‘Music forever’ – Though loaded with responsibilities, Jesse Smith always comes back to music

Teacher by day, musician/artist by night, Jesse Smith picks at his custom steel guitar from his Austin Home. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Teacher by day, musician/artist by night, Jesse Smith picks at his custom steel guitar from his Austin Home. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Editor’s note: This is the final piece in a four-part series on Austin artists. This series celebrates artists who do their art as a passion rather than a career. Versions of these stories appear in the July/August addition of Austin Living magazine.

Jesse Smith loves mornings.

He loves the days when he can wake up early in his Fourth Street Northwest home when his family is still sleeping to play guitar.

Musician/artist Jesse Smith in his home. Aside from making music and art, Smith is also an art teacher at I.J. Holton Intermediate School. Eric Johnson/Austin Living

Musician/artist Jesse Smith in his home. Aside from making music and art, Smith is also an art teacher at I.J. Holton Intermediate School. Eric Johnson/Austin Living

“That’s one of my favorite things to do,” he said.

For Jesse, life is busy. He’s an Ellis Middle School art teacher, and he jokes he’s the chief cook at home for his wife, Laurie, and sons, Isaiah and Henry. But he still makes time for one of his first loves: music.

“It’s exhausting sometimes,” Jesse said, “but I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 Jesse is an active singer/guitarist around Austin, playing several shows on Saturday mornings at the Coffee House on Main or for a string of bands, most recently Cosmic.

It started at 16, when Jesse’s dad bought him a guitar and he started two years of lessons.

“Before that I skateboarded, which I really loved too, but guitar — it took over,” he said.

At the time, Jesse was into The Beatles, The Byrds, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors and Van Morrison, but he also started getting into more blues-themed music like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton.

About four months into guitar lessons, Jesse started performing.

“I felt like guitar came pretty easy to me as opposed to everything else, which seemed harder,” he said.

Jesse recorded with the band Fat Rudy, and then he went into carpentry and worked as a framer in Colorado.

Soon after moving back to Austin, he walked off the job one day — a move he calls the best decision he ever made.

“I knew that I wanted to play music forever, whether it be just as a hobby or professionally — if it happened, it happened — but I didn’t want to jeopardize freezing my fingers,” he said.

 Show, don’t tell

A pottery jug rests on a book self, a product of Jesse Smith who is an artist/musician and art teacher at I.J. Holton Intermediate School. Eric Johnson/Austin Living

A pottery jug rests on a book self, a product of Jesse Smith who is an artist/musician and art teacher at I.J. Holton Intermediate School. Eric Johnson/Austin Living

Jesse went back to school to become a teacher. With tattoos peaking out from his collar and sleeves, Smith isn’t the traditional image of a teacher. But he’s passionate about his students, and he loves seeing students who are proud of their work and can display some of the skills he’s helped teach them.

Once he decided to go into teaching, Smith became more active in art. He remembers some college teachers who relied on a large vocabulary, jargon and lectures — which is not the way he prefers to paint.

“Sure it sounds good, but show me how to paint,” Smith said.

That’s why many of Smith’s lessons are based around action. At Ellis, Jesse prefers a hands-on approach, often demonstrating art to his students. To Smith, art and music, centers on taking risks, and it’s important for him to show students that he’s working with them too.

“They respect somebody if the person is trying to take risks along with them, I think,” Jesse said. “You’re not just telling them to do something and then showing them that you’re not willing to try and stumble too.”

Smith enjoys Sheperd Fairy, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Chuck Close, Wassily Kandinsky, Georgia O’Keeffe and many other artists. He is quick to break into conversations about art, as he talks about Banksy, the popular street/graffiti artist. Some have criticized him for using stencils in his work, but Smith doesn’t agree with the criticisms.

“The effect is still just as strong to the everyday viewer,” he said.

Most students, Smith argued, are able to understand Banksy’s work more than they are that of some of the deeper, more complex avant garde images.

“I like that Banksy says things with his art,” Smith said. “I think that that’s what I’m the most drawn to now, is like, OK great, you can paint a great picture, but what have you got to say?”

He wants to inspire his students to think about the messages in their art, and he hopes it will teach them to question their opinions and world views.

“I think sometimes teaching them to question things is really important,” Smith said. “You know, why am I here? What am here for? What matters to me?”

 A dedication to his craft

While Jesse doesn’t always talk about his music with his students, he’ll tell them if he played a show over the weekend, and he typically keeps a guitar or two at school and will play in the mornings.

Smith shows no signs of slowing down with him music. He talked of setting up some times where people can come together to perform casual music, as he loves getting together to play or interact with other creative-minded people.

“To me, finding people that are creative and being with people are creative, I don’t know, it’s like breathing,” Smith said. “It’s really refreshing and nice to be around people who want to share that energy and be a part of the creative process.”

And as always, Smith said he’ll be dedicated to practicing and trying to get better.

Jesse recently played with two new musician: His sons. Isaiah plays bass and Henry plays wash board.

“For me that’s been really cool,” Jesse said.

Isaiah plays with his dad at the Coffee House on Main on Saturday mornings, but Henry is still a bit too shy to play in public. Still, Jesse says just playing with them at home has been a blast.

“Being able to play with them is huge; it’s fun to see how good they get so fast,” Jesse said.

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