March 1, 2013
The day after she turned 90, Kay Smith put on a long-sleeved red top and black slacks, pulled her silver hair straight back from her face, slipped on her black DK spectacles with the sparkling rims, grabbed her cane and headed over to class for the party.
It was a birthday party. It was a goodbye.
When Smith's students first heard that after 21 years she would no longer teach her 10 a.m. Thursday watercolor class at the Old Town Triangle Art Center, they wailed: You can't quit.
Now there was nothing to do about it but uncork the champagne and slice the bundt cake.
"She has the brain of a 30-year-old," said one bereft student as the small party geared up on Thursday. "She still flirts with young men. She still likes a good glass of wine."
"Jack Daniel's," Smith corrected her. "That's my drink at night."
Smith has loved teaching art, especially to those she calls "the trembling artists." They're the students, mostly middle-aged and older, who arrive in this bright, old room afraid of the water, afraid of the paint, having come, in some cases, in the hope that painting would soothe some trouble in their lives.
The students have loved Smith in return, not because she was once named the Illinois artist laureate, or because her art has filled Betty Crocker cookbooks and hung on the walls of the Illinois governor's mansion, but because of how Smith made them feel.
"Our husbands can die, our children can be in trouble," said a student who has been in the class for a dozen years, "and you come here and Kay is here for you."
But 90, Smith knew, was last call.
Last call to use her time painting instead of teaching others to paint. Last call to lecture about Abraham Lincoln, a passion she carries out with the aid of her historical paintings. Last call to spend time on the physical therapy that will keep her moving through it all.
"Ninety is not a crossroads," she said, whisking her hand through the air toward the invisible, inevitable destination. "It's a straight road."
The road behind her started in 1923 on a southern Illinois farm. She was the fourth of sixth children in a family to whom history was practically religion.
Her family told stories of American history the way other families might recount the lives of saints. The Fourth of July mattered more than Christmas.
Art mattered, too.
Her mother, who knew something about watercolors, would sometimes arrange peaches on the kitchen counter and say, come look. Come look at the sun setting over the fields behind the back porch. Look at the pigs, the horses, the corn.
Smith looked and then painted with dime-store watercolor sets. At 10, she won a county prize for a depiction of the Statue of Liberty.
In 1942, with a world war on, her father loaned her $75 to come to Chicago. To help pay for classes at the Art Institute, she took a stenographer's job at the Armour meat company, riding to the office each day through the stinking stockyards.
The years passed. She married, had a daughter, found work. One day in 1971, as she rode an elevator in the Merchandise Mart, carrying her portfolio, a young man stepped in.
"I bet you're an artist," he said.
"You're a genius," she said, dryly.
He said he'd like to see her samples; he might have a job for her. She'd heard that come-on before. But he did have a job. She spent the next five years traveling the country, painting historic scenes to illustrate a book on the American Revolution. Those paintings became her American Legacy series, a rare collection of 250 works that she uses to trace the country's past.
When Smith was 73 — widowed by then — her immune system attacked her nervous system. The rare illness, known as Guillain-Barre syndrome, left her almost paralyzed. She spent weeks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
When she came home, she didn't want to paint.
Her hands shook. She couldn't squeeze the paint tubes.
One day, her daughter brought her a string of peppers — fiery red and green — and hung them in the kitchen.
"Mom," her daughter said, "I'm not coming back until you paint this."
So she painted the peppers, and before long she was back teaching her class at the Old Town Triangle, first in a wheelchair, then with a walker, eventually with only a cane.
"Don't tell your age, girls!" Smith said.
She hoisted her champagne glass — a refill — and the middle-aged girls at the birthday party laughed. They laughed more as she spun a tale of her recent encounter with "a blazingly handsome young manager" at her bank.
Then the champagne bottles were empty. The last class was over.
Kay Smith, the artist at 90, headed up the road.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC