Painting the Fire into Olympics; Colorful Works Help Athletes

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Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

He has hand-painted Chrysler's PT Cruiser, created an ad for Absolut Vodka and updated Taco Bell's image. His artwork is collected by such celebrities as comedian Jay Leno, pop star Elton John and singer Neil Diamond.

Now Mark T. Smith, who divides his time between Washington and Miami, has become one of 10 "official" Olympic artists chosen to create pieces to commemorate the 2008 summer games in Beijing. A series of his colorful paintings and drawings will be reproduced as limited-edition prints, posters and souvenirs to raise money for the American athletes competing this August.

"I've never done a piece before that will be seen by people from every country in the world," the 40-year-old artist says during a recent interview at his Penn Quarter condo. "It's really exciting."

In mid-January, Mr. Smith was selected by Jack Scharr, owner and president of Fine Art Ltd. in Chesterfield, Mo., who has commissioned art to represent the U.S. Olympics team since 1987. "We were trying to reach out to new artists who could represent China in a modern image," Mr. Scharr says. "His work is very colorful and appeals to the youth of America and the world."

Mr. Scharr encouraged Mr. Smith and the nine other "official" artists "to bring a lot of China into the art because it's the first time the games are being held in China." So, instead of depicting a sports theme, Mr. Smith pictured a stylized dragon blowing flames onto the top of the Olympic torch. The imaginary blue beast, a Chinese symbol of power, is shown on a background of red, a color associated with good luck, prosperity and happiness.

Although intended as a playful interpretation of Chinese culture, the painting of the fire-breathing dragon has taken on an ominous vibe as Chinese authorities continue to crack down on protesters in Tibet and Beijing. It might well symbolize China's efforts to keep the Olympics alive in the face of growing criticism - including numerous protests this week in this country and Europe during the torch relay - of its military actions against dissidents.

"I'm being called a lot to talk about the situation," says Mr. Smith, who recently has aired his views on local radio and TV shows. "I'vecome down on the side of the athletes because, as somebody who has spent [his] entire life perfecting an artistic pursuit, I understand how much discipline and sacrifice it takes for them to train and compete. For the athletes to be used as political pawns in all this and deny them the opportunity to compete would be a shame."

Mr. Smith says he believes any boycotting of the games is a bad idea. "That would take the media pressure off the Chinese and would isolate them," he says. "We have to engage them. That's not to say they are going to do exactly what we think is right, but our actions aren't exactly in concert with the rest of the world, either."

Mr. Smith, who swam competitively during high school in Wilmington, Del. …