Gregory Smith, 72, drew life on streets around him

January 24, 1999|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Gregory "Pops" Smith drew pictures of the men who gathered on Baltimore street corners and sipped from small brown bags. He sketched women who clutched their children's hands as they walked in Lexington Market. And he depicted the people who played percussion instruments at Druid Hill Park on warm days.

Mr. Smith drew pictures of the life he saw every day. His artwork was funny, sad and often dealt with life's dark side. But his work had a common thread: amazing realism.

Mr. Smith, a Baltimore native who friends said "just seemed to blend into any group" while he sketched, died Wednesday of heart failure at his home in Montclair, N.J., where he had lived since November. He was 72.

He lived most of his life in the Oliver and Johnston Square neighborhoods of East Baltimore and in Mount Vernon downtown.

An almost elfin man who usually wore a brown tweed cap and a green Army jacket and kept a cigarette tucked behind his ear, Mr. Smith was a familiar sight in many of the city's predominantly black communities.

Friends said he often sat and sketched for hours, attracting a few curious bystanders who peeked over his shoulder. He displayed his works on summer Sundays in Druid Hill Park.

"I always used to tell him that he ought to work for the police because he could go anywhere to draw because nobody seemed worried about his presence," said Rhonda Childs, his roommate and longtime companion.

For instance, he captured the full atmosphere of a dispute at Woodland and Park Heights avenues in Northwest Baltimore several years ago. Days later, after seeing his drawing, one of the men in the fight asked to buy his work.

"His audience was the people who live in the inner city, and that's who his pictures depicted," said Terrence Epps, a longtime friend. "He didn't ever intend on selling his stuff but just did it for his own satisfaction. His work could tell stories no words ever could."

Said Ms. Childs: "He just did it for self-satisfaction and because it relaxed him and made him happy. He could have made a fortune if he had gone that route. But maybe it wouldn't have been as much fun."

Born in Baltimore and raised in Trenton, N.J., Mr. Smith served in the Army during World War II and was stationed in the Pacific Theater. After his discharge, Mr. Smith worked for a New Jersey trucking company, traveling on the East Coast.

In 1956, he moved to Baltimore and for many years worked for the Duron paint company. He later worked for a Plexiglas company in Linthicum and retired in 1982.

Mr. Smith attended Morgan State College and what is now Baltimore City Community College. He never took art courses.

"He didn't try to jazz things up or imagine images like other artists. He drew the real thing," Mr. Epps said. "Those images spoke strong enough for themselves."

A memorial service is planned for next month.

Mr. Smith is survived by three sons, Aaron Smith of Baltimore, Sylvan Smith of Reston, Va., and Larkin Smith of Newport News, Va.; two daughters, Gloria Patterson of Baltimore and Edna Warrenton of Hartford, Conn.; a sister, Earlene Harding of Jessup; and five grandchildren.

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