Saturday, April 4, 2009

Norman Kent Offers 'True' Praise for William A. Smith

"Some illustrators, although not necessarily pigeon-holed, are in demand for certain types of stories because of their special interests or experiences," writes Norman Kent in the September 1954 issue of American Artist.

"William A. Smith, for example -- Bill was with the O.S.S. in China for many months during W.W.II"

"While off duty he made hundreds of drawings of the Chinese people, their cities, towns, their countryside."

"He even learned to speak their language and he counts many Orientals, both here and abroad, his personal friends. He has made himself a natural for Oriental stories."

But this does not narrow his capabilities or his attractiveness as an illustrator for any kind of a story because his interests are universal and his experiences have been most varied. Several years ago Bill took himself off to Paris with his wife and children where he lived for two years. He devoted himself to easel painting both in oil and watercolor and out of this investment in study and independent work have come many prizes and honors."

"Part of the collection he brought home formed the basis for a large one-man show at the Toledo Museum of Art. Other pictures have won important prizes in national shows.

When in 1952 he was elected to the Academican's rank of the National Academy he was one of the youngest painters ever to have achieved this distinction."

"His most recent honor has an honorary Master of Arts Degree bestowed by the University of Toledo at its 1954 commencement."

"I cite Bill Smith's experiences at some length merely to point out the fact that the really accomplished artist has a rich and varied background to account for his continuing success as an illustrator."

Friday, April 3, 2009

How to read this blog

This blog was created so that the story of William A. Smith's career could be found all in one place. Below is the material previously published on the Today's Inspiration blog. To read these posts chronologically, begin with the post immediately below this one and scroll down. When you reach the bottom of the page, continue by clicking "Older Posts". New posts will be added intermittently and should be read starting with the next post above this one and scrolling upward.

The most recent post will always be the one immediately below the header.

William A. Smith: "A fine painter" - Robert Fawcett

About the only thing I like better than sharing examples from my collection of mid-20th century illustrators with you is when you return the favour. That's why I was so pleased when Charlie Allen, whose career we learned about last September, began emailing me pieces by illustrators he admired and had clipped for his own reference and inspiration back in the day. Like these three beauties by William A. Smith.

Some of Smith's illustrations (the few I'd seen) reminded me a little of Robert Fawcett's work. So I particularly enjoyed this anecdote Charlie related to me about meeting Robert Fawcett:

"May have told you this, but about 1950 or '51 Haines Hall and Chet Patterson asked me to join them for dinner one evening at one of those old but posh SF eateries. The lure, RF would be joining us. Believe Stan Galli and Bruce Bomberger were there too. With no warning, they sat me next to RF (Haines' brother-in-law). In a lull, I ventured a question to the great one....'Do you know William A. Smith?' He did a double take, turned to Haines, and gesturing to me, said, 'who's this?' I think his actual words were 'who the hell is this?' Haines explained ( I was the favored new kid on the block), and RF reluctantly turned and said, 'yes, Bill is a good friend....and he's a fine painter'. He did not say 'illustrator'. That was the only conversation from him for the evening, with me at least. At the time I naturally was in awe of RF, but was also an admirer of Wm. A. Smith."

About these images, Charlie wrote:

"Smith had a heavy painterly hand....but could be oh-so subtle when the character or scene needed it. I could tell he had to 'behave himself' on the Coca Cola ad [above] ...had to hold back some of that 'horsepower' he possessed. He was not as inventive in style and technique as, say, Briggs, Parker, Fawcett, etc.....but he was rock solid on dramatic presentation."

Charlie went on to say, "He seemed a mystery....never heard much about him or his career, etc." - which I was unable to help with, since what I knew about the artist was no more than what was available in the short bio you can find in Walt Reed's "Illustrator in America".

Then, in one of those coincidences that make me think "there are no coincidences", a package arrived in the mail: a recent acquisition from ebay... two bound volumes of American Artist magazine, 1952 and 1953. And what should the June 1952 issue contain but a six-page article on William A. Smith!

That same issue contained this ad below, so now you know what the artist looked like around the time he painted these pieces.

With the generous assistance of Charlie Allen, who has provided virtually all the scans I'll be presenting, and with the benefit of the information in the American Artist article, it looks like we will get to spend this week learning about "a fine painter", William A. Smith.

