Art as a Service: Dylan Smith's Vibrant Fusion of Art, Dance, and Queer Identity

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Omaralexis Ochoa: Dylan Smith is a professional dancer, mixed media artist, and clothing designer based out of Los Angeles. He has performed on Broadway and in theater productions around the world, and he's also worked with television studios like Nickelodeon as a live action choreographer.

He has also launched a clothing line called "Hair Pop Out Mania," which features a pop art style all-around print inspired by his early childhood drawings. Dylan, thank you so much for coming on. 

Dylan Smith: Thank you for having me. Very grateful to be here with you. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, definitely. I think it's great that we were able to get this together.

How did you become a professional artist?

Omaralexis Ochoa: I was fortunate enough to run into you at a gallery opening, and I'm really glad to have an artist on the podcast. I don't get very many artists. So, welcome. Really happy to have you. So, I know that you've done quite a bit of work in the kind of traditional art world, the fine art world, you have a clothing line, a fashion brand-- so, I guess, where do you want to start? How did you become an artist, and how have you become a professional artist? 

Dylan Smith: I would say that it sprung from a childhood hobby and a childhood passion. Before my long career in dance & theater, and choreography, and TV & film, I passed the summer days drawing with my neighbors and that was just one of these activities that were really fun for us.

Crayons, Crayola crayons, Crayola markers, notebook paper, just very... anything a child would do as far as a hobby. And in my mid-twenties when I was living in New York City and doing professional theater I went rummaging through my mom's attic. You know, out of nostalgia because I would never let her throw anything away for fear that there was some goldmine there or something really cool hiding in the attic and lo and behold in a Garfield and Odie folder from my childhood were all my drawings.

And all my drawings were of, at that time, what I would say was a female figure or a female sort of headshot --and lots of them like between 40 and 50 different images. And at this point I was very much like established in my dance and theater career. And I just got such a kick out of what I was doing prior to dance and theater, and how I expressed myself in that I ended up becoming and identifying as a gay man. And when you see my images, they're very kitschy, they're very colorful, they're very flamboyant. And so connecting the story of my childhood passion to the way I veered into a different form of a professional artistic career really interested me and started to interest other people.

Has drawing always been your preferred type of art?

Omaralexis Ochoa: I think that's such an interesting story, you know, like you mentioned, this career in dance and theater and performance, and now kind of rediscovering that inner childhood artist. Were you doing illustrations at all up until this point, or really was it rekindled when you made that discovery in your mom's attic?

Dylan Smith: I would doodle... like I was in casting for a bit and there were long, tedious days where I would just like drift off into doodling. And I'd always go back to the female face or the female figure but nothing major. 

What I started doing with the old childhood drawings is I started putting them on tote bags, making postcards, doing little like one-off events, making a t-shirt for a friend here and there. And then someone challenged me in a conversation and said, "I love your childhood art, but are you going to make new pieces?" And I was like, "Do I know how to draw? Like, am I going to be good at it? Is it going to be anything like that?" And, you know, at that point I have the choice to say no and be fearful or kind of dip my toes back in and and try it out.

And so from that conversation is when I sort of started to develop from there. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, and it seems like since then it's kind of evolved beyond illustration as well. It seems like maybe there's a bit of a sculptural component. I saw one of your recent pieces was using the Barbie doll.

Dylan Smith: For sure. It was very two-dimensional for a very long time. Illustration. And I was kind of just doing the same thing: Crayons and Crayola markers and sort of taking that same approach. And then an ex partner of mine who was in construction and a builder introduced me to resin.

And so we were taking a bunch of my illustrations and things and putting them in beautiful frames that he would make and then resining them with a coat that looks like glass, but it kind of holds it in. With that, you're able to use a bunch of mixed media. So I would use old jewelry and any sort of household items and just started to slowly develop more towards a mixed media route.

And so it sort of started to evolve in that sense. And then the scale started to increase as well. And this is, I would say like the year before COVID, which was when things really sort of started to take off for me because there was nothing else to do but make more art. 

