Saturday, April 05, 2008

William A. Smith: "Never heard of him"

I began this week's look at the work of William A. Smith by telling you that I knew very little about the artist and that Charlie Allen, who provided most of this week's scans, had written to me that "[Smith] seemed a mystery....never heard much about him or his career, etc."

Well here's just a little about William A. Smith:

He was President of the American Watercolor Society and President of the American delegation to the International Association of Art. His work won a variety of awards including the Winslow Homer Memorial Prize, the Postal Commemorative Society Prize and the American Watercolor Society's Grand Prize, Gold (twice), Silver, Bronze and Stuart prizes. Below is the piece for which Smith won the Society of Illustrator's Gold Medal for Advertising Illustration in 1959.

Smith taught at the Grand Central Art School and at the Pratt Institute. He lectured at the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens in 1954; Manila, 1955; Warsaw, 1958. He was one of the first artists sent to Russia under the Cultural Exchange Agreement in 1958.

At the age of 13, he began to exhibit his work in serious competitions. The following year he was employed as a sketch artist by the Scripps-Howard Newspapers to cover the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics - can you image? a 14-year-old boy! - and later he worked for the San Francisco Examiner sketching murder trials. The same year, Smith was accepted as the youngest member of the National Academy of Design.

All this week, both here and and on Flickr, I've seen the same comments again and again: "This guy's work is amazing!" and "I'd never heard of him before..."

What is wrong with this profession that illustrators of Smith's calibre and accomplishments could have fallen into such obscurity after such a relatively short time? Go to any library and you'll find entire sections devoted to art and art history... but the books that document the history of illustration wouldn't fill one shelf.

I never learned about the great illustrators when I was in art college... perhaps things have changed... I hope so.

Yesterday, thanks to TI list member Benton Jew, I was contacted by William A. Smith's daughter, Kim. She wrote, "The bar scene (Leon and Eddies in NY) at the top of the April 1 blog is on the wall above me as we speak. I have three painting of my Dad's here on the wall, and they are so greatly appreciated. I have forwarded the blog to my Mother and encouraged her to write to you about all of this. We can provide you with quite a bit of info. Thanks so very much. The whole family is excited."

I know I can speak for a great many people when I say we're excited too, Kim, that we'll now be able to learn a little more about your father - and help to celebrate his accomplishments and to keep his memory alive.

My William A. Smith Flickr set.


  1. You mention Carl Sandburg, who was a very close friend of the family (I took my first steps to him as a baby). In reference to my father's name, the epitaph on my Dad's gravestone is a quote from Carl Sandburg: "The uncommon artist with the common name". Some people (not Carl) thought he should change his name to be more memorable!

    The National Portrait Gallery in DC has a portrait of Carl by my father. A photograph is available on their online archives.

    Dad's achievements were truly astounding and included an insatiable interest in world events and and the diplomacy of art. His first trip abroad was for the OSS in China during WWII. He came away from that experience with a lifelong love of China, the Chinese, and Chinese food, as well as an outstanding array of drawings of people and places. There are tender drawings of Chinese children, gouaches of holy places, drawings and paintings of Chinese actors applying makeup, and even Japanese prisoners of war. His group in the OSS helped liberate a POW camp, and the resulting drawings from that occasion show the hard-scrabble existence and perpetual sense of pragmatism and humor which helped the Allied prisoners through the day. These drawings were published in the military rag, of which I have a copy. GREAT stuff.

    As a result of the friends he made in the OSS, many of whom went on to work in the State Dept., Dad was asked to do many diplomatic tours after the war, particularly to Japan, where he gave lectures on art and artists. Eventually he became national president of AIAP, the artists organization funded through UNESCO, then international president of all 60-some member countries. As president of this organization, he travelled all over the world, including the then Soviet Union, during some of the darkest periods in our relationship with the USSR. He and my mother were always greeted with the utmost friendliness and love everywhere they went, and came back with big containers of wonderful caviar!

    Once, during a trip to Indo-China, he met a very talented artist, who only made tiny watercolors, because he had one small set of colors and did not expect to be able to get more. Dad gave him some of his own watercolors so he could make larger beautiful paintings.

    This is just another side of a many-faceted life. It's possibly true that, though he was prolific and successful, his fascination with the rest of life, and maybe his refusal to change his name :), contributed to a relative (and recent) obscurity.

    Again, thank you.

  2. Thanks for providing those fascinating details, Kim! Just so my point is clear, the fact that your father is relatively unknown in no way diminishes his accomplishments - nor singles him out, except by example here. "Never heard of him" is something I hear all the time when I showcase an artist on Today's Inspiration, and that speaks to a much larger shortcoming of the illustration business in general. As a profession, we have not done enough to emphasize our role in the shaping art and popular culture during the last hundred or so years. If I say the names "Al Parker, Robert Fawcett, Albert Dorne, Bernie Fuchs, Bob Peak" in a room full of people I get a blank stare - and that's in a room full of graphic arts students I might be lecturing to.

    Aside from Norman Rockwell you'd think that not a single illustrator made a lasting impression on the general public - but we have only to go back to the first half of the 20th century to know that's not true. People used to cut out and collect every new illustration they found in print by Charles Dana Gibson... and J.C. Lyendecker would arrive at his studio in the morning to a row of autograph seekers.

    Cosmopolitan magazine did a multi-page feature article on Al Parker in 1953 - intended for a general audience mostly of female readers! Can you imaging finding such an article in Cosmo - or any other magazine - today?

    This blog and some of the ones in my sidebar are some of the only ones in the world (that I'm aware of) making an effort to put this information and the work of these artist back into an easily accessed public forum.

    I have high hopes that our efforts are like a small snowball just beginning to roll down a mountaintop - and I applaud every person who visits here and provides encouragement and assistance in what I hope will one day be an avalache of knowledge and awareness! :-)

  3. Thanks for all your work here. What a fantastic resource!

  4. Thanks nathan - I followed the link back to your blog and was really wowed by your own fabulous work - beautiful stuff. :-)

  5. Leif, thanks once again for your important work connecting the world with great illustrators of the past. I never cease to be surprised by the wealth of information that is out there to be harvested if someone with vision and patience is willing to take the time to do it. Thanks for your public service.

    To Kim Smith and the rest of the Smith family, I am a huge fan of Mr. Smith's work. I have a big file of clippings of his illustrations from various magazines. I take them out from time to time and learn from his brilliance. I would be very interested in seeing more of his work and reading more about his life. He was an extraordinary talent.

  6. It is amazing what Leif is doing running this blog. On TI I've discovered so many masters illustrators whose works I adimre and study each day, including W. Smith, who is among my favorite.
    Thanks for sharing!

  7. I'll say it again; we are so thrilled by the response to this blog... love ya, Leif.

    I have been very actively communicating with many of the people who have participated in this entry, and encourage the sharing of anything else people might have to say. We've come up with incredible resources, and then connections to yet other subjects!

    Thanks again

    Kim Smith