George Phelps Fondersmith Jr., an artist and former advertising executive who was the founder and director of the Baltimore Life Gallery, died of pneumonia Wednesday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The longtime Towson resident was 85.
Mr. Fondersmith was born in Philadelphia and raised in Elkins Park, Pa., and was a graduate of Cheltenham High School. He studied at the Art Students' League of New York and the Philadelphia College of Art.
During World War II, he served as an Army master sergeant at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where he headed its art department.
In 1947, he married Hope Eaton, a business manager.
Mr. Fondersmith, who had also taught commercial art, watercolor and graphic design at the Philadelphia College of Art and later at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Morgan State University, moved with his family to Baltimore in 1953 when he was named art director at the Joseph Katz Advertising Agency.
In 1958, he joined VanSant Dugdale & Co., then the largest advertising agency in the city, where he was named vice president and creative director. His concepts resulted in many award-winning campaigns for such clients as Allegheny Airlines, Black & Decker, and W.R. Grace & Co.
"He was a very bright and an extremely talented and articulate individual," said Lewis W. Waggaman, a longtime friend and former VanSant & Dugdale art director. "He was very easygoing and not territorial at all, and people who worked with George always took direction from him willingly."
Mr. Fondersmith left VanSant & Dugdale in 1976 when he was appointed director of communications for Baltimore Life Insurance Co., which had its headquarters in the 900 block of N. Howard St. near Mount Royal Station.
Given the assignment to broaden the company's image in the community, Mr. Fondersmith hit upon the idea of combining his love of art with the need to provide a venue for other working Maryland artists to exhibit their work.
Baltimore Life Insurance Co. opened the Life of Maryland Gallery in 1983 in a first-floor room at company headquarters with Mr. Fondersmith as its director. Its debut show, featuring fiber art, opened that year.
"It came along at a time when Baltimore had only a few galleries for Maryland artists to show their work. He was a jovial man with a big smile who made everything easy for the artist," said Bennard Perlman, a noted Baltimore artist.
"And it was completely subsidized by Baltimore Life, which took no commissions. Money from all sales went directly to the artist. The Life of Maryland Gallery was such an important contribution the cultural scene in Baltimore." he said.
When the company moved its headquarters from Baltimore to the Owings Mills Corporate Campus Center in 1993, the gallery moved with it. The first thing visitors encountered when entering the building's lobby was a gently curved fabric-covered wall hung with artwork that ended near a series of floor-to-ceiling windows.
"It was a very lovely gallery and George certainly knew how to run it. There were printed catalogues, a string quartet, great food and great wine," said Will Wilson, a Baltimore artist who also exhibited at the gallery. "In the beginning we wondered about the 4 p.m. openings on Thursdays, but George would get 1,500 people there. It was amazing."
Though he had retired in 1987, Mr. Fondersmith continued managing the gallery for another five years. The company closed the gallery in 1997.
In his retirement, Mr. Fondersmith volunteered twice a week at A Moveable Feast, where he delivered meals to AIDS patients.
He also remained active with the Baltimore Art Directors Club and the Charcoal Club. He enjoyed monthly luncheons with retired VanSant & Dugdale employees at the Charred Rib in Timonium or the Valley Inn in Brooklandville.
In addition to creating portraits, still lifes and landscapes, which he rendered in watercolors, charcoal and pastels, he was also an accomplished woodworker.
A memorial service and art show of Mr. Fondersmith's works will be held at 2 p.m. Nov. 29 at Grace Fellowship Church, 9505 Deereco Road in Timonium, where he was a longtime member.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Mark P. Fondersmith of Frederick and Eric A. Fondersmith of Towson; two daughters, Claudia Fondersmith Horowitz of Villanova, Pa., and Lisa Fondersmith Hugo of Towson; and seven grandchildren.