Luther W. Brady Art Gallery’s new show pays homage to the late GW faculty member and painter.
March 17, 2014
During his 23-year teaching career at the George Washington University, the late Arthur Hall Smith would lead a challenging wet media drawing class. The techniques were difficult for students and required messy, hard-to-manage materials. One day, Mr. Smith upped the ante: He informed students that they would be working from a live model.
“We were thinking, ‘We can’t handle the ink and the water and the paint, and now we’re going to have a live model?’ Then he started talking about how special the model was. We thought, ‘Who in the world could it be?’” remembered his former student Sally Mahan Cox.
Mr. Smith asked students to cover the studio’s windows in paper to protect the model from “voyeurs,” urged them to come to class early and insisted they knock the door before entering. When they arrived, their painting stations were already set up. At each table was the live model—a simple white mum.
“We were just stunned. We were looking for this beautiful, gorgeous woman or incredible man who was going to be our model. And just for a minute, we saw life like Arthur did,” Ms. Cox said.
Ms. Cox told her story to Mr. Smith’s students, colleagues, friends and family members at Wednesday’s opening of “Arthur Hall Smith: In Memoriam,” the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery’s latest exhibit. The show honors the former GW professor by displaying more than 50 of his paintings and drawings spanning six decades. Several of the pieces were made in Paris, where Mr. Smith spent summers before retiring from his professorship at GW
The opening doubled as a memorial, in which those who knew and loved Mr. Smith exchanged vivid memories about the beloved painter and educator. Mr. Smith retired from GW in 1997 and moved to Paris fulltime, where he passed away last year.
"I dearly remember Arthur as an ardent Parisian and a wise collaborator in curatorial work with the Phillips Collection," said Lenore Miller, director of University Art Galleries and chief curator.
Mr. Smith was born in Norfolk, Va., and began painting at a young age. He attended Wesleyan University and became the college’s first student to be awarded a Fulbright scholarship, which gave him the opportunity to study fine arts at the University of Paris. Shortly after completing his Fulbright project, Mr. Smith served in the Korean War as a member of the Third Armored Division of Fort Knox. His work would later reflect a sense of the worldliness he acquired during his travels: He was particularly known for embracing East Asian sumi-e ink wash painting techniques in his pieces.
The Corcoran Gallery displayed 36 of Mr. Smith’s pieces in a one-man exhibition in 1960. Mr. Smith stayed in Washington, D.C., spending time as a curatorial assistant at the Phillips Collection. He worked directly with famed artists, like Marc Chagall, whom he bantered with in French, according to an article from the Phillips Collection.
Mr. Smith came to GW in 1974 and left a profound impact on students and faculty members. Alumna Holly Trostle Brigham, M.F.A. ’94, dedicated her recent exhibition “Dis/Guise” at the Brady Art Gallery to Mr. Smith, calling him her favorite professor and mentor.
At Wednesday’s memorial, Charles Steiner, M.F.A. ’76, another one of Mr. Smith’s students, submitted several letters Mr. Smith had written him. The letters were impressive both in content and in aesthetic—they were made up of exact, perfectly etched black ink lines—and revealed Mr. Smith’s attention to detail, precise memories and fascination with the world around him.
In his first letter to Mr. Smith, Mr. Steiner was worried the professor wouldn’t remember him.
“Almost every letter begins with a writer seeming to think he or she may have been forgotten in the multitude of continuous, successive graduates. The truth is, I really do remember everybody,” Mr. Smith responded to his former student.
Many of Mr. Smith’s family members attended the memorial, simply remembering him as “Uncle Sunny.” They celebrated his wit, gregarious nature and sense of humor.
Other friends and former colleagues called him a “true raconteur” who loved to tell stories.
“Arthur was an artist and an entertainer. When he was an artist he liked to be alone, but he also loved to be with people. Those two qualities made him a great teacher—to this day, he’ll have a great impact not only on the artists in this room and across the country, but also on our students for those of us who teach,” said John Morrell, M.F.A. '77.
“Arthur Hall Smith: In Memoriam” will be on display at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery until April 4.