LINCOLN PARK — Watercolors have brought Kay Smith from the hills of Mount Rushmore to the stall of the esteemed racehorse Secretariat, as she’s spent her life depicting U.S. history with her paintings.
But, one of the first times Smith wielded the power of her paintbrush was during her senior year of high school. In the one-room schoolhouse she’d grown up in, she sketched a portrait of a boy who’d been picking on her since they were kids.
“I could’ve gone right to the teacher, but I didn’t,” Smith said. “Instead, I finally drew him and said, ‘Be careful or I’ll put your funny-looking face on this paper again.’ And it shut him right up.”
Smith, of Lincoln Park, spent the next decades carving out a life for herself through painting, with little regard for the men who dared to say something against her.
Now, Illinois’ artist laureate is celebrating her 100th birthday Monday — and it will be Kay Smith Day in Chicago.
“I’ve done a lot of hard work, but I’ve decided that you have to do a lot of work in anything you do,” Smith said. “If you’re writing a letter, write a good one. If you’re writing a good book, well, I don’t know how to help you there.”
Smith’s American Legacy Collection features more than 250 original watercolor paintings. Most of her works were completed on-site, and she painted many historical events as they were happening.
The prolific watercolor artist perched atop a newspaper box to sketch the return of American hostages from Iran and sat shivering in Valley Forge painting soldiers’ barracks.
Smith was the first historical artist to be awarded the George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. She has exhibited in numerous venues, including the Executive Mansion in Springfield, the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago and Yorktown Victory Center in Virginia.
Smith lives in a Victorian rowhouse in Lincoln Park that doubles as a gallery and studio. She still paints almost every day.
For the majority of Smith’s career, she was commissioned to work on various pieces. Somebody would pay Smith to paint a particular historical scene, so she learned to balance her creative freedom with their expectations.
Smith’s final commission was a painting of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of Black pilots who fought in World War II, with the planes blazing through the air. She created the layered watercolor painting from various reference photos and three interviews she conducted with the airmen. It hangs in the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Springfield.
“I had never painted an airplane or anything that held itself up in the air like that,” Smith said. “It was very hard for me, but I like it now. It’s fresh. That frame better get out of the way before the planes come rushing.”
On the other hand, capturing horses is no trouble for Smith. Born on a farm in southern Illinois, Smith grew up taking care of horses and could ride one on her own by the time she was 4 years old.
In the ’80s, Smith was granted unprecedented access to some of the most famous American racehorses to paint their portraits. She said her American Racehorse Collection was one of the “best parts” of her career.
Sat atop a bale of hay, Smith spent days painting a portrait of Secretariat — one of the most famous racehorses of all time — in his stall.
“I wanted to know each horse — not just its build or coloring, but its personality,” Kay wrote on her website. “Some artists paint from photographs, but that would never give you the whole animal. The camera can distort color and proportions.”
Secretariat had never sat for a portrait before, so it took time for him to warm up to Smith. He couldn’t wrap his head around why her paintbrush didn’t have flash like the cameras he was used to, she said.
Each day, Secretariat would pluck Smith’s straw hat off her head and drop it on the ground in front of her. It became a game between them — until he decided to chew it to shreds, Smith said.
“I thought, ‘This is great, being able to be right here with him to watch what he’s going to do,’” Smith said. “But after that, he threw me out. He was over it. He didn’t like my hat.”
Luckily, Smith had enough sketches to complete the horse’s portrait in her studio at home.
Typically, when Smith approached a site to paint, she would sketch the scene and take photographs so she could perfect the piece back at her studio.
Smith was often one of the only women around, especially while she was working the racehorse paintings, Smith said.
“I had to learn to be nasty to some of these men. They wanted to make me look silly in front of other people,” Smith said. “You have to be careful when you’re the only woman with a lot of men. … They’d ask me if I’d spend time with them, and I’d say, ‘Not unless you learn how to talk.’ Usually, I’d just say something quick like that, and I’d quiet them down.”
Smith credited her husband of 35 years for supporting her autonomy and encouraging her art.
“He always helped me with everything,” Smith said. “I’m surprised, looking back, that I was able to carve out so much freedom for myself. I liked spending time alone because I didn’t have to report to anybody.”
In addition to painting on commission, Smith taught at the Old Town Triangle Center, 1763 N. North Park Ave., for more than 20 years.
“I really loved that span of my life, right here in town,” Smith said. “I tried to make it very interesting for my students because I enjoy being very interesting myself. We had a jolly time. Many of my students stayed with me for many years before I left. I would say to them, ‘You people and I have chosen each other, but I have the upper hand, so here’s what we’re going to do.’”
Smith would start a painting and ask her students to finish it in their own ways to help them get past the daunting feeling of staring down a blank canvas, she said. She loved taking her students to art galleries and museums throughout the city, then discussing what they saw together.
“We painted and painted and painted, and over time, they didn’t mind that I wouldn’t allow any whispering because they became interested in what they were doing,” Smith said. “I was teaching myself while I taught them because I felt that I had to have myself completely covered with what I was going to say. Those were happy years.”
Tucked away in her rowhouse gallery among cards from former students and signed photos with politicians, Smith now spends her days asking people to fetch her fresh water so she can paint.
“You can go on and on with a painting, drive yourself crazy until it finally comes together,” Smith said. “But actually, the best part about painting is when you make a good start because sometimes it isn’t a good start and it takes you forever to erase it.
“I like starting the best because you get to assemble all your tools and tell everyone to go away and leave you alone.”
To explore Smith’s paintings, visit her website.
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