Smith sculpts second career
His work has brought recognition and a nice income.
By JONATHAN ABEL and WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writers
Published August 23, 2007
When the grand jury meets today to take up Pinellas County's purchase of land from Property Appraiser Jim Smith, the longtime public servant will again be under intense scrutiny.
But Smith has an alter ego - an artistic avatar - who has remained largely outside the spotlight.
His name: J. Harrison Smith. His occupation: sculptor.
Property Appraiser Jim Smith is paid $149,604 a year to oversee 156 employees and a tax roll of roughly $120-billion. This Smith has carved a career out of holding elected office, first as a state representative and, since 1988, as property appraiser.
J. Harrison Smith, on the other hand, came to sculpture late in life. But since he took his first adult classes a decade ago, his art has burgeoned into a job in itself, with thousands of hours spent in the studio making figures large and small, from female nudes to a statue of Christ.
A talented and dedicated bronze sculptor, J. Harrison Smith produces realistic forms he has sold to private buyers, nonprofits, schools and at least one local city. And the money he makes is real.
In 2004, the city of Safety Harbor decided to spend $40,490 for three bronze figures playing around a mosaic. Smith and another artist split the commission. On his annual financial disclosure report filed with the state Commission on Ethics, Smith reported $20,000 in income from his artwork that year.
A Times analysis, however, suggests that those disclosure forms don't always reflect the extent of his art-related revenue or the rental income generated by his Clearwater warehouse - ventures that have raked in tens of thousands of dollars.
In 2001, for example, Perkins Elementary School in St. Petersburg paid Smith $8,500 for a 3-foot-high statue of a boy playing a violin and a miniature version of the same statue. The money came from the capital outlay fund for the then-new school. But on Smith's financial disclosure that year, he said his art income did not exceed $1,000.
In 2003, Smith purchased a warehouse on S Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater, which he converted into a gallery for his work, studio space for half a dozen artists in the back and approximately 1,200 square feet of retail space.
A gourmet candy store, Incredible Edibles, rented the space for about $1,400 per month throughout 2006, according to Rene Alequin and Carol Williams, who have been co-owners at different times. But Smith did not report any of the roughly $17,000 in rental income that year.
Smith, 67, did not respond to several requests Wednesday to be interviewed for this story.
Failure to report income on financial disclosure forms is a violation of the state's civil ethics code and can result in censure, fines of up to $10,000 and potential removal from office.
Early this year, a California nonprofit organization started selling miniature statues, created by Smith, to raise money for a $3-million monument to military divers in Washington. More than a dozen miniature divers have been sold at $3,900 each, with Smith pocketing a third of the proceeds, according to the nonprofit Homeland Security Policy Institute Group.
"I've talked with him hundreds of times over the phone," said Ken Dreger, vice president and managing director of the nonprofit. "He was calling me every night for a good six months when he was doing the castings."
Smith's passion for sculpting has led some to question his ability to balance two careers.
Among them is 54-year-old Doug Land, a St. Petersburg artist who has known Smith and his work for several years.
Land said Smith is a respected, devoted artist, and that work at his level demands time. When Land learned that Smith intends to run for re-election in 2008, despite the County Commission's controversial decision in June to buy his East Lake property for nearly four times the value assigned the property for tax purposes, Land decided to speak out.
"If I were to talk to Jim I would tell him, 'Look, either be a property appraiser or be an artist right now,' " Land said. "Because both are time-intensive. The people should be getting a full-time property appraiser. He's paid a real nice salary."
John Panos worked in Smith's office from 1992 until 1999, overseeing the appraisals section. Even during the 1990s - before Smith began sculpting seriously - he had a reputation for not being around the office much, Panos said.
"He was not one to sit in an office," Panos said. "He basically said, 'I'm an elected official. I don't have to punch a clock.' "
Karleen De Blaker, who stepped down 2 1/2 years ago after spending 24 years as clerk of the Circuit Court, said it's common knowledge that the day-to-day affairs of Smith's office have for years been run by his deputy, Pam Dubov.
De Blaker said that the office has always been managed well but that she's heard "a lot of talk" about Smith being absent and devoting lots of time to his art.
"I've also heard that out in the bowels of the community," said former county administrator Fred Marquis, who stepped down in 2000, "that he spends more time doing sculpting than anything else."
Smith's ex-wife, retired Circuit Judge Catherine Harlan, said Smith spent nights and weekends at work on his art. She said as far as the IRS was concerned, it was more than a hobby. Whether he was absent from the office to do sculpting was a question best put to his coworkers, she said.
Easier said than done.
"I don't want to get into the rumor substantiation or refutation business," Dubov said. "It's not fair to ask that of someone who has been his chief deputy for 15 years and considers him a friend."
Smith has a number of other publicly visible commissions. He produced a sculpture of Christ, which graces St. Alfred's Episcopal Church in Palm Harbor.
At St. Paul's School in Clearwater, Smith served as an artist in residence, dropping in occasionally to teach art classes. As part of his contract, the details of which the school would not disclose, Smith executed a bronze of a grandfather with his grandchild.
"He's got a real skill," said Land, the St. Petersburg artist. "I would like to see him putting his time into that."
Jonathan Abel can be reached at 727-445-4157 or firstname.lastname@example.org.