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Celebrated visual artist Justin Robinson Smith is dead at 42

JUSTIN ROBINSON SMITH, a celebrated visual artist who won several awards for his inventive work as a primitive and avant-garde artist in paintings and mixed media, died on June 18, 2023 in New Orleans. He was 42.


Born in Baton Rouge in 1981, he graduated from Mandeville High School in 1999 and audited several classes at Tulane University.

While Smith lacked formalized art training, his immense talent was largely self-taught. He continued the family tradition set by both his grandfather Joseph Smith, who taught art at Alcee Fortier High School from the day the school opened until his retirement, and his father, a renowned rock photographer. Smith never met his paternal grandfather.

Smith’s broad smile and easy-going nature charmed everyone and his innate way of making others smile was infectious. He deeply loved animals and enjoyed music in all its many different permutations. 

While he was working recently as a marketing agent for his father’s Haunted History Tours in recent years, he was previously cited as a noted artist with several of his pieces on display at the Slidell Train Station in 2008 and the Crescent City Brewhouse. His work was on display at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) and WGNO-TV, the local ABC affiliate, aired a feature on him. All of this attention led to him opening his own Royal Street gallery, Just In, from 2010 to 2011. Much of the focus of the gallery was to spotlight his work as an abstract expressionist and primitive artist working in oils and mixed media.

His paintings frequently related tribal mythological themes, and Jungian symbolism consisting of mixed-media paintings on canvas, boards, and repurposed windows that he found on the streets of New Orleans, using acrylic paints, enamel, spray paints, stained glass, polyurethane, rocks, and shells. Deeply rooted in his native Louisiana, he often remarked that the windows he used were made of the cypress that arose out of the swamps of Louisiana.

He frequented the French Quarter habitually and had a profound appreciation for the artists whose work is found along Jackson Square and on Royal Street. With his optimistic energy derived from the alternative youth culture, Smith firmly connected with the eclectic culture of the Bywater neighborhood. In addition to his father, who always supported his artistic endeavors, he claimed his primary inspirational artist was Jean-Michel Basquiat and well as local artist Chuck Ferguson, who served as an artistic adviser and impromptu art teacher over the course of many years.

Smith had several of his pieces shown at the CCJN’s Jewish Art and Jewish Artist event at Congregation Beth Israel in 2013. Smith sold several pieces.

Best described at an iconoclast, he was a proud New Orleanian and appeared in TV commercials for Barq’s Root Beer, Magnolia Plantation and the National Football League.

While he was not affiliated with any synagogue, he did attend Touro Synagogue and Gates of Prayer for his Jewish education.

He is survived by his father Sidney Smith and his mother Delery Vickory of Ecuador.

A Celebration of Life  service will be held  on Saturday August 5, from noon until 4:00 p.m. at the Pavilion of the Two Sisters in City Park. Private funeral arrangements are by Tharp-Sontheimer Funeral Home of Metairie.

Smith had a longtime struggle with mental illness. Memorial donations are suggested to the NAMI New Orleans (National Alliance on Mental Illness, New Orleans).


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