When did you first start putting your illustrations onto clothing?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Right, yeah definitely, and I think a great period that many artists and creators just generally took great advantage of to take some of that free time and sublimate it into creative endeavors.

So in terms of where you're taking your art, I know that you are-- it looks like you're wearing one of your pieces. Is that one of your one of your shirts from your clothing line? 

Dylan Smith: Yes, that's correct. And my back is being supported by... one of my pillows!

Dylan Smith holding a custom pillow featuring his artwork

Omaralexis Ochoa: Nice. That's awesome. So where did you get the idea to start putting these illustrations onto clothing?

Dylan Smith: I mean, I dabbled a little bit and I think it's like a natural progression sometimes as an artist. To, you know, put them on accessories or put them on clothing. And you know, I kind of did a mock up of a sweatsuit of one of my designs. And at that time I was working on a television show for Nickelodeon as an associate choreographer and at this point had only the sweatshirt and the sweatpants.

So I wore them on set because on set it's freezing. It's always like 60 degrees. I just wore it and I would say at least 15 to 20 people on set that day were just like, "What are you wearing? What is that?" Sure, it felt good to have that affirmation that yeah, people think it's cool, but it also created conversation.

And that's where I've started to see the purpose in my art: strangers coming up to me and people wanting to talk about it. "And where did you get that? And who made that?" And it's very cool to say that I did, but it's also very cool to have human connection through art and wearable art at that.

What mantras influence your art?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, definitely, and I think it's a really interesting evolution of, again, that childhood artwork that you've taken into the modern era. Put on your kind of new adult perspective and take on what this could look like, but ultimately holding it down to that fundamental childlike wonder that encompasses your art.

One of the interviews you had given in the Coachella magazine, you had made reference to a famous quote by Pablo Picasso that "Every child is an artist." So how would you say that this mantra has influenced your art? 

"Every child is an artist."
- Pablo Picasso

Dylan Smith: I like that quote because once the ego and the adult brain starts to try and take over and get in the way, it's a really good mantra to come back to, to remember.

The simplicity of: why we did things when we were little. We just did them because we enjoyed them. There wasn't money attached to it, there weren't rules, there weren't, you know, your brain wasn't developed in a way where you're like, "This isn't good, or this is terrible, or is it going to be this?"

There wasn't this pressure. So to go back to that and bring that back into your adult self and the decisions and the mentality that you take, kind of resets you and puts you in check, right? It's like: I'm not a surgeon, I'm an artist. We're gonna be okay if, the color's off or something.

And another sort of mantra I go back to is, "There are no mistakes." A mistake can oftentimes be what makes something beautiful, and if it's not appealing to my personal taste or what I want, I can put another layer of paint. I can throw something over it. So that quote really helps me lower the barometer of pressure. Self-induced pressure.

Because there's all this like... most people don't care. It's usually us who are getting in our own way. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, I think that makes a ton of sense, and I think that's one of the hurdles that many creators and artists really have trouble getting over, that sort of inner voice or inner doubt that you have about your own work.

One concept that I've come across recently is productive procrastination. In that, maybe you are procrastinating something, and the way that you get around that is by busying yourself with something else. 

Dylan Smith: Oh, one thousand percent. Guilty as charged with that, for sure.

What has been your favorite opportunity to create art as a service?

Omaralexis Ochoa: So in terms of some of the different opportunities and work you've gotten to do as a result, I see you've been able to do a few things with the city of Palm Springs, as well as at the Hampton Art Fair. What are some other unique or interesting opportunities you've had or that you look back to as something you liked or really enjoyed? 

Dylan Smith: Well, the Palm Springs Public Arts Commission opportunities happened during COVID, which was a really amazing opportunity. They were able to fund 50 different artists to refurbish the city benches all across the city of Palm Springs-- which was great on many levels because a lot of people were obviously unemployed, lacking opportunities to create art with some income behind it. And for me again, this kind of goes back to the question we just wrapped up: I had never painted before. Like, actually... and applied for this position to create one of these benches with the city.

