Visit a jazz club in Chicago and there’s a fair chance you might spot a person in a dark corner sketching the musicians. After the show, she’ll give some artwork to the band and keep some for herself. She goes by the name Crème Sheri, and she brings a big personality to all things jazz.
Jay Shefsky: When the Chicago Jazz Orchestra plays the Green Mill, one fan listens but works on her canvas.
Sheri Smith, aka “Crème Sheri,” artist/jazz fan: It’s akin to automatic writing, because the sound comes through my head, goes into my arms and into my hands, and I’m there, and it just moves. My hand is moving, just like that.
Sometimes I only have a space that’s a little café table. Sometimes it’s brutally dark, that’s why I choose very, very, very bright colors, so I can see. I mean that shows you right then and there that I chose yellow, magenta, and blue etc., because when I make the mark I can tell what it is and where it is.
Shefsky: Sheri Smith recognizes that contemporary musicians, including Kurt Elling and Dee Alexander, are part of the continuing story of jazz.
Smith: I’m drawing history in the making and yes, it’s a scene, and for me a good part of the scene are the musicians, because when I come there early I’m watching them relate to each other.
They are not only amazing but for some reason when I draw they just make me crazy, and so I’m willing to sit there hour after hour, night after night, capturing the culture of the jazz musician.
Shefsky: Smith is the resident artist at Le Piano, a Rogers Park jazz club. She gets occasional gallery shows of her work, and her home is a personal museum.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from the School of the Art Institute, then became an art teacher in Chicago Public Schools.
Smith: Seven years ago I retired from teaching art for 20 years and I took a seven-year nap and I woke up and my mantra was: If I was going to be the professional artist that I would’ve been, but I was teaching, I need to do everything now.
Shefsky: She began drawing jazz musicians while still teaching. Now, she has more time for her creative pursuits.
Smith: Even though I was still working I’d go out on the weekends and I’d draw. When I was retired I’d still go out and draw, but now I didn’t have to keep the hours of getting up at 6, going to bed at 10. Now I could go bed at 3 and get up at noon.
Shefsky: She has just one regret about studying art.
Smith: I never took anatomy in art school and I rue the day, and that’s probably part of the reason my style is what it is. It would’ve been completely different if I knew anatomy.
Shefsky: But she knows music and she knows what she likes.
Smith: I’m not big on “free bop,” but when you have a crooner up there, like Paul Marinaro, I melt.
I really like crooners. The deep mellow voices just slay me.
Shefsky: A onetime caterer, Sheri Smith used to go by the name “Cooking Sheri.” Then a nightclub owner suggested she change it to “Crème Sheri.”
Smith: I said to myself, “Well you’re 60. Would you rather be Cooking Sheri or Crème Sheri?” So it was a no-brainer. I said, I want be a sexy old woman so I took the name Crème Sheri. I like it and I’m sticking with it.
I’m already thinking about where can this work reside after it no longer needs to be here, because I don’t know about anybody else but I know that my son is not going to really want all this stuff, and I want to protect it, and I want it to be protected so, I’m thinking beyond.
We’ve got this one shot, if there’s a heaven, so be it, but right now I’m thrilled that I’m taking this step and I am validating the world of Crème Sheri and it’s full speed ahead.
Note: This story was first published on Aug. 5, 2019. It has been updated.