She turns 100 today and is still painting

January 21, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

FREDERICK -- Helen Smith marks a century of life today, and, before a host of community officials and fans honor her at a luncheon at Hood College, the venerable woman will begin her day as she always does: painting in her home studio.

By anyone's account, she has lived an extraordinary life for a woman born 100 years ago on a Frederick County farm -- and still works in the same vicinity.

"It doesn't seem believable -- imagine 100 years old," Miss Smith reflected the other day as she sat in the parlor of her 1870s-vintage home. "I've always been awfully busy. It's kept me out of mischief."

Indeed, for most of her life, she has painted everything from furniture to landscapes and portraits for thousands of Frederick families -- and others from Baltimore and Washington. Her work includes hand-painted items such as lamp shades, jewelry, clocks and dishware, portraits and silhouettes of thousands of area children.

Among her best-known oil and watercolor landscapes is "Clustered Spires," a view of downtown Frederick's much-storied cluster of church spires. Her current pursuit is a series of watercolors of Frederick buildings.

Some of that work -- as part of the celebration of her birthday -- will be exhibited at the Delaplaine Visual Arts Center in Frederick and the Frederick County Historical Society through Feb. 27.

Almost eight decades ago -- long before it was fashionable for women to work -- Miss Smith embarked on a business career by opening an art shop on Frederick's Market Street. Ever since, she says, art has been her livelihood and passion.

More than that of any other local artist, Miss Smith's work best reflects Frederick and its history.

"I don't think there is an old Frederick family that doesn't have a piece of Miss Smith's work," said Melinda Weimer, executive director of the Delaplaine Visual Arts Center in Frederick. "I don't think there is a family or an event that has not been documented by her."

Miss Smith said one of her staples has been producing coats-of-arms for families all over the country. "I stopped counting at 10,000," she said.

Elizabeth Remsberg, who lives on a farm near Middletown and once frequented Miss Smith's Market Street shop so many years ago, is among those owning several of Miss Smith's works.

"She is such a wonderful person and is so talented," Mrs. Remsberg said. "She paints every day. I talked with her the other day and she was out in her studio painting in the middle of a snow storm."

April Allmond, museum director for the Historical Society of Frederick County, says she thinks of Miss Smith "as Frederick's Grandma Moses. Her work is pure and clean. Those of us who own any of her works feel fortunate to have them. She still does commissioned work."

Miss Smith accepts the reference to Grandma Moses graciously. The famed folk artist "did all right," she said, adding with a touch of wit: "She was pretty late starting, though." Grandma Moses, who died in 1961 at age 101, began her art career when in her late 70s.

Miss Smith sketched as a child and earned her first set of watercolors at age 12 by winning a drawing contest sponsored by a farm magazine that her father read. Her art career formally began after she graduated from the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore -- which, despite her father's objections, she attended on a scholarship. She remembers her father saying he wouldn't pay her college expenses because "that would be the end of foolishness."

After finishing at the Maryland Institute, she taught at Hood College for eight years -- where she will be honored at a luncheon today -- before opening the first of two small shops in downtown Frederick. She was allowed to lease the space only after she consented to sell crafts made by farmers' wives.

"The owners could see money there," Miss Smith recalled. "The funny thing is, I don't think I ever made more than $5 commission on the handiwork. I had a shop 10 years. It went well." A subsequent shop lasted another five years.

Still, she wanted to paint. She opted to paint at home rather than pursue the temptations of a larger market, such as New York or Paris. "I was a small-town person," she said. "I wasn't skylarking. I was trying to make a living. My one thought was to make a living at art. Back then, that was quite an accomplishment."

Miss Smith said she has rarely turned down requests from customers, no matter how tedious. She remembers even dyeing a pair of shoes for one customer. She completed her last portrait about 10 years ago.

She has owned her house and studio since 1940 -- on property once owned by Frederick Civil War icon Barbara Fritchie and her husband. Miss Smith converted the old house's summer kitchen into a studio. She paints in the morning, when, she says, she has "zip and can fight the lions."

"People ran me so hard that I decided I wanted to live simpler," Miss Smith said, thinking back over the 50-plus years that painting has provided her livelihood. "I thought if I got my own place and could sell my own work, I wouldn't be as pushed. My friends all thought I was loony.

"Painting's something I've always done," she said. "In my time, no one would think of making a living as an artist. That was something that was above the sky. It really wasn't something I even dreamed of."

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