Source:, Public art installation by Dylan Smith

And I was so scared and so nervous because here I am, the first opportunity I have to paint something for someone is, you know, I'm out in public painting this bench. But it was, again, it was, it's a moment of like, do I retract and retreat or do I move forward and grow as an artist?

And I thought I'll get through this and it was a pivotal moment moment for me because it gave me a little bit more clout and stature as far as like, okay, the city is taking notice of something. It's not just a hobby-- which would have been fine. But that opportunity really put me on the map. And when I moved to West Hollywood from Palm Springs to work on the television show, my goal since I had worked with the city of Palm Springs was: I would love to be involved with the city of West Hollywood. And I continue to apply for artists opportunities and they have a very comprehensive staff and opportunities through the city and I applied for one of the diverse holiday submissions.

And so I chose National Coming Out Day and ended up being commissioned by the city with one of my images. Again, it encompasses so many things. It was a goal of mine, it's also a really important holiday that's near and dear to me as someone who's part of the LGBTQ+ community, being part of the community of West Hollywood, getting involved and creating art as a service, you know what I mean?

Like, creating this art and then being able to give it away to whoever wants to view it and hopefully it brings happiness to someone. Maybe some confused person in our community can find joy and light through it. So those have been some real highlights for me. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, that's awesome. I wasn't aware of the opportunity with West Hollywood. Where might we end up seeing it around, around the city? 

Dylan Smith: It was actually on the website, so it wasn't physically out there, but promoted digitally. Yeah, it was really cool. 

How do you make your clothes?

Omaralexis Ochoa: I want to go back to some of what we were talking about related to your clothing. So one of the questions I have for you is a bit more behind the scenes in terms of how is it that you actually get this clothing made?

Are you screen printing with a certain manufacturer? Do you have to hunt for certain partners? How do you go about creating these pieces now that you're selling them? 

Dylan Smith: Yeah, it was a bit of trial and error at first, like finding a company that can take an image. So my process is taking an image of a piece of my physical art.

So I don't do anything digitally to actually create it. They're more like... this is a picture of a outdoor installation I did for a client in Sonoma. And so as long as you have a high-res photo, you can basically put it on anything. So I found a company that would sublimate it, which means it goes into the fabric as opposed to being slapped on.

And then it's a cut and sew process. So I design the front, the back, the sleeve and the sleeve, if we're talking about a t-shirt. It's a sublimation, cut and sew process. And I just have found a company that I believe in the quality, the price point's good, and it works for now. But I think ideally, moving forward to have a factory or someone who could make it, like, say in downtown Los Angeles would be the long term goal.

Omaralexis Ochoa: No, I think it looks great because I think as you look at individual third party printers, typically they don't do something to that level of customization. Typically, it's just maybe the image within an acceptable area. Then you just buy many of them and sell them. But I think going the the extra mile to get that all-around print ties in very well to the art piece itself because it is so interconnected -- with some of the different aspects of the collage and the abstract shapes. I think it looks great and I'm gonna have to get one myself!

Dylan Smith: Thank you. I appreciate that. 

Why is your clothing line called "Hair Pop Out Mania?"

Omaralexis Ochoa: Let's talk about the name. Your clothing line is called "Hair Pop Out Mania!" How did you come up with that name? 

Dylan Smith: So that that goes back to the childhood drawing. You might be a little young to remember, but in the like late 80s, early 90s there was this hair craze where big hair was really in. Teased hair and oftentimes they had these clips that would be at the top of the head and it would create this fountain effect where the hair would pop out.

So I found one of the drawings and it said in the corner-- that I wrote when I was 9 or 10 -- and it said "Hair Pop Out Mania!" And almost every single image from my childhood drawings all had the clip at the top of the head with the hair coming out.

When I was in the early stages of just making those postcards and those bags back in New York, little one-offs in my twenties, that's what I called it, and that's what my friends started to call it, and I just stuck with the name.

It just feels authentic to where it came from. The reason I think art can be so beautiful is that it's honest, and it has a story, and it comes from somewhere. And so I've always tried to keep that authenticity, and keep that reference to my childhood, cause it feels like the story is very genuine.

