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Dana Powell-Smith: the “Accidental Artist” Who Escaped Death and Now Lives Life on Her Terms

The granddaughter of a Harlem Renaissance artist, Dana Powell-Smith paved her own path to creative success, becoming an award-winning artist after a life-altering accident.
Featured Image Dana Powell-Smith

Black woman with short brown hair soft smiling wearing a beige tank top with arms crossed over her chest
Dana Powell-Smith

Dana Powell-Smith grew up a true New Yorker. From the Bronx to the heart of Yonkers just half an hour north, Dana blossomed throughout boroughs home to creatives and rich history.

At the time, Georgette Seabooke Powell, Dana’s grandmother, lived four hours south in Washington D.C.; just close enough for Dana and her siblings to visit often.

Georgette not only accounted for one of many avant-gardists in the Powell family; she had prominence in the Harlem Renaissance movement, where she painted the “Recreation in Harlem” mural in the Harlem Hospital at 17 years old.

 
 
 
 
 
 
Dana with her grandparents, George and Georgette Powell

Georgette’s title of ‘Harlem Renaissance artist’ didn’t hold much clout in Dana’s eyes as a fourth grader. As far as Dana was concerned, her grandmother was a globetrotter artist who owned a non-profit, and that was that.

“I didn’t understand the impact of any of it growing up, because it was just … it was just family,” Dana said.

Georgette always got Dana involved with the arts when she visited New York. From scribbling on sidewalks to drawing on walls, Dana’s creative bug materialized because of her grandmother. So much so that Dana would often tell peers when Georgette was coming to town. Excited as she was, the other fourth graders wanted to bathe in Georgette’s mastery, too. So one day, Dana invited all of her classmates over after school to be her grandmother’s – surprise – commissions.

“Luckily, only one person showed up,” Dana said. “My grandmother did end up doing a charcoal sketch of my friend, but later on she told me very nicely, ‘You can’t do that … you can’t just invite people over for me to draw!’ I was like, ‘Oh … sorry grandma!’”

Art had always held a special place in Dana’s heart, but never did she think it would be in her professional future, or for that matter, the thing that would change her life.

black woman wearing a bright yellow t-shirt bends down outside while painting on a canvas
Dana painting outside

With aspirations for several other types of occupations – nurse, salesperson, entrepreneur – Dana worked years without art ever being on her radar. She painted as a pastime, but always in private. For her, art meant therapy – a pleasurable act, a stress-relieving expression – one that was hers and hers only.

“Unless you walked in my house and caught me painting, you wouldn’t even know that I painted,” Dana said. “I did it for me; I didn’t do it to show people or to hang on walls, I just did it because I love doing it.”

After 28 years of creating in the dark, Dana wanted to step out of the shadows in some capacity. To do so, she needed to be closer to the woman at the root of her creativity: Georgette.

Dana took her last bite of the Big Apple and moved to Virginia so she’d be near Georgette. It was there that Dana became involved with Georgette’s non-profit art organization, “Tomorrow’s World Art Center.” Art was always present in Dana’s life, but being near Georgette is what really ignited her passion.

Years passed, and Dana was now married with two children. She stopped painting for 20 years. She’d still create occasionally while raising her girl and boy, but the creations were never personal to her. However, family obligations were not why she stopped painting. Those 20 years were spent rehabbing – rebuilding her brain, her body, her abilities – parts of her that were forever changed by an accident that left her lying at death’s door.

***

A hill ahead but nothing unusual. Seated on the passenger side, Dana unplugged for a short 30-minute ride back home to Woodbridge, Virginia. Her then-husband was behind the wheel, driving Dana and their two children. They were coming back from a friend’s house.

Dana’s then 4-year-old daughter, Dana Calloway, sat in her car seat directly behind her. Dana’s 3-year-old son, Kenneth Settle Jr., sat to his sister’s left.

The average hill approached, and Dana and her family made it over. For a split second.

Suddenly, something struck Dana’s side of the car. They were then across the highway – 76 feet away from that hill.

At just 29 years old, Dana came face-to-face with what could’ve been her ultimate kryptonite – if that kryptonite was made of rectangular formed aluminum … on wheels.

They’d just been hit by an ambulance – the vehicle meant to save lives.