William A. Smith: "A relentless regimen of drawing..."

"I was put through my paces in the old fashioned style." That's how William A. Smith described his early formal art education, which began at age 12.

Theodore J. Keane, who had once been the dean at the Chicago Art Institute School, was the young Bill Smith's first art teacher and mentor back in Toledo, Ohio, where Smith was born.

"That teenage study was not of the glamorous sort," says the article on Smith in the June 1952 issue of American Artist. "At least it would not have been except for the magic of Keane's inspiring influence."

"Indeed it was a relentless regimen of drawing from casts and still lifes for two full years before a living model was thought of."

"But in those years," continues author Ernest W. Watson, "Bill really learned to draw and he learned a lot about those intangibles which activate the more subtle facets of his dramatic career."

My William A. Smith Flickr set.

Step by Step with Bill Smith

From the June 1952 issue of American Artist magazine:

My William A. Smith Flickr set.

William A. Smith: Dissipating Popular Presumtions

Considering the recent discussions we've had here about fine art vs. illustration, first with our look at Robert Weaver and the Avant-garde movement, and more recently with Tom Watson's analysis of the work of Daniel Schwartz, I had to smile when I read the following passage from the June 1952 issue of American Artist:

"The one-time popular presumption that the practice of illustration somehow disqualified an artist as a so-called fine arts painter seems by now to have been quite thoroughly dissipated."

William A. Smith is held up as proof positive of this contention. Smith, the article proclaims, "was an exhibiting painter before he got his first important illustration commission."

I dunno, perhaps this debate will rage on for all time... so long as there are people who consider the artwork hanging on a gallery wall to be somehow more worthy than the artwork printed on the pages of a magazine. To my way of thinking quality is quality, and because the artwork has a utilitarian purpose (interpreting genre fiction, for instance) that doesn't reduce my appreciation for it as 'art' or disqualify the illustrator as an artist.

William A. Smith left Toledo at age 19 to establish himself in New York as a freelance artist. During his career he won numerous awards from both the commercial and fine arts communities. What's most telling about the nature of the artist is how he describes approaching his subject:

"When a subject... suggests a feeling that is provocative to me, I make very rapid pencil notes of it in a sketchbook. I study the sketch for a day or two, analyzing my reaction to the subject and doodling variations on the arrangement in an effort to eliminate factors that are extraneous and to develop those aspects that enhance the mood I wish to express."

Smith says he takes pains to avoid "too much copying of details. I juggle elements, eliminating some, exaggerating others and inventing new ones."

"A picture," says Smith, "should be a new entity rather than a replica of a bit of nature."

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... art!

My William A. Smith Flickr set.

William A. Smith: "Never heard of him"

I began this week's look at the work of William A. Smith by telling you that I knew very little about the artist and that Charlie Allen, who provided most of this week's scans, had written to me that "[Smith] seemed a mystery....never heard much about him or his career, etc."

Well here's just a little about William A. Smith:

He was President of the American Watercolor Society and President of the American delegation to the International Association of Art. His work won a variety of awards including the Winslow Homer Memorial Prize, the Postal Commemorative Society Prize and the American Watercolor Society's Grand Prize, Gold (twice), Silver, Bronze and Stuart prizes. Below is the piece for which Smith won the Society of Illustrator's Gold Medal for Advertising Illustration in 1959.

Smith taught at the Grand Central Art School and at the Pratt Institute. He lectured at the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens in 1954; Manila, 1955; Warsaw, 1958. He was one of the first artists sent to Russia under the Cultural Exchange Agreement in 1958.

At the age of 13, he began to exhibit his work in serious competitions. The following year he was employed as a sketch artist by the Scripps-Howard Newspapers to cover the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics - can you image? a 14-year-old boy! - and later he worked for the San Francisco Examiner sketching murder trials. The same year, Smith was accepted as the youngest member of the National Academy of Design.

All this week, both here and and on Flickr, I've seen the same comments again and again: "This guy's work is amazing!" and "I'd never heard of him before..."

What is wrong with this profession that illustrators of Smith's calibre and accomplishments could have fallen into such obscurity after such a relatively short time? Go to any library and you'll find entire sections devoted to art and art history... but the books that document the history of illustration wouldn't fill one shelf.