Who are your artistic influences?

Omaralexis Ochoa: And so, since then, getting a bit more of an art education or exposure to the art world who would you say are your inspirations today for your pieces? 

Dylan Smith: I would say... my friends and pop culture. I feel like I get inspiration from other outlets of art. Certainly visual art, but I kind of take sprinklings of everything I come into contact with.

Picasso is definitely an influence of mine with the "one eye" and the abstract quality. I get a lot of references to Peter Max who did the Beatles album art. Andy Warhol, Antonio Lopez, you know, pop art sort of people. I feel like. I'm inspired by them and it sort of fits in that genre.

How did you become a professional dancer?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, definitely. Some other questions that I had for you were actually around your career as a dancer. So you mentioned you did some work on Nickelodeon as a choreographer. Walk me through: how is it that you came into dance as kind of your initial career path? 

Dylan Smith: Yeah, I went to a summer theater workshop at the high school in my town. And me and my friends were like, "Let's try it." And we went and we would do improv games and acting games and, you know, the teacher at that time (who I went on to work with all through middle school and until I graduated high school) as my drama teacher was like, "You know, you're pretty good!" And I was like, " Gosh I'm good... I'm good at something?" And I found my people and I found my niche, and so I started doing musicals and I loved the people who could tap and I loved the girls who really knew how to dance. And you could tell that they went to a dance studio and were getting training and then they were also in the musicals.

And so I must've bugged my mom and she had the foresight to put me in dance. So I went to school, after school I went to drama, and then after drama I went to dance, and that was my life from... eighth grade until I graduated high school and went to college as a dance major in New York City. From there, my professional career blossomed and I was fortunate enough and worked really hard to work professionally for the last 22 years.

And I'm still actually performing. I just shot a short film two weeks ago. It's one of those things where I'm also trying to get out there to people that you don't have to just pick one thing. It's really possible to be an artist in many different facets, many different realms and that you don't need to just identify as one thing.

What are your preferred dance styles?

Omaralexis Ochoa: During your time in New York, what would you say were your preferred styles? 

Dylan Smith: in college, it was a very regimented classical program: ballet five days a week, modern five days a week. With my theater background, I knew that that was the direction I wanted to go. I just needed more training. So musical theater style, tap, jazz, you know. I went on to do a national tour of a Broadway show, lots of regional theater, cruise ships, I started in theme parks, so very much the music theater. 

What other creative pursuits do you have?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Some parts mixed media artist, some part dancer... What else from the art world do you immerse yourself in that we haven't covered yet?

Dylan Smith: I love to write. I loved English. I loved writing. Talked the head of the English department in seventh grade to put me in gifted English because I just, I wanted to excel. And I've always journaled. There were three years that I journaled every single day for a half an hour, so I've compiled journals and journals and journals, and oftentimes the journaling would turn into a poem or a short story and I've been part of a bunch of different writing groups online and in person, and so right now what I'm working on --in my spare time-- is collecting my short stories, my poems, my childhood, things I wrote in English class, things I wrote on my own, and I'm gonna do a collection of my works and illustrate them myself since I do that. And some photography and link it in with my dance career and just make like a sort of mixed media book.

Any tips for tapping into creative inspiration?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Wow. That's incredible. It sounds like you have a lot of creative energy. How would you recommend people tap into that creative energy, especially people who feel blocked?

Dylan Smith: I think one of the most pivotal and helpful things I ever did was Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way." I had always journaled before but there's this thing called "The Morning Pages" where before you do anything like make coffee, pick up your phone, check your email, whatever, is that you write three pages of stream of consciousness writing where you just write. And they call it "brain drain" and it sort of helps you just get out of the way of thinking you can't do something because you're actively doing it. It's a several week process, the book, with lots of activities and things. Assignments and tasks that you're supposed to do and that really opened my eyes up to getting out of my way and dabbling in other creative modes. So I highly recommend. It's kind of directed towards artists who are stuck and needing to like get back into it, but it's certainly approachable for anyone.

