To Austin College Art Professor Mark Smith, art appreciation is all about empathy and asking questions. He said that good art makes people wonder what the artist was thinking, about the artist’s background and what the artist has gone through in his or her life.

As a painter and professional artist, Smith has had pieces featured in art galleries nationally and internationally. Most recently, two of Smith’s works were on display at the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas. The “Celebration of Color” exhibit closes Wednesday.

“Color is a metaphor for optimism,” Smith said. “We need optimism in the world right now so it is also the exhibit has good timing. It has an underlying message about what we need right now in the world.”

This is the first time Smith’s work has been at the Bath House. Susan Lecky who gathered the art for the Bath House exhibit is also a painter.

“She knows a lot of artists in the North Texas art world and selected people who love expressive colors in painting,” Smith said. “The exhibit is really interesting and diverse. I am proud to be a part of it because my work is in great company there. It is like an actor in a production with a great company. I am in the company of a lot of other great artists in the field.”

One of Smith’s pieces on display at the Bath House happens to be his favorite work, Glacier.

“It was inspired by nature and the landscape,” he said. “It has a lot of vibrant colors — blues and white. It had shapes that kind of look like icebergs and the hot warm sun. I did not know why I did it. I was just driven to the colors. There is so much beauty in nature. I really enjoyed this piece because it was not planned. It felt like it just occurred.”

Smith is an abstract artist with more than four decades of experience working as a professional artist and art professor.

“The anniversary of abstract art was about 100 years ago,” he said. “In 1913 is when it really caught fire. There was a potential for expressing emotions that was not there before. It was about storytelling. Color like an element. It is kind of like a music note in a song. It enhances a piece. The color is beautiful. It is like a box full of tools just like instruments in music. Abstract art takes tools out of the box and allowed us to discover the different elements are in art. Modern art has a way of looking at it. It had a way of expression that had not been broken down before. It’s universal, spiritual and creative movement. It could not be compressed.”

Smith is drawn to abstract art because for him, there is so much room for expression.

“At the end of the day, paint is a mound of wet color,” he said. “Its raw material that we put a brush into to make something magical.”

It was at 19 that Smith decided that he wanted to spend his life creating magic.

“I recognized that art was what I wanted to do,” he said. “I grew up in a college town and my parents were university professors. I grew up around interesting men and women that made art. Being a teacher and an artist is the best of both.”

But at the time, Smith was a high school dropout working as a professional musician in a band that was touring all around the country.

“My parents wanted me to go to college and were very disappointed when I dropped out of school,” he said. “I never went back to high school. I took the SAT and got a really high score. I went to college as philosophy major and then I changed my major to art.”

Smith went to graduate school in New York.

“My parents were very surprised when they found out that I had been offered a professorship at Miami University before I even graduated,” he said.

Smith has been at Austin College since 1986.

“I have students from all walks of life,” he said. “Some are older students and some are barely 17. People do not realize the creative aspect of the human mind. All are creative. Not all have experienced it productively, but we all have the capacity for it in some form. Being in a creative discipline gives me optimism about the world. We are so amazing because of this creative ability that we have. Seeing people being creative enhances the beauty of humanism.”

Over the last 40 years, Smith has seen the world’s appreciation for abstract art change.

Smith believes that it is easy for people to be cynical about the art because culture may not have an appreciation for it as much as they do for other creative disciplines.

“Early on, abstract painting was given a bad reputation,” he said. “Magazines like ‘Time’ and others had articles that said things like, ‘my child can do this.’ But, abstract painting is about color, shape, movements and more. Contemporary artists believed that abstract art is not as good as the art that came before it. But, nothing is born in a vacuum. The person that created the art was in a place and going through something and the art mirrors who they are. Art is made by beauty. Having an empathetic attitude is healthy.”

When you look at art, Smith said, take it into consideration like a mystery.

“What was the artists thinking? What were they trying to say? What do these colors mean? What do these images represent? All of these elements can have different meanings and different people can get multiple meanings out of one piece of work,” Smith said. “Great art makes us think. It makes us wonder. We should think about the whys. It’s amazing how extraordinary we are.”

Smith said that the artistic community in Texoma is also amazing because of how expansive it is.

“We are a part of the Metroplex really,” he said. “We have a really diverse group of artists here in this area. From realist art to abstract art to mixed media art. It’s so healthy and diverse. The art community and the appreciation for art here is great because we have a lot of interesting and creative works. Organizations like the Ghost Town Art Collective and others in Grayson County bring artists together who are older, younger, retired professionals and others. It is encouraging and I really appreciate being a part of this art community.”

He also hopes that art appreciation continues to grow for younger generations.

“I recently took my niece to an exhibit in Dallas and she were extremely underwhelmed because she had no context for the history behind abstract art,” he said. “That is what is great about abstract art. It is an explanation. We want to embrace things that we do not understand by asking why and how. That is what art is. That is how we can appreciate art.”