We are the sum of our parts

May 8th, 2020

Dolph Smith

(published in The Daily Memphian)

To call my friend Dolph Smith an artist is as incomplete as calling Memphis a city.

Dolph is a painter. His rustic barns and houses and bold brushstrokes across our rural landscape were spread across our walls and psyches for a generation. A framed print of one of those, a wedding present, was the only piece of art in Nora’s and my first apartment.

And Dolph is a paper maker, and a book maker, and a sculptor in paper and wood, and a woodworker and metalworker. A maker of intricate expressions and sometimes tiny representations of our larger world, each with a story, each more than it seems at first. And Dolph is a teacher of all of that, challenging and inspiring a couple of generations at the Memphis College of Art to take and shape things beyond the obvious. I have a baseball bat, a Louisville Slugger that Dolph reimagined to commemorate the opening of AutoZone Park. It’s red, and interactive. The big end is covered in worked metal ending in stylized home plate shapes. You can hold the handle and turn the top to dial in a single, double, triple, or home run.

And Dolph and his wife Jessie are the parents of Ben Smith, owner of Tsunami, so at least genetically they had something to do with the creation of roasted sea bass on black Thai rice with soy beurre blanc – unquestionably another work of art.

And Dolph is the creator and mayor of Tennarkippi.

Quoting a fine piece of writing by Eileen Townsend from an article she wrote about Dolph for Number: Inc., No. 87, “Tennarkippi is a house, but it is more: it is a mythic origin ground, a place created and re-created in the cosmos of Smith’s art. It turns up in his watercolors and hand-bound daybooks, in sculptures and in fiction. Tennarkippi is Dolph’s headwaters, the place where all the stories in the world are born.”

Tennarkippi is more than Dolph and Jessie’s house in Ripley, Tennessee; it’s where we live.

This southwest corner of Tennessee is also the northwest corner of Mississippi, and where both share the banks of America’s greatest river with Arkansas. Memphis is a regional capital, and to accomplish much of anything we have to deal with three state legislatures, not to mention the legislative bodies, general perceptions, and independent nature of 30 or so cities, towns, suburban and rural communities that share our borders. And immediately beyond our borders and on either side of our great river is the rural south and an agrarian sea that souls of every stripe have long sailed to find port here.

Tennarkippi is a colorful place.

As I wrote in an earlier column, I remember my father telling me growing up, “Son, if you marry a Mississippi girl, you will live in Mississippi. Might start out in Singapore, but you’ll end up in Mississippi. Now, if you like either New Orleans or Memphis, that’ll work because they both count as Mississippi.”

The Blues were born here, but it’s fair to say they were conceived in Mississippi. Rock and Roll was conceived and born here, but Elvis came from Mississippi, Johnny Cash from Arkansas, and they ran into each other at Sun Studios. And Soul is not just a Memphis music form; it’s a physical characteristic around here, bred in our challenging history, nurtured in the warmth of our personality, and felt deep-down around the world. 

Tennarkippi is a song.

Before Dolph and Jessie moved back to hometown Ripley, they raised their family in a big rambling house on Vinton. The notion of Tennarkippi, the notion of a shared creative experience out of a shared past and future unique to us, came to Dolph there.

I can hear and see him talking about it as I write this. Another piece of fine writing from Townsend’s article, “He has large, expressive eyes, and speaks in sentences that feel as if they should be written in longhand.”

If we don’t learn to share more than borders – good and bad, growth and promise and Covid-19 – then what we could be will always elude us, still blinded to what the world sees in us.

I’m a Memphian, and a Tennarkippian.

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