Kay Smith Artist Laureate of Illinois Kays Blog
Always an Artist

Kay Smith Artist Laureate of IL - George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedoms Foundation I have been an artist all my life. As a farm girl in southern Illinois, I saw the sunlight change on the rows of corn. I loved picking Concord grapes off the vine because no two were the same shade of purple. When I was six years old, I told my astounded mother, “I am going to be an artist.”

My father, however, was not convinced. So I attended secretarial school to ease his mind. He was worried that art couldn’t sustain me, but I knew it was the only thing that could. That summer, with his loan of $75 tucked into my pocket, I boarded the train to Chicago to begin my journey at the School of the Art Institute.

Once on this path, I never looked back. I became a commercial illustrator of children’s books and used my money to travel to Paris to paint. Looking over the banks of the Seine toward Notre Dame, I said to my young self, “This is what real artists paint.”

Back in Chicago, my idea about Europe being the only place for art was about to change. I was in a crowded elevator, carrying my portfolio, when a man next to me asked if I was an artist. I answered yes. He said he was looking for an artist to illustrate a series of books for the U.S. bicentennial. I smiled and nodded. It wasn’t unusual for men to chat me up in those days. But it turned out he was a publisher and gave me the assignment that changed my life. Kay Smith Artist Laureate of IL - George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedoms Foundation I became an on-site painter. I traveled from one historic site to another, painting in the footsteps of American history: Valley Forge, Mt. Rushmore, Jamestown, the Statue of Liberty. For the next forty years, I had a love affair with this country. I was as fascinated by the people and events that shaped our country as I was with the incredible diversity of her landscape. Forget Europe. This was my place to paint.

My body of work, called the American Legacy Collection, holds more than two hundred of my historic watercolor paintings. I received the Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge award for preserving American history.

Aside from creating that Collection, I painted Triple Crown racehorses for The Hall of Fame Sports Book. I was allowed access to their stables! My first subject was Secretariat, who was mystified by whatever I was doing atop his hay bale. When Earnest Hemingway’s centennial birthday approached, I was commissioned to paint a series of paintings based on his novels, which took me from local Oak Park IL to Key West Fl and on to Spain. Kay Smith Artist Laureate of IL - George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedoms Foundation All of this hard work was recognized by The Lincoln Academy of Illinois, and I was awarded a lifetime appointment as Artist Laureate of Illinois. My father would have been so proud.

Now, at 99, I focus on still lifes and rural landscapes, the quiet beauty of the light on the rows of corn and the colors of Concord grapes.