Treasures from the Vault: Harry Smith and Patterns in the Wind,
Harry Smith liked to look for keys to the universal patterns that shape our cultures and the hidden realms of the human unconscious. He compared patterns in native American music with the eccentric rhythms of jazz; the patterns in Seminole patchwork with those on Ukrainian Easter eggs; the intricate diagrams of master occultists with the ambient rhythms of the sounds of New York street life—and somehow assembled from these a harmonic web of cosmographic ideas, employing all the investigative rigor of his early anthropological training.
His work explored many mediums, from music to film to painting to collecting, and his collections of peculiar impedimentia—seemingly unrelated objects threaded with meaning—expanded to fill his small New York hotel rooms.
One of the groups of objects Harry Smith assembled, as Nancy Perloff noted in her piece on Smith’s archives earlier this year, was a collection of over 250 paper airplanes found from 1961 through 1987 on the streets and sidewalks of Manhattan. Harry would pick up these transient paper objects, otherwise doomed to be swept away or decayed in the weather, and find meaning, value and purpose in them.
He tagged each with the time and location of their finding, acting as a meticulous field worker, freezing the moment of a stranger’s whim for later inspection and evaluation. These wound up squirreled away amidst his other collections, rarely seen by others, but enlarged by his telling into the World’s Largest Paper Airplane Collection.
Harry Smith also chronicled the meaningful but hidden patterns of New York life in an audio recording project of the 1980s, documenting entire days filled with the sounds of footsteps, the noise of crowds, the mewing of cats, the roar of traffic, and the sighing of the wind. Perhaps his paper airplanes are a visual example of this quotidian yet symbolic realm.
Every paper airplane sent into the winds of the city told stories about the weather, and the world, and which days New Yorkers were most inspired to commit small acts of defiance, or freedom, or hope, placing news of the human heart into those webs of resonance described by sound, space, light, and interval. Every time a schoolchild launched her boredom out of a classroom window, she might be sending a message into the hands of Harry Smith.