Some of those lessons and those tools and exercises like journaling, I still do. It's super, super helpful for me. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Nice. I'll have to look that up by myself. I would say I have a lot of creative energy, but definitely don't express it in any kind of artistic ways. For me, it's usually web design or podcasting or writing in some form. And that tends to be my outlet, but can definitely agree with feeling blocked, especially recently. So I'll have to look into that book. 

Dylan Smith: Highly recommend it.

How does your LGBT+ identity influence your work?

Omaralexis Ochoa: One thing I kind of want to go back to is the aspects of LGBT identity. How would you say that your LGBT identity has really melded with your work, whether it's visual or in dance or otherwise? 

Dylan Smith: Yeah, I think there's a couple sort of spokes to that wheel.

I mean, as an educator, most of my students know my sexuality, so I feel like there's a lot of purpose there as far as trust. If there's a student or someone who may be feeling like they identify that way, that I can be a positive role model for them. I can be someone that they can confide in, someone that they can see flourish and succeed in something that can oftentimes be um... times are different now. But I had a really hard time as an artist, a young artist, because of the ignorance and being bullied and called names and booed and things like that.

And so to have gotten past that and be able to pass the torch to a different generation and tell my story, and have them see that you can succeed despite those adversities... I think that's a big part of my identity and being able to integrate that into our community. 

Can you tell me about your LGBT+ advocacy work?

Omaralexis Ochoa: I know that you have been active in the queer community from a volunteering perspective. One of the things I read about was some of the work that you did with the Connie Norman Transgender Empowerment Center, which I know is our very own West Hollywood. So tell me a bit about that. 

Dylan Smith: Yeah, one of my dear friends, Love Bailey, is a trans artist. Amazing, amazing, fabulous artist. And through my collaboration with her as an artist and through our friendship, I've become -- she's much more involved with the trans community -- and we've done several shows and she's had a solo show at the Connie Norman Center. And so I've learned a lot more about the community and have been able to recognize where I sit in a level of privilege as a gay, white male and being able to help another facet of our community that is definitely much more under attack and fire, especially these days in many ways. 

So that's been amazing and great friendships that have come from my time at the Connie Norman Center and meeting friends and stuff through Love Bailey. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Awesome. No, I think that's fantastic. I think especially today with some of the hate and vitriol we've been seeing against the trans community, it's definitely important to come together and use whatever privileges or access we have to try and benefit and help those members of our community, especially. So I think that's phenomenal. 

Art has a ripple effect

Dylan Smith: Another sort of mantra or something that I go back to is that art is an act of service, right? Oftentimes it can be very much about vanity with creating art and while some of that is inevitable; we like our things to look good, we like to look good, we like to create things that we feel good about; it's really about releasing it to other people. And letting people feel something from that and creating it and letting it go, letting it soar and fly and creating a ripple effect. 

So for me, it's about being kind, making art that evokes conversation, like I said: that can bring strangers together, that can keep human connection alive in a day and age of technology where we're all very separate or distracted on our phones. Putting more purpose behind my art instead of creating it for the sake of creating it. What's the next step? What's the next level? What, what does it do? Does it just sit in my room and I look and stare at it? Or do I share it with the world and hopefully it sparks joy and that joy ripples to that person who spreads joy and kindness and then we're shaking things up in the world? 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Incredibly well put and couldn't have said it any better.

Well, that's everything I had on my side for you. I really enjoyed this conversation, really enjoyed having you on the podcast. 

Dylan Smith: Likewise. I'm just happy that I get an opportunity and a platform to tell my story and hopefully inspire others to get out of their way and create because we are all artists. Whether we know it or not.

Omaralexis Ochoa: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Dylan, for coming on. I really appreciated it.

Dylan Smith: Thank you.

Photo of Omaralexis Ochoa, host of The Gay Pro, and author of this blog post.

Omaralexis Ochoa

Data analyst, podcaster, pasta-lover... I'm many things, but above all, I'm a creator. I created The Gay Pro because I love sharing stories of queer success, with the intention of empowering and inspiring other queer leaders.