In 2007, artist Michael “Smitty” Smith was striking out.
His canvas artwork just wasn’t selling at local car shows but he wasn’t willing to give up on his artistic talents.
“I was at a flea market and I saw this old bowling pin. I just thought it would be cool to paint it,” said Smith, a Germantown native.
After salvaging a few cases of used bowling pins in 2009, “Smitty’s Custom Bowling Pin Art” was born.
NewsWorks caught up with Smith at the recent “Hotrod Hoedown,” an antique car show and rockabilly festival in Bucks County. Smith travels to events like this twice a month to sell his pins, which feature images of pop-culture characters and classic cars.
Smith, who lives in Fox Chase and works in Roxborough, drives a copper-colored 1957 Chevy. He’s a fan of Ed Roth, artist and custom car designer, and enjoys the music of Elvis and Johnny Cash.
“There’s a whole culture behind this stuff,” said Smith. “At a traditional car show, it’s a bunch of people sitting in lawn chairs next to their cars. This is different – it’s a throwback. Philly’s pretty big in the rockabilly and hot rod scene.”
‘For every 10 bowling alleys I ask, one will say yes’
Smith says that to create a pin, he starts by filling in the cracks and dents with putty, which is followed by a light sanding. He then sprays on a coat of primer sealer, a coat of enamel, and later, a clear coat.
“Once everything dries I use an oil based medium for the design,” said Smith, who sells the pins for $25 to $30.
He says the hardest part about the pins is finding them.
“For every 10 bowling alleys I ask, one will say yes,” said Smith. “Some of them will give them to me for free, usually when they replace the old ones. One guy told me that they have a bonfire and burn the old ones. It just kills me to hear that.”
One of his favorite characters to depict in his artwork is a tiny green rat named “Rat Fink,” who gained popularity in the 50s and 60s.
“Rat Fink is the logo for Ed Roth,” said Smith, who considers Roth an inspiration, “a true legend in the hot rod culture.”
Another frequent request Smith gets is for a pin representing Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” holiday, which depicts a human skeleton in ornate and colorful surroundings.
“I don’t know why, but people really like them,” said Smith, who also takes requests for custom designs.
He also experiments with his eclectic designs on recycled oil cans, gas cans, metal tool boxes and old wrenches.
It’s not all hot rods and rock and roll
Aside from his artwork, Smith works in the hyperbaric therapy unit at Roxborough Hospital. He says he gained interest in the field while working as an EMT.
“It’s a unique job,” said Smith. “We use an oxygen tank in a pressurized setting to heal wounds. It’s amazing how much it can help people.”
He admits it’s difficult to work full-time and have an art business on the side.
“I usually come home from work and start painting,” said Smith.
With a busy schedule, Smith is also making wedding plans with his fiancée, Hilary Nosker of Mt. Airy, for a fall 2013 wedding.
To see Smith’s work for yourself, check out his booth at the upcoming “Pumpkin Run Car Show,” an antique car and tractor show, in Egg Harbor, New Jersey on Nov. 3.
“It’s outside at an old junkyard in Egg Harbor. There’s a retro-style diner on the property and life-sized dinosaurs. It’s cool to see the classic cars; many have been left rusting there for years.”
Visit www.rockabillyart.com for more information about bowling pin art.