Text by Mandi Keighran
As a child on America’s Pacific Northwest Coast in the 1920s and ’30s, counterculture artist Harry Everett Smith, had several rather strange hobbies. His mother worked on Native American reservations, and here Smith developed an interest in anthropology, Native American dialects, alchemy and the occult.
As an adult, he cultivated his interest in the obscure, and while he was best known as an avant-garde film-maker and artist, he was also an avid collector. He was part of the Beat culture of San Francisco, and then moved to New York, where he lived in – and was kicked out of – various Bohemian and vagrant hotels, where the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith were neighbours.
As a collector, he collected records before it was hip (and from his epic collection created the Anthology of American Folk Music, which is said to have initiated the folk music revival and influenced artists like Bob Dylan), alongside myriad bizarre and seemingly unrelated objects – including primitive string figures, Ukrainian Easter eggs, beggars’ signs, and tarot cards. And from around 1961 to 1983, he picked up paper airplanes from the streets of New York.
“There’s nobody quite like Harry Smith,” says Andrew Lampert, curator at New York’s Anthology Film Archives and, together with his colleague John Klacsmann, the co-editor of Paper Airplanes, a new book documenting Smith’s 251 surviving paper airplanes.
“He was a little wizard-like, weird character who drank a lot, and had almost an unhinged personality,” says Lampert. “Many of his collections reside at the Anthology Film Archives, and it’s our job to preserve these objects and continue to make them accessible.”
Smith collected hundreds of paper planes, carefully annotating each with the street, cross street and time at which he found them to create an odd record of New York at a particular point in time.
Looking back at the collection, the paper from which the planes are constructed – receipts for hardware and a mink coat, psychedelic gig flyers, an Empire State Building information pamphlet, the doodles of businessmen – offers glimmers of insight into the lives of New Yorkers over at least 22 years. For Smith, who rarely travelled, the interest lay not in aviation, but in the evolving styles of folding, and how the planes changed year-to-year.
“I like the planes that have evidence of having been ignored by everyone else except for Harry – the ones with tyre marks and the footprints of busy New Yorkers,” says Lampert. “I love how trampled they are.”
In 1984, Smith sent boxes containing his paper airplane collection – it’s unclear how many, but one friend estimated “more than two and less than 50” – to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which went into storage. In 1994, however, three years after Smith’s death, the Museum sent just one box containing 251 planes to the Anthology Film Archives. Today, the location of the lost boxes remains a mystery.
“The idea that this book is a catalogue – a complete record of an artist’s work – is very tongue-in-cheek,” says Lampert. “Harry Smith is shrouded in mystery. He lost all his belongings and work so many times that the idea that there could be a complete anything of Harry Smith is laughable.”
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