“You’re wasting your time getting art degrees and may as well put signs up to exhibit next to your washing machine like all the other girls.”
Almost 60 years later, Susan Smith still remembers that comment from a professor.
“It spurred me on to be a success,” she said. “And I never liked that guy anyway.”
And successful she became. Smith went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art from the University of Wisconsin, and has had a career spanning six decades.
The artist, who lives in Skamania County, has had her work displayed at shows throughout the Columbia Gorge, where she has lived since 1990. This month, she is the featured artist at the Second Story Gallery at the Camas Public Library.
“I love art because I have something I can speak through,” she said. “I don’t get around well, but I can still create and stitch. I do what I please with my art and there are very few rules.”
Smith has morphed her art into what she calls, “creative stitchery,” after 60 years of painting in abstract expressionism. The 78-year-old artist works through Parkinson’s disease. When her hands became too unsteady to paint, she switched to abstract fabric pictures, often sitting in bed to stitch by hand.
“It’s a way to express myself,” she said.
Smith knew she wanted to be an artist from the age of 5, when she won a local newspaper contest. Her prize was a Mickey Mouse watch.
“From then on, it was a foregone conclusion that ‘Susan will be an artist,’” Smith said. “I started doing representations of people and was known for that.”
Smith taught art during the early years of her marriage to help support her husband who was going to college.
“But I never really cared for it much,” she said. “I love to create. I always believed that if you have any creative inspiration, if you’re not doing it at least in some small way, you’re miserable. Devote at least a little time to it.”
She gathers her inspirations from inside.
“I can tell you what doesn’t inspire me,” Smith said. “Mount Hood and the Gorge. It is beautiful to look at, but painting that has already been done. To me, art is creating something that isn’t on the earth yet.”
Smith could have quit creating when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but instead chose to pursue stitchery.
She said the fabrics she selects are meant to offer humor and are often gleaned from trips to the Inter-faith Treasure House, where she looks for skirts in bright colors.
Titles for the handmade pieces express her whimsy, such as, “It Takes Two to Tango,” selected by Smith to describe a combination of black and white shapes that blend into gray.
Smith’s work in abstract expressionism is displayed in private collections in the United States and Germany, and one of her oil paintings was purchased by the University of Wisconsin for its traveling collection.
She is grateful to still be able to create and exhibit her work, and thanks her son for his assistance.
“He lives with me and is trained in health care, and has the muscle to load the car, drive and set the shows up,” she said. “I really appreciate it, because art is absolute life for me, especially now since I’m dilapidated with Parkinson’s.”