“I turn to my right and I see huge lights,” Dana said. “That’s the last thing I remember.”

Calloway’s car seat saved her life, but broken facial bones remained. Settle Jr. got out without any broken bones. The same can’t be said for Dana, who was the focal point of the impact.

At the moment of the collision, the ambulance careened into Dana’s pelvis, breaking it in five places. She was also left with a traumatic brain injury, a ruptured spleen, and a broken arm.

The hospital was her home for the next few months where she was forced to relearn how to live. With such serious injuries, Dana was in a wheelchair for quite some time. Physical therapists were her new allies, slowly teaching her to walk again.

“I was in management before the accident and doctors told me, ‘You can never manage again … you have to learn how to organize your thoughts again.’ It was bad,” Dana said. “Really bad.”

After the accident, Dana wasn’t capable of much. But, after making improvements through rehab, she took a job as an assistant teacher at her children’s Christian school, doing anything she could.

A few years ago, Dana had hip replacement surgery because her pelvis healed incorrectly from the initial surgery – the rehab, the pain – all of it just felt never-ending.

“I’m still in constant pain, but I just learned how to live with it,” Dana said. “There are effects that you can’t see that go on inside my body.”

Decades passed and she was still imprisoned by her doctor’s diagnosis. At 49 years old, Dana’s sister Gabi called her, asking if she’d like to join a running club together.

“I believed what the doctors told me for 20 years, how I wouldn’t be able to run, wouldn’t be able to manage, all the things I couldn’t do,” Dana said.

Dana told Gabi that running wouldn’t be possible. They agreed on walking together instead.

The first couple of weeks went by and Dana walked, just as she said she would. Then another member of the running group challenged Dana to run, and so she did. Slowly at first, but eventually Dana ran her first mile, then her first 5K, her first 10K, and her first half marathon, all before she got her hip replacement.

Triumphing over the freak accident, the tedious recovery, and her physician’s restrictions changed Dana’s mentality forever. She was no longer worried about rules, because she realized there were none.

She was no longer afraid of what others thought. There was no right or wrong anymore, there was just Dana.

“I only have one life and it’s like, ‘What do I have to lose?’” Dana said. “I don’t have anything to lose.”

The woman who once hid her greatest passion from the world, soon laid it bare. The walls that were keeping her art a secret fell, just as the walls of doubt and fear did when that ambulance rolled over her stomach.

100 years after the Harlem Renaissance, the movement that gave Georgette a platform to paint for the world, came another cultural phenomenon – one stemming from prejudice.

***

It had been two weeks since May 25, 2020.

Two weeks of wallowing in her own distraught – sitting speechless – gazing over the same headline, over and over again:

‘GEORGE FLOYD: MURDERED’

Dana’s mind was in shambles, but as she slowly began to process the tragedy, a little voice kept telling her: “You have to paint, you have to paint, YOU HAVE TO PAINT.”

She listened to the voice and walked into her garage. Already full with canvases, colors and brushes, Dana had everything she needed to help release what was going on inside her head.

“I’m not a loud person,” Dana said. “I don’t argue, I don’t fuss, I don’t scream, I don’t shout, so, the only way I could shout was on my canvas.”

“I don’t argue, I don’t fuss, I don’t scream, I don’t shout, so, the only way I could shout was on my canvas.” – Dana Powell-Smith

One of the first pieces Dana created after Floyd’s death was titled “Screaming in Silence,” and she continued to use art as therapy throughout those weeks after George Floyd’s murder to cope with what had occurred.

a painting of a black woman with an afro with a bunch of words stemming from the afro mirroring her thoughts
Dana’s piece titled “Screaming in Silence”

One day when Dana was in her garage, a neighbor approached her husband, Frank Smith, and asked if he could go inside and see what Dana was painting.

Being in the state she was, Dana didn’t care to conceal her art anymore. She told Smith to let the neighbor in.

The neighbor raved about Dana and her art. Unenthusiastic but aware, Dana dismissed his claims about selling her work or putting it in a museum, telling him she paints to paint, not for some sort of payoff. But, the man was persistent, and asked if she would sell a piece to him.

After 20 minutes of banter, Dana agreed to sell one to him.

