"There was a glass studio just a couple of miles down the street from where I lived," the Hinsdale artist said recently. "I was 19 and trying to figure out what I was going to do. I walked in one day and asked if he needed any help. His wife had been working with him before and she was pregnant, so she couldn't work with the glass anymore.
"I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life before that. I was installing flooring, doing wall-to-wall carpet. I did that right out of high school for a year and didn't mind it, but it was not what I wanted to do with my life.
"I started working with glass and I was making a whole lot less money, but I enjoyed it a lot more and stuck with it."
Fourteen years later, Smith is a successful and decorated maker of paperweights, blown glass and sculptures, using a highly specialized technique known as lampworking.
He is one of seven Berkshire County craftspeople nominated for the Martha Stewart American Made
awards, which celebrate "quality craftsmanship and well-designed goods." Balloting for the People's Choice awards on the American Made website is open through Sept. 22.
There also will be category winners chosen by the staff at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Among 11 honorees selected nationwide last year was furniture maker Sawkill Co. in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Smith is a first-time nominee but no stranger to awards. Last year, he was the National Paperweight Collectors Association's Artist of the Month for June. This year, he was named a recipient of a 2013 Niche Award by Niche Magazine for a paperweight titled "Yellow & Orange Late Berkshire Summer."
The intricate piece is typical of Smith's work, depicting orange blossoms and foliage.
Depictions of nature are typical not only of his paperworks but of the genre as a whole, Smith said.
"It's pretty much all inspired by nature," he said. "A lot of collectors are into floral paperweights. I'd say 90 percent of the ones I do are floral. I like to do frogs and lizards, but collectors don't gravitate to them.
"It's kind of built on tradition. A lot of the (paperweights) in the 1800s were floral themed. ... Usually it doesn't do well if there's not a flower in it. A lot of [collectors] say they don't like creepy, crawly things."
Fortunately for Smith, he lives with his wife, photographer Katie Malone-Smith, in a corner of the world where natural inspirations abound.
"Some days when I'm having a creative block, I'll walk into the woods, bring a pair of shears and clip some flowers and bring them back to the studio," he said. "I've also got a lot of books. I have a library with all kinds of nature books. And the library in Hinsdale saves it's copies of National Geographic for me."
In his studio, Smith recaptures those images of nature in glass using a painstaking process in which glass is worked using a torch rather than the heat of a furnace, as in the more widely practiced art of glassblowing.
Smith described his process for a profile on marthastewart.com"
"I begin each paperweight by creating delicate glass sculptures through the process of lampworking. The elements are assembled together into a composition by melting colored rods of glass. Then, I encase the assembled design with a clear dome of glass crystal. The paperweight is cooled very slowly to room temperature for 40 hours and is then polished."
Smith said there are only about 12 practioners worldwide who are making the kind of high-end paperweights he produces. Some artisans can ask prices in the tens of thousands of dollars; a French weight from the mid-19th century sold for $256,000 in the late 1990s.
Smith was inspired to get into lampworking after an encounter with master craftsman Paul Stankard of New Jersey, one of the top paperweight makers in the world.
"He borrowed my equipment to do a demonstration," Smith said. "I'd never seen that kind of paperweight before. I didn't know they existed. ... I wanted to try lampworking for something to do at home in my free time. I started out making beads and little perfume bottles."
Through trial and error and a lot of reading and watching instructional videos over the course of about five years, Smith today is a self-taught lampworker with his work available at dealers from Dallas to Chicago to New York City to, locally, on Church Street in Lenox at the WIT Gallery.
In addition to his lampworking, Smith is a fulltime gaffer with Gartner Blade, a blown and sculpted glass studio in Ashley Falls.
And even though he has made a name for himself in the world of weights, he hopes to expand his artistic horizons.
"I did a lot of drawing when I was younger and got into clay sculpting," Smith said. "When I started working with glass, I fell in love with that. But every now and then I do a little bit of sketching.
"I do some blown things for myself. I'm working on incorporating blown things with my paperweights. I'll put a blown foot on the bottom of it or make like a chalice with a paperweight stem. I don't want to limit myself to paperweights only. Some collectors also want the blown form."