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Rural Ohio Printmaker Wants LGBTQ+ Youth to Know They’re Not Alone

by Megan Becker, The Buckeye Flame

A person in a longsleeve black t-shirt smiles with their mouth closed in front of a white brick wall and a framed print of a river landscape of blue, green, and yellow-gold.
Photo Credit: Courtesy the Buckeye Flame
LGBTQ+ artist and Portsmouth native Klaire Smith poses with her 2023 piece, “Downriver,” depicting Portsmouth, Ohio, through a four-color woodcut print.

'I like being a queer person in a small town. It took me a long time to get to that point.'

This story was originally published by The Buckeye Flame, an online platform dedicated to amplifying the voices of LGBTQ+ Ohioans to support community and civic empowerment through the creation of engaging content that chronicles their triumphs, struggles, and lived experiences.

Nestled on the north bank of the Ohio River, Portsmouth is the heart of Appalachian Ohio, with historic buildings, rolling hills and scenic waterways. Despite the beauty, however the city cannot escape the harsh realities of rural America: homelessness, poverty and the opioid epidemic.

LGBTQ+ artist Klaire Smith, 30, works to show the beauty of her hometown without ignoring its grim truths. After living away from the area for years, Smith recently moved back to Portsmouth with her wife, Katy, to regain the familiar community, culture and inspiration. She’s teaching art in the Portsmouth City Schools, which she sees as an opportunity “to make some kids feel comfortable” because she and Katy are present in the community.  

“I love going into schools and saying something about having a wife,” Smith said. “I’ve really taken to calling her my wife [instead of partner] because then you can’t avoid the fact that I’m a queer person.”

Oh, Appalachia

Smith is a woodblock printmaker, meaning she creates art by carving a design into wood and using it as a stamp. She creates folk-art-inspired pieces that explore themes of Appalachian culture and social complexities, all through a Portsmouth lens. She started as a teaching artist through the Ohio Arts Council in 2019, teaching art, creating pieces for the community and bridging the gap between art education and fine art. 

Over the past five years, Smith has been working on her series “Oh, Appalachia,” which invites viewers to “dig deeper into the hills and hollows of this forgotten land.” A 2022 piece titled “Your Death, My Life (Mors Tua, Vita Mea)” is a three-paneled woodcut featuring stylized images of skeletons holding drug paraphernalia, against the backdrop of the southern Ohio city.

From 2017 to 2021, Scioto County, where Portsmouth is located, had the most unintentional drug overdoses of any Ohio county—about 1 for every 940 people, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health. This statistic is intricately linked to the region’s economic challenges and its history of “pill mills” overprescribing opioids.

Smith’s landscape pieces—often featuring vast hills, the Ohio River or the Portsmouth bridge—strike a familiar chord with Appalachian residents, who find a feeling of home in her art. The display of the region’s natural beauty lays the groundwork for her exploration of deeper cultural themes.

“Any time you drive down to the riverfront, there’s always people just sitting in their cars, looking at the river. Sometimes they’re eating their lunch or smoking a cigarette or just taking a break,” Smith said. “There’s this real love of the river and the land.”

“I hope to be out in the community. Not only as a queer person, but as an artist.”

Katie Smith

Murals, mental health and connection

As a child growing up in Portsmouth, Smith didn’t know any openly gay people or see any LGBTQ+ representation. By being open about her sexuality, Smith said, children have the opportunity to feel more accepted in the community.

While teaching at Portsmouth High School, Smith collaborates with her former art teacher, April Deacon, 45. Deacon recalls Smith showing immense talent as a student and has enjoyed watching her improve her skills through the years. Now she can witness Smith in action, both as an educator and artist. 

“[My students] love Klaire… They can connect with a younger person,” Deacon said. “She is really good at working with the kids and bringing out the best in them.”

In 2019, the pair worked with the high school class to create a mural at a local behavioral health clinic. The piece, titled “Seasons of Change,” represents how mental health changes throughout our lives.

For their next project, the pair plans to transform the school’s “concrete jungle” courtyard with a mural based on identity and culture focusing on Appalachian life, Black culture and the LGBTQ+ community. 

Meanwhile, Smith and Katy are settling into their new home, where they look forward to homesteading and spending time in nature. Smith plans to create non-traditional murals in Portsmouth, share her art with neighboring communities, host local workshops and continue working with students.

“I like being a queer person in a small town,” she said. “It took me a long time to get to that point. I was really self-conscious for a long time. I hope to be out in the community. Not only as a queer person, but as an artist.”

Learn more about Klaire Smith by visiting her website. And give her a follow on Instagram!