a thing, and we probably wouldn’t be able to get a straight answer out of him anyway. He gave notoriously off-point answers.

Tell us, do you spend time wondering about time, and its inherent ability to transform?

If anything, time erodes, which is a kind of transformation. When it comes to celluloid film or videotape, the passing of time means increased problems with playback and access to older works produced on out-dated (or out-moded) formats. Film shrinks, becomes brittle, splices can come undone, color has a tendency to fade, scratches or other damage can render a film un-viewable, or at least irreparably damaged. Video is even worse because it can be erased, chewed up by a malfunctioning deck or subjected to scores of other issues. We don’t particularly wonder about time as much as combat it by taking steps to preserve works that will be permanently lost if action is not taken in the here and now.

How did Smith go about incorporating the usage of illicit drugs into his art? Any lore that didn’t make it into the final edit?

Asked to identify himself in interview, Smith once stated that “I’m not only a filmmaker, I’m also an alcoholic.” In another instance he compiled a list of the drugs that he was on while making each of his films, and these included pot, cocaine, “ups,” “green pills from Max Jacobson, pink pills from Tim Leary,” vodka, Italian Swiss white port, and “schmeck.”

His films are otherworldly and dip deep into subconscious levels that would likely not have been reached without the use of drugs. Still, that doesn’t mean one has to do drugs to appreciate them. In a way the films are more or less like drugs. One gets a contact high watching them.