Q&A with Phresh Laundry: The self-taught artist shaking up Fort Wayne's art scene

Theoplis Smith III, also known as Phresh Laundry, is making a mark on the art world, one paint stroke at a time. But while his moniker is well-known in Fort Wayne, and he's sold paintings to celebrities like Spike Lee, Smith describes himself as a “quiet” guy.

He recalls his first foray into art as a way of expressing himself as a child, and to this day, while he's reluctant to define himself as an artist-activist, he uses his work to speak his truth about society and the struggles he wrestles with.

Upon talking with Smith, you'll quickly learn that the concept of identity is a key theme in his life and work, prodding his art to explore questions, like: What does it mean to be black in America?

Over the years, he has taken on multiple identities as a father, a son, a husband, a banker, and an artist. But through it all, his art has grounded him and even saved his life, helping him find his niche in his many roles and experience a sense of freedom along the journey.

This month, Smith is taking the stage to discuss “identity” at CreativeMornings Fort Wayne's breakfast lecture series on Friday, March 13, at a nondescript laundromat in town. As a preview to his talk, Input Fort Wayne sat down with Smith to learn more about the legacy he’s building as a rising artist in the Midwest and the passion that fuels his work.

IFW: You’ve enjoyed what some consider a non-traditional foray into the art world. Tell us about how you’ve arrived artistically.
TS: I didn't go to art school; my talent is literally a gift from God. It’s a way for me to express myself, as I'm really a quiet person. I first stepped into art when my parents gave me permission and validation to create, saying, “Hey, go have fun.” I would sketch every day after school. My classmates and teachers loved my work, which gave me the confidence, self-esteem, and stamina to do what I'm doing today. So when it comes to my art, experience is my teacher.

I went to South Side High School and then on to Taylor University Fort Wayne for business. After graduation, I wanted to pursue a career in business or sales. I currently work as a banker, but I have since been able to marry the two disciplines—business and art—since I officially entered the art scene around 2011-2012.

A lot of people don’t realize how much goes on behind the scenes in art, all that’s involved with marketing yourself and public relations.

IFW: You go by the name "Phresh Laundry" in the art world. What’s the origin of that moniker?

TS: It started with a load of dirty clothes, if you will. I literally found myself sobbing over a basket of clothes. Mentally, I was at the point of going to do something dangerous or commit suicide. The only time I felt this relief or a sense of self-worth was in talking to people, praying, or painting. Art was how I found relief. I would literally go to work and then come home and crank out three to five paintings per night because I wanted to feel free.

My paintings were a tangible representation of that struggle. And so I literally found a revelation in a load of dirty clothes. That's how I became Phresh Laundry. So anytime that I'm doing artwork, and I'm hanging my art, I classify that as my laundry.

So Phresh is spelled with a “Ph,” because I wanted to communicate that I'm different. My journey is different. 

IFW: As someone who's working-fulltime and raising two kids with your wife, how do you manage that ever-elusive balance between work and life?

TS: I drop my daughter off at my mom’s, and then I go to work. Then on my lunch breaks, I paint and will get as much done as I can in an hour. Then I go back to work, come home, cook dinner for my family, break bread, put my kids to bed. Then I'm painting some more, and then on the weekends, I get done as much as I can.

IFW: How have you evolved as an artist over the years?

TS: At first, I wanted to make cool art for the sake of it. Showing your art makes you very vulnerable. As I have amassed a community of supporters over the years, it’s evolved to where I’m more comfortable showing my work. It’s relational now in that people are waiting to see what I'm going to do next—what kind of topic I'm going to dive into. 

Of course, being African-American, I think some people will say, “Okay, what’s the black guy going to say about this issue?” But the reality is I’m the person who wants what’s right for everybody. And of course, with that, you have to see what everybody is doing as well. 

At times, I could be seen as an activist, but it's based on the subject at hand. If I'm saying something with my artwork that means I'm really passionate, or it struck a nerve with either myself or someone else that I'm close to. For example, take the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick taking a knee and H&M’s racist hoodie scandal. Those are some of the stories that went viral, and I’m making a social statement on them with my art. So, this shows you the power of art and what it can do.

IFW: I understand you sold a painting to the famed director Spike Lee. How did that come about?

TS: Organically. I really do believe if you're working with your head down and you're doing a decent job, people will find you. His team found my work online, and the rest is history. Thankfully, I still have that bridge today. It was not a one-time thing where you just sell a painting, but a relationship stemmed from it as well.

IFW: Who or what inspires you?

TS: My family, my wife, my mom and my dad, my friends—people who are doing the right things and trying to have a positive outlook on life. Of course, everybody's art doesn't reflect that, but that’s what gets me going in life. Like, honestly, life happens. Whatever I come across, I feel like it’s adding to the multiple existing layers that make up a life.

IFW: The theme for March’s CreativeMornings is “identity.” What does that word mean to you and what can people expect from your talk?

TS: Identity means everything to me. I did not know my identity, at first. I found it by making art and in my persona as Phresh Laundry. To me, identity is finding your rhythm to be the best version of you in life.

I live in a community among the community, and I love working in the community. I'm expecting that you come in with a challenge at hand. You can come in expecting that you want to leave in charge to do something in your city, in your homes, among your families, or just engage in your own self-reflections. So my goal is to make sure that people are coming to catch fire. 

IFW: What do you think of the current state of the local art community?

TS: First off, I think there is a thriving arts community here. For example, within the past five years, we've been seeing positive trends happening, whether it be like, you know, crosswalk installation, more murals in the city and stuff like that. In other words, we have more programs that are tangible. 

What we need more of, is more people that are exposed to it. I think we need more people who are spearheading and going out to communities to be engaging. I think right now we're basically saying, “Okay, we're over here. This is where the art scene is. Come here.” 

But why can't we go into the community and other places and engage? Because for me, I’ve found there is a treasure in going into communities where art isn’t as accepted and changing the atmosphere of those places—changing the blueprint of what you can do. 

Then there are some people who root for one artist over another, and it’s perceived as a conflict of interest if you work with another one. But the reality is that we’re all here in this space to create good stuff. 

Hear Smith speak about 'identity' at CreativeMornings Fort Wayne
8:30-10 a.m. Friday, March 13
The unidentified laundromat next to TaxShield Service at 3811 Calhoun St. in Fort Wayne 

CreativeMornings Fort Wayne is a free, monthly breakfast lecture series for anyone who calls themselves "creative." Topics and locations and vary each month. Tickets are free, but must be reserved online.
The link to RSVP will go live on CreativeMornings Fort Wayne's Facebook page at 9 a.m. ET on Monday, March 9.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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