At 90, artist follows her straight road

"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.