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Finding my Calling

Kay Smith Artist Laureate of IL Mount Vernon Alexandria Virginia

Artist Laureate of Illinois

“Hello, I am Kay Smith, artist laureate of Illinois, welcome to my paintings and the stories behind them.

I was born in 1923 when Calvin Coolidge was president. The United States was an agricultural society still coping with the aftermath of WWI. Rural America did not have electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing and wouldn’t until well after WW2. My family lived on a farm in southern Illinois, 90 long miles from St. Louis and 75 miles from Springfield, our state capital. Traveling anywhere was hard going during this time.

Our roads were made of dirt and the graded side ditches overflowed with water during heavy rains turning them into quagmires of thick clay and mud, impassable without strong farm horses and a sturdy buggy.

Kay Smith Artist Laureate of IL Independence Hall Philadelphia PennsylvaniaDuring such a deluge I was born into a young family with three little boys living on a farm south of Vandalia, Illinois. My birth was not without drama. The doctor had been summoned and was less than a quarter mile away- applying the whip to his plow horse urging faster, faster- when I slipped into the world and into the hands of my terrified father. Under Mother’s direction he held me up by my heels and made me take my first breath of life, then he fainted dead away.

The doctor soon arrived, wild eyed and mud-spattered, half expecting to find Mother and baby dead, he quickly stepped over Father’s prone body to reach us. Thankfully we were both alright. Father regained his senses apologizing in tears profusely to Mother and Doctor.

I thrived and held a special place in the family for four years as the first born girl until two more brown eyed little girls came along and then no one was a novelty in a family of three boys and three girls.

We were a family of purpose and goals. When my father was a young man he felt he had been called by God to the ministry and had not listened, this bothered him for years. Having ignored his calling, my father compensated for that missed opportunity by telling his children over and over again to listen for our own calling. Everyone, he said, had a purpose and we should be aware of that. God gave people many gifts and we would be asked to use them if we just stayed aware.

When I was ten I won a school prize for my painting of the Statue of Liberty, because of the awareness that my Father pounded into me, I found my calling. Love of art and history would be my mission.

Life on the farm was purposeful, everything we did had a direct effect on our welfare. We produced nearly all of our own food, except sugar, salt, coffee, dried fruit, spices and flour.

The strict cause and effect rules had to be followed. “Girls,” our mother would say, “time to get those eggs out from under those hens. You have to do it once a day or they will think they are no longer needed and will stop laying.”

"The setting hens were a true problem and my two younger sisters would not go near them. You see, when hens are ready to set-they don’t want to give up their eggs and will defend them with surprisingly vicious pecks. That’s because when they are “in heat” or in the “family way” as Mom liked to say, (as it was more acceptable in polite company), the hen’s breastbone gets quite hot which warms the nest and eggs to the perfect temperature required to hatch baby chicks.

Kay Smith Artist Laureate of IL Independence Hall Philadelphia PennsylvaniaYou also must watch out for the roosters. Every farm had one strutting around the barnyard like they knew more than anyone else in Fayette County. Those birds knew their calling and even though I was only 10 years old when I decided to be an artist, I was just as sure of mine."

Kay Smith, now 97, has the lifetime honor of Artist Laureate of Illinois. Her passion for American History dovetailed with her passion for art and led to her trailblazing career as a teller of American history through her watercolor paintings.

In 1971, she travelled for five years doing a series of paintings for a book on the American Bicentennial. From Jamestown to Valley Forge to Mt Rushmore and back again, she painted the length and breadth of the United States in an adventure that culminated in 250 paintings. This collection was named The American Legacy Collection, it is the largest collection of historical paintings ever done on site by a single artist. Her work has hung in the Illinois governor's mansion, Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge and countless other venues.

Kay Smith Artist Laureate of IL Independence Hall Philadelphia Pennsylvania


For 21 years she was an inspirational magnet for watercolor students at the Old Town Art Assn. in Chicago, calmly doing her demos with talent, humor, charm and patience. Today, she continues to paint and record her memories of her amazing life.

All the paintings featured here are available for purchase, contact and visit Kay’s website Follow Kay on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.




Kay Smith Artist Laureate of IL Independence Hall Philadelphia Pennsylvania

These images are a unique resource. They preserve history, encourage art appreciation, and facilitate commercial applications. The organization or individual that acquires the Collection or its core paintings will be a steward of American history.

Kay Smith Artist-Laureate-of-Illinois

The Artist

Kay Smith has lived and painted in Chicago for over 70 years. An esteemed teacher, historian and lecturer, as well as painter, Kay is our Artist Laureate of Illinois, a lifetime appointment. She was also awarded the national George Washington Honor Medal.

Kay’s artwork has enjoyed major exhibits at the Harry S Truman Presidential Library and Museum, the Yorktown Victory Center and the Illinois Governor’s Mansion, among dozens of other venues. Most recently, the Pritzker Military Museum & Library commissioned her “Red Tails Escorting the B-17s” watercolor, honoring the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, which now hangs in its oral history room.

To view the entire Collection and discuss possibilities for its display, preservation or purchase please contact Kay Smith by text at 773.709.2690   email: or visit her website at    Printable Version

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