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Coachella Valley artist collaborates with COD on new campus art installation

Internationally renowned contemporary artist Phillip K. Smith III grew up in the Coachella Valley, absorbing the desert’s lessons in light, space, shadow and form, eventually transforming them into celebrated large-scale, site-specific installations.

Smith graduated from Palm Valley High School and attended College of the Desert (COD) before ultimately graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. He returned to the area and now works out of a warehouse studio in Palm Desert. His deep roots in the community, both artistically and personally, sparked COD to tap Smith to create a signature installation on its main Palm Desert campus in honor of the college’s 60th anniversary.

“With this commission, it’s a real honor to think about bringing to the artwork’s concept, the sense of impact, hope and transformation that happens on this campus, and all the COD campuses, to mark not only the history of the past 60 years, but also to look forward to the next 60,” Smith said during COD’s State of the College on Jan. 24.

Smith and his desert-inspired artwork first drew international attention with Lucid Stead, which he launched in Joshua Tree in 2013. The site-specific installation transformed an old homestead shack with the addition of mirrors and shifting colored light. The effect during the day was a cabin that seemed to melt into the surrounding landscape of endless desert and sky, while at night, an otherworldly glow emanated from candy-colored LED lights in the shack’s windows and doors.

Smith began to explore this play of light and shadow at COD, which he attended to refine his portfolio for architectural and art school applications.

“At that point, my portfolio was not up to snuff,” Smith said. “I needed life drawing and more drawing in order to build out the substance of my portfolio. I was able to do that by taking classes at COD.”

With a more robust portfolio that included work created during his time at COD, Smith was accepted to his number one school, Rhode Island School of Design. During his time there he was a five-time winner of a La Quinta Arts Foundation Visual Arts scholarship. Smith graduated from RISD with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1995 and architecture in 1996 and has gone on to artistic acclaim, yet his time at COD has stuck with him.

“What’s also amazing about that is that I’m still in touch with those teachers, David Einstein and Jack Flanagan that helped me understand light and shadow, so many of those elements that are so important in my own work,” he said. “Those gentlemen are still mentors to me today.”

Smith’s steady rise in the art world — his work is often compared to that of James Turrell or Robert Irwin, noted artists from the Light and Space movement in California that emerged in the 60s and 70s — includes being named artist in residence at the Palm Springs Art Museum and artist in residence at Dartmouth College, which has hosted such luminaries as Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Donald Judd.

Speaking about a desire to connect COD and Smith’s 60th anniversary installation to the region’s larger art scene, COD Superintendent/President Joel L. Kinnamon, Ed.D., said, “We hope this installation can become part of a future biennial Desert X event as a parallel program on our campus, adding another chapter to the COD story.”

Smith understands the importance of connecting his art to both the community and the land. “I look forward to working with the art students and leaders at the college to craft this icon that will represent College of the Desert within the community,” he said. The artist also acknowledged the place the college has in the community. “Growing up here in the desert, I’ve always been aware of the impact of College of the Desert,” Smith said.

Artists like Smith and the muralist Ryan Campbell who found inspiration and direction at COD are emblematic of the college’s vision to be a center for collaboration and innovation. Both have gone on to be shown internationally and Smith’s work will be a permanent beacon to incoming students.

When Smith’s 60th anniversary installation at COD is complete, a new generation of students and community members can experience his immersive style of art that asks the viewer to question their perception and place, using seemingly simple elements like light and shadow to reflect something that might not otherwise be seen.