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At a glance
Name: Theoplis Smith III
Age: 32
Title and employer: Manager, Wal-Mart; freelance artist
Time with current employer: 8 years
Education and professional experience: Bachelor’s degree, Taylor University, 2006
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Theoplis Smith III, a 2000 South Side grad, is manager of the Southtown Wal-Mart but also a highly regarded artist.

Store manager always creating … always

A portion of the large mural that adorns the Wunderkammer Company’s gallery building on Fairfield Avenue is that of a bird grasping a coffee cup.

It is significant to note that the bird, painted with multicolored aerosols, is not just covered with feathers. On its right side it wears only a white sleeve, much like the everyday business shirt of a man dressed for success. Inside the cup is a rather large worm.

“It’s like the cliché of the early bird gets the worm,” said its creator, Theoplis Smith III. “So pretty much, it’s me painting these stories of why I do art.”

Excuse the interpretation, but the bird could represent Smith, the cup could be his art, and the worm … well, that’s what the 32-year-old local artist may still be pursuing.

A self-taught artist of various media, he is the city’s own, although his birthplace is St. Louis. But when his father moved here, Theo III became a product of Woodside Middle School, then Geyer, then South Side High School, from which he graduated in 2000 before attending Taylor University as a marketing major.

And while his father’s earlier jobs took young Theoplis and his siblings to live in Chicago and Detroit and Philadelphia, he has returned to Fort Wayne, where he has worked at Wal-Mart for eight years. Early on, he was in sales. Today, he’s the manager of the store at Southtown Crossing.

That is the job.

Checking inventory and scheduling employees and straightening up the aisles and keeping the customers satisfied pay the bills for Theoplis Smith III. It buys the food, the house. It keeps him in art supplies.

However, let’s talk about his passion, and not just his fiancée, Dawn Brooks, whom he’ll marry Aug. 30. Let’s talk about his desire – no, “desire” simply means want – his need to create. And yes, it’s a need. Whether it’s walking through the household products at Wal-Mart or rising in the morning or relaxing with his own coffee cup at Starbucks, Smith has an ongoing need to sketch, to paint, to sculpt, to imagine.

“My (Wal-Mart) breaks are dedicated to art, every day,” Smith said. On this bright morning outside a Starbucks, he wears glasses and a red St. Louis Cardinals cap. “I get a lot of people who talk about it, like, ‘What are you doing here? You’re an artist.’ They say (my work) is good; you should be out there doing great things. But with art, it’s a luxury, and with that, it’s not consistent. One day (popularity) could be up and supporting you, promoting you, and the next day it could be down. ‘Oh, that’s a nice picture,’ and that’s it. It just depends on your audience.”

That’s another thing that sets Smith apart from several artists. His work isn’t geared for one particular segment of the population, although a majority of his work deals with the black community and familiar black figures such as 1960s icons Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. But for the most part, there is no target audience.

“It’s anybody who has an ear to hear or wants to experience something different,” he said. “I’m not here just to market to black people. I’m not here to market to Caucasians. I want to be diverse in all walks of life or experiences in life and even exposures. It’s my form of communication; so with that being said, I have an obligation to target not just one specific group.”

Smith’s fiancée said he should have an obligation to his talent.

“We have this conversation all the time,” Brooks said. “That he’s got to step out of his comfort zone.” But that is his decision, she said, and she’ll wait.

Whether it’s the mural on the side of a building, a pencil sketch or an adaptation of a photo, Smith signs his work “Laundry,” which is short for his artistic alias Phresh Laundry. The name was inspired by a verse from the Psalms.

“David is talking to God, saying, ‘Create in me a clean heart and renew the right spirit within me,’ ” Smith said. “It’s like saying I want to do nothing but good, as much as I can pursue it. … And I found that in my art. That’s like me doing laundry. So when I’m hanging art up, I’m hanging laundry.”

His work is on buildings, in parks, even inside the Wunderkammer gallery, as well as outside.

He guesses he has between 200 and 300 pieces that could be sold if he emptied out his studio.

But for now, Theoplis Smith is simply content to fulfill the need to create.

“Sometimes wisdom is more prevalent than gold,” he said. “Something in life will help me go a lot further than money. Even though money helps us a great deal, it doesn’t shape your character.”