Smiths cling to art, faith, family in quarantine

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Smiths cling to art, faith, family in quarantineHarrowing stories of loss associated with COVID-19 — and our attempts to contain it — dominate the mainstream media. But for some, the time in isolation has bred a mini-Renaissance.

Take Darren Smith, for example, who started fabricating super-hero armor out of his garage several years ago. His efforts yielded a devoted following in the community, as well as in broader circles of fan-art devotees.

Once the shelter-at-home orders confined him to his house, he turned back to his workshop with renewed inspiration.

“I think the pandemic has brought families together — whether they liked it or not,” he joked.

Before the current shelter-at-home orders disrupted routines, many families had neither the ideal quality nor quantity of family time, he said. “Being on lock-down, you experience everything together. Things come to the surface, and you have an opportunity to re-evaluate and prioritize everything in your life.

“For us, it has been a real God thing.”

In 2013, the News Review reported on Smith when he made a splash on the local scene by donning a home-made (and incredibly realistic) Iron Man suit to attend the IM3 premier at Ridgecrest Cinemas. He had already worn the suit to Comic-Con, where even Stan Lee commended his craftsmanship. (And even agreed to pose with Darren in a photo).

Darren and his wife, Emily, recounted in that first profile how their family used a broken XBOX as an opportunity to search for a more fulfilling hobby. Now, “The Smith Collective” is a family labor. Emily and the children helped convert the garage into an art studio, and eldest daughter Emma is employed to help in the shop.

Over the years, Darren has refined his craftsmanship. What started as hand-sculpted pieces soon transitioned into mold-based prototypes to increase production. Now, he is looking at how he can make the next leap with the help of 3-D printing.

“It’s not cheating,” laughed Darren. “It’s leveraging.” (Also, in a parallel to his alter-ego, he plans to name that machine “Jarvis.”)

Emily agreed that having a solid base to work with is not what makes the pieces special. “It’s all those tiny details and flourishes that Darren makes that bring everything to life.”

Darren’s work spans from shiny Boba Fett helmets to battle-damaged stormtrooper helmets to Batman suits to Demi-Gorgon costumes. Last year, he decided impulsively to make his wife a Wonder Woman costume for Halloween.

“I said, ‘Yeah right, you’re not going to be able to finish that,” said Emily. “After all these years, I don’t know why I don’t believe him.” Two weeks later, sure enough, Darren had completed a gorgeous piece that looked convincing enough to be worn by Gal Godot on screen.

Because his pieces are original, there are no forms or templates to work from. Everything is built from the foundation up — with each subsequent layer of design demanding more refined levels of detail and artistry.

Both Darren and Emily have creative bents, as do their three children — Khai, Emma and Ruby. Darren also points to the talents of his parents as inspiring and informing his own craft. That artistic heritage is one of the reasons he hired Emma.

“I think every parent wants to pass along what they have to their children, and then watch them take it to the next level,” said Darren. Emma aspires to work in the film and television industry as a special effects artist. In addition to her responsibilities in keeping the shop clean and organized, she practices her own skills by helping paint and design the pieces her dad makes and sells.

Darren recently branched out to open a shop on Etsy (search “The Smith Collective” to find his presence on multiple social media platforms). He makes everything from costumes to collectibles — drawing from his own imagination and taking specific requests.

“There really is a dedicated following for this,” said Darren, who acknowledged a legion of fans looking to tap their inner super-hero

His personal favorites are Iron Man and Batman. “Both of these men are billionaires, but they don’t have super powers. They have experienced trauma that helped shape their missions to protect people. I think each of us can relate to that — a desire to become something greater than we already are.”

Darren can attest to how his creative pursuits have helped him push past his own personal boundaries.

“In terms of making things, I feel like the sky is the limit,” he said. “But even wearing the Iron Man suit has been an interesting experience. I am shy — it’s something I’m always trying to overcome. But when you take on this identity, you feel differently. You are empowered, you walk differently. And people are happy to see you.

“I will never forget when I went to Comic Con — I felt like a rock star.”

Emily noted that giving that feeling to other people is one of Darren’s main drivers. “I don’t think he cares about making money. I think his fulfillment comes from giving the things he makes to people.”

A pastor by trade, Darren admitted that he can’t help but co-mingle his professional and artistic callings.

“That has also been an interesting part of this experience,” he said. “Every day, instead of sitting at a desk in an empty building, I’m at home listening to sermons and books-on-tape while I create. Tying these two worlds together has inspired my heart, my mind and my spirit in a way that I could not have imagined possible. I feel more productive than ever.”

Pictured: Darren and Emma Smith hold some of the handiwork of “The Smith Collective.” — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2020-05-29