Sculptor Nelson Smith III might be the best Memphis artist you've never heard of.
Drive up Thomas Street, toward Frayser from downtown. Peek down Huron Avenue, and you'll see a car parked on the south curb beside an old nightclub. Your eyes aren't deceiving you — that is a red 1984 Pontiac Fiero being transformed into a gray Ferrari. Ask one of the fellows sitting just outside the old club about it and they'll explain: "That's Nelson's. If he gets an idea, he's likely to do something about it."
In a city renowned for its artists and eccentrics, Nelson Smith III remains one of Memphis' best-kept secrets. Smith, 63, creates fanciful, imaginative sculpture, including some of the commercial art of a bygone era. Samples stand and hang throughout Smith's studio, formerly Currie's Club Tropicana, where a young North Memphian named Isaac Hayes had his breakout performance in the early 1960s.
Today the club is part sculpture studio, part machine shop. A 12-foot-tall combat soldier menaces visitors with bayonet drawn just inside the entrance. He glares down through the Phillips-head screws in his eyes standing in for pupils. A cartoonish, yellow lion and jaunty pig in a paper cap help lighten the mood after the ambush. A clue about the artist's past lurks in the shadows against the back wall. It isn't a sculpture, but rather a sculpture mold that looks exactly like what the finished sculpture would, though all black.
The mold is of a familiar character unseen in these parts in quite some time. It's the cheerful, chubby Shoney's Big Boy, the restaurant's mascot from the 1950s until it was discontinued in 1984.
In addition to the late Big Boy, Smith sculpted the Pizza Inn mascot, designed the logo for Cozy Corner Barbecue, and created art and signage throughout Libertyland, among dozens of completed projects. "That's what I do — I engineer art," he says.
Smith first sculpted as a tenth-grader at Manassas High School, where he fashioned samples of the evolving human skull at three phases. Smith learned art at the school, not far from his present studio, but he credits a year at the Memphis College of Art — permanently interrupted by Vietnam-era military service — for his mold-making skills. Since then, he's learned to make do with untraditional materials. "The stuff that you would throw out — cardboard and scrap wood — I use to shape models for the molds. I never could afford that hundred pounds of clay," he says, alluding to the title of the Gene McDaniels song about the material God used to fix the world. "I can make any shape out of cardboard."
His skill and economic use of materials helped Smith foster a mutually beneficial arrangement with the regional Shoney's franchise. "They kept ordering their statues from California, and it cost a thousand or better bucks just for the shipping, much less the cost of the Big Boy," Smith says. "I told them I'd make the statue for that."
Smith used one of the official Big Boy statues to create his mold, and then made a fiberglass replica. He stood the statues side by side and invited the Shoney's owner to choose the original. "You're hired," the man told Smith, who produced about 15 of the icons for restaurants in the tri-state region.
The Shoney's work led to more restaurant projects. Smith outfitted the now defunct Moonraker eatery in Germantown with a pirate ship, and theme decorated Holiday Inn bars like the Red Fox Room and the Coronado Club.
Smith explains that technology has since rendered his manual design, engineering, and production techniques obsolete. "I do this by hand, and the computer can cut it right out."
Today many of Smith's signs and sculptures are scattered to the wind. He doesn't know what became of his Big Boys. He stays busy designing sets for school plays and sound studios. And there's the Pontiac Fiero-Ferrari. "I'll get it running again," Smith says. M