Kay Smith my story
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 a 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 conviction 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.
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. Painting and researching, researching and painting. I was as fascinated by the people and events that shaped our past as I was with the incredible diversity of the nation’s 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 was asked to paint a select number of 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 birthday centennial 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.
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.
For the last twenty years I have taught watercolor classes at the Old Town Triangle Association in Chicago, an experience as fulfilling, though not as glamorous, as my title of “Painter of the American Scene”.
At 97, I focus on still lifes and rural landscapes, the quiet beauty of the light on corn rows and the colors of Concord grapes.