“You’d think I’d be excited,” Dana said. “I wasn’t excited. I felt at a loss because I put so much into my work, and I’d never given it to someone. It was like I’m selling him a piece of me.”

After about two weeks of contemplation, Dana brought the piece to her neighbor. However, the feeling that lingered wasn’t so pleasant. Letting go of something so intimate, something that’s been exclusively hers for 58 years, tarnished her demeanor for about a month.

In an attempt to ease her nerves, Dana posted on Facebook about how she sold her first piece.

That didn’t necessarily have the effect she’d hoped for. The floodgates roared open and Dana got slammed with messages and requests for her artwork.

“So, me with my crazy self, took a commission,” Dana said. “Actually, I took five commissions.”

With no prior experience creating art for anyone but herself, Dana had no idea what she was getting herself into, but she didn’t care. No rules, remember?

Dana gave herself eight weeks to complete each commission, unsure how long it would take. She soon realized that this process was going to be much different than the one she’s used to. Very rarely is Dana’s art ever a conscious decision; she tends to just go to the canvas and do what comes naturally – staring at the canvas, listening to it, letting it tell her what it needs.

She couldn’t do that with these commissions.

Walking into her studio with these commissions in mind began to make her feel nauseous. It took Dana seven days to put a single color on the first buyer’s canvas, and she redid the piece three times – anything below her personal satisfaction was unacceptable to sell. On the third try, Dana created something she felt good about.

She took a deep breath and sent a photo of the piece to the buyer, nervously awaiting her response. The buyer ended up loving it, and Dana could breathe easily again.

black woman with hair in bun wears jean jacket and joggers pointing next to a sign in an art museum
Dana goes by “Georgette’s Granddaughter” in homage to her grandmother

Something that had always been vastly therapeutic for her now became this feat of pressure. Afraid of getting burned out, Dana completed the five commissions, but didn’t do any more. However, during what felt like months of homework assignments, Dana still painted for herself. Since the door of publicity was now open, she wasn’t going to close it. Dana began to submit her work to different art contests and galleries across the country.

Dana Powell-Smith

She began to host her own art shows around Indianapolis, and her work was published on the cover of Black Minds Magazine. She also won a contest called “A Collection of Voices at Meijer” for Black History Month. Dana’s artwork will be featured on select Meijer brand products in 2023 across over 250 Meijer stores in the Midwest.

Circle Centre Mall displayed a vinyl print of Dana’s artwork, and the Indianapolis International Airport photographed one of her paintings and turned it into a mural on a walkway.

“I call myself the ‘accidental artist,’” Dana said. “All of this was never in my plans – when it happened, it happened – and it just hasn’t stopped. I’m pushing myself out there, little by little.”

Going public has not only made her an award-winning artist who is finally confident in her creations, but it’s made her comfortable sharing them with others. Dana is thinking outside of the box more than she ever has before; she’s even gone so far as to enter the world of NFTs.

These JPEG images coined “NFTs” are cryptographic tokens which hold both digital and real-world assets that can be bought with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. NFTs are exclusive, meaning there is only one of each, and they are irreplaceable.

Dana says that the NFT community that she found on the platform “Voice” has been one of the highlights of her career as an artist. She’s befriended and collaborated with artists from South Carolina all the way to Ghana and has even hosted gallery shows in the metaverse with her Oculus.

black woman with black hair in a high bun spins art on her canvas wearing a blue tank top
Dana Powell-Smith

“It’s been a learning curve, but there are no gatekeepers with NFTs,” Dana said. “You don’t have to submit your work and hope for someone to see it or ask if your work is acceptable; you do what you want to do.”

The world of NFTs has allowed Dana to add value to her physical work, too. When someone purchases one of her originals, that buyer will also receive an NFT of that piece.

Handing over her art, whether digitally or physically, has gotten easier with time. Dana now realizes that sharing her story gives her the opportunity to change lives, and that her artwork hits home for others, too – just as Georgette’s art did for her.

Dana will continue to learn and persist in the world of modern artistry, but she’ll never forget the origin of her artistic passion.

“I will never stop painting,” Dana said. “It’s the feeling of the paint going onto the canvas – I love it – sometimes, I dip my hands in it!”

Mina Denny is Indy Maven’s editorial intern. You can connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and on LinkedIn

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