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Lesson in passion: Austin singer-songwriter Darden Smith's Be an Artist program encourages youths to pursue their creative dreams

Patrick Beach

A tall guy with a gig bag slung over his shoulder walks into Gus Garcia Middle School in East Austin on the last Thursday of the Austin Independent School District's 2010-11 school year. He signs in and is directed to room 183, Havilah Rand's language arts class.

The bell rings, and 17 or 18 seventh-graders file in and take their seats. The guy takes a Yamaha acoustic guitar he picked up for $150 at South Austin Music, sits on a stool and plays the class "Hands on the Wheel," from one of his best albums, "Circo."

"My name is Darden Smith, and I'm a musician, a songwriter," says the guy who, in boots, jeans, an untucked black dress shirt and a small hoop in his left ear, looks the part. "I live in Austin."

This is indeed that Darden Smith, the one who's made a living as a performer for some 25 years, cutting more than a dozen records, playing "Austin City Limits," touring 48 states and abroad. He's here to present his Be an Artist program, to show the students whatever they most love doing is their art, and if they do it with a goal and with passion they, like him, can have happy and creative lives. In addition to American schools, he's done this for Covenant House, which assists formerly homeless children, an international school in France and even for wounded veterans.

"The best part of my job is it makes me happy," he says. The acclaimed Austin singer-songwriter describes his mind as a sponge, the elements that go into his songs as the ingredients in a smoothie, pieces of things blended together to create something new. He tells them they can do this, and before the bell rings they will have written a song together, a collaborative creation of their own. He'll record it and give them a copy.

This started when Smith gave a talk to his son's fourth-grade class. The boy graduated high school this year . What he presumed would be a one-shot deal he expanded to other Austin schools, at first in the dead of winter when he didn't want to be traveling. Since 2003, the Be an Artist program has grown, and now he estimates that between booking and playing the gigs, the thing takes up as much as half his time. There's no formal follow-up with the students, although sometimes he hears directly or indirectly that he was a future artist's inspiration. They rarely remember his name, he says. The program is a nonprofit that lives on fundraisers and grants. He's been all over with it now — the States, U.K., Germany, France.

"Are any of you artists?" he asks. "Does anybody draw? Anybody paint? Anybody sing in church, maybe? Anybody dance? Anybody skateboard? My way of looking at the world is everyone is an artist. Everyone. You don't have to become an artist; you're born an artist."

Even his foundation man, Winslow from Guanajuato, "is an artist at pouring concrete."

Close your eyes, he says. Imagine it's Saturday. You wake up and there's a note on your bed that says you can do anything in the world you want to do today. What is it?

Even on the penultimate week of the school year, he has them now. Every student is smiling. A boy in a striped polo, Juan Orozco Vargas, says he was imagining being "a famous DJ."

"I think if you have something you love to do, you should do it every day," Smith says. "What you love in the seventh grade? Take it seriously."

Growing up around Brenham, he tells them, he was a little weird. He'd get emotional easily. He wrote poetry, which was considered sissy stuff. He picked up the guitar when he was 9 and loved it so much he'd take it with him to school. The kids on the bus teased him: "Hey, Elvis," they'd say. "Play us a song."

Yet those very things — writing, playing, tapping into his feelings — are the very things he uses in his job.

He takes questions:

"How many guitars do you have?" He says nine but, as he noted before class, a guy like him can always rationalize buying one more — there might be a great song in the next one. You just never know.

"Do you have a mansion?"

No. "I'm very wealthy, though, in happiness."

Then he raises his eyebrows and says, "I think we can write a song right now. I think we can."

The class has been hard at work on scripting and recording a film adaptation of Jerry Spinelli's young-adult novel "Maniac Magee," about a kid who's orphaned at 3, reads voraciously, is allergic to pizza, has many adventures and misfortunes and eventually comes out on top. Smith already has a title: "I Wanna Be Like Maniac Magee."

Things about Maniac Magee become lines in the song: "He likes to read books about anything he can read/Like encyclopedias or a book about a big red dog ... You get tired of runnin' and you just fall down ... I wanna be like Maniac Magee."

He plays the tune back. The students smile. They have a song for their film.

"Look at that," Smith says. "We just wrote a song. In five minutes we wrote a song. We made something that didn't exist five minutes ago."

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603

Be an Artist