Art and a dose of adventure

Ozaukee Press staff

Mark Smith has enjoyed art since he was a child, but now his hobby has a new purpose.

After contracting esophageal cancer and having surgery on his throat and back, Smith has a newfound appreciation for his pastime.

“It’s my therapy big time,” Smith said.

The 1976 Port Washington High School graduate who lives in Saukville specializes in colored pencil drawings. Inspiration comes from trips out West with his partner, Debra Piechowski.

Many of Smith’s drawings are based on photos, especially Native Americans from the 1800s. He was always fascinated by their customs and culture.

“I bring these people back to life,” he said.

Smith’s life was in question in the past 18 months. His throat was removed during a cancer operation. Recuperation has been painful, but Smith’s passion to draw burns like an eternal flame. He wants to travel as often as he can and create as many pieces as possible.

“I’m fortunate to be alive. That’s how I look at it,” Smith said.

He and Piechowski don’t take ordinary trips to landmarks and other tourist destinations. The couple have a truck that pulls a 31-foot Jayco White Hawk Travel Trailer to places off the grid amid scenery right out of National Geographic.

“I believe I was an explorer in another lifetime,” Smith said, mentioning Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and the movie “The Revenant.”

The pair have climbed two waterfalls, watched baby moose feeding in the mountains, elk standing above them and an antelope running by them at full speed.

The noise from the waterfalls in Glacier National Park in Montana “just shook the ground,” he said.

They’ve seen bears at a distance, but it’s one that Piechowski could only hear that scared her in the Hungry Horse Reservoir in Montana. One of the few times she didn’t have her gun, Piechowski was slowly walking on a sprained ankle when she heard a bear grunting at her from a nearby woods. She slowly backed away, and the animal didn’t attack. They later saw bear tracks nearby.

While Piechowski avoided her demise, Smith said he would prefer a bear attack instead of a senior home.

“I would take a bear over assisted living. That’s just how I am,” he said. 

Other dangers have come in the form of sandstorms, winds of more than 60 mph and an ice storm that jacknifed the trailer three times.

Some of the people they meet on trips keep Smith motivated. Many have cancer survival stories not unlike his own.

Smith works on his art between adventures. He unfolds his hobby table in the trailer and works on his drawings under LED lighting. TV or music provide background noise. His tastes in tunes includes Anita Baker, Seether, Black Sabbath, Ozzie Osbourne, Petula Clark and Broadway songs.

“It puts me in a better mood, even when I’m hurtin’,” he said.

Due to his operations, Smith can only sit for so long before he has to move. His trips take a toll on his body, but a pain pill at the end of the day helps.

“If I can sit in my chair long enough and create something, I’m happy,” he said.

Once a piece is completed, “We set it out for a day in our living room just to look at it,” Smith said.

He is his own toughest critic.

“Every time I come back to it, I’m correcting flaws. I’m a perfectionist,” he said.

Smith has no formal training but a passion for art that burns like an eternal flame with his new lease on life.

It’s a blessing his sister didn’t receive. Wendy Smith was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1985 in Port Washington.

“It was super hard,” Smith said of dealing with it.

He coped by lifting weights and became ripped. His recent surgeries caused him to lose 31 pounds and his buff physique.

Now, one of his dreams is to have his art in the Crazy Horse Memorial Gift Shop in South Dakota.

“I don’t care if they hang it their bathroom,” he said.

His work has come in handy more than once. The couple has used pieces to bribe camp hosts for better campsites, and Smith gave one to someone who gave him a ride to a hardware store and helped him buy tools to help dislodge his truck from a pole he backed over.

Smith draws from photos he takes during trips or from pictures  he sees in books. He is working on a picture of a train using a book from the South Dakota State Railroad Museum in Hill City, S.D.

He chooses colored pencils as his medium because there’s no cleanup. A fine-point Sharpie is used for highlights. 

Art runs in his family. His father Rodney was an amateur oil painter who did scenes of downtown Port, and his uncle Burt was an illustrator at the Milwaukee Journal for 30 years.

Smith credits Port High art teacher Frank Braun and graphic design teacher Joan Hoard for inspiring him as a teen.

He began doing custom T-shirts and was going to buy a silk-screening business in Port, but bought a house and had three children instead.

He has held 24 jobs throughout his life. After working at the Amcast foundry for years, he took advantage of a government program that funded going back to school. He attended Milwaukee Area Technical College, which led to jobs in facility maintenance at Harbor Campus in Port and work in heating, air conditioning and refrigeration for private homeowners.

As an artist, Smith has created a collection of drawings and is looking for a website to sell them.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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