I never learned about the great illustrators when I was in art college... perhaps things have changed... I hope so.

Yesterday, thanks to TI list member Benton Jew, I was contacted by William A. Smith's daughter, Kim. She wrote, "The bar scene (Leon and Eddies in NY) at the top of the April 1 blog is on the wall above me as we speak. I have three painting of my Dad's here on the wall, and they are so greatly appreciated. I have forwarded the blog to my Mother and encouraged her to write to you about all of this. We can provide you with quite a bit of info. Thanks so very much. The whole family is excited."

I know I can speak for a great many people when I say we're excited too, Kim, that we'll now be able to learn a little more about your father - and help to celebrate his accomplishments and to keep his memory alive.

My William A. Smith Flickr set.

People Send Me Stuff: Part 2

One of the happy results of my recent posts on William A. Smith was hearing from Kim Smith, the artist's daughter. Kim very kindly sent me a catalogue from a 1996 show of her dad's work at the James A. Michener Art Museum.

With Kim's permission, I am very pleased to share a few examples of WAS's magnificent work from that catalogue with you today.

We will very certainly be revisiting the life and work of William A. Smith in the future. Kim, her brother Rick, and her mom, Ferol, have all been relating some great anecdotes that you will eventually get to read here. And I have been scanning more of Smith's art from my magazine collection to accompany those stories.

But that's for another time. For now, enjoy these images at full size in my William A. Smith Flickr set.

Happy Independence Day!

The 'John Hancock' series of ads that Mutual Life Insurance sponsored throughout the 1950's is really one of the finest campaigns that ever ran. Each ad is beautifully painted by a top illustrator, like these below by John Gannam, Harold Von Schmidt, and William A. Smith respectively.

As well, the copy is both entertaining and educational. A brief, beautiful history lesson, courtesy of the advertiser. What a shame no company is running something like this today!

What a great opportunity. Without a doubt, any illustrator working today would love to have such an assignment. (Are you listening, corporate America?)

William A. Smith's son, Rick, told me his dad "always researched the historical projects deeply. He loved to find historical discrepencies in existing depictions of situations he was reviewing."

To all our American friends, Happy Independence Day - and on this day when you celebrate your country's history, take a moment to enjoy these ads at full size in my American Legends Flickr set.

William A. Smith: Inside Weihsien Prison Camp

With Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in the U.S.) almost upon us, I thought this week's topic should be one that reminds us of the suffering endured and sacrifices made by people everywhere in times of war.

Thanks to Kim Smith, daughter of the late William A. Smith, we are fortunate to have this first-hand account of the artist's experiences inside the walls of Weihsien Prison, a P.O.W. camp run by the Japanese in Shantung Province, China during W.W.II.

Smith was serving with the OSS in China when he was assigned this special mission and spent a month with the internees. He both wrote and illustrated the following article for the July 1946 issue of Asia and the Americas magazine, employing sketches and paintings he did during that time. His story begins below...

"The former Presbyterian Mission at Weihsien, in Shantung Province, China, was converted by the Japanese into a prison for fifteen hundred civilians, who were held there for two and a half years."

"On August 17, 1945, a seven-man OSS team commanded by Major Stanley Steiger parachuted from a B-24 flying about four hundred and fifty feet above the internment center. This was one of a number of missions, which included those resulting in the release of General Wainwright at Mukden and the Doolittle fliers who had been held at Peiping. The OSS men landed uncomfortably in a field just outside the electrified barbed-wire entanglement surrounding the compound wall. Taking up defensive positions until they could judge their reception by the Japanese, they were startled and momentarily confused by an unexpected piece of luck. The internees, overwhelmed and hysterical with joy at seeing the men drop from a plane with the American flag painted on the underside of its wing, defied the armed Japanese sentries and burst through the gates to greet their liberators. The confusion caused by these people, who hadn’t been outside the prison walls in two and a half years, so distracted the sentries that no attempt was made to take action against the Americans who had jumped in."

"All returned within the prison walls, happily bearing the Americans on their shoulders. The psychological advantage thus achieved was a valuable precedent for later positive demands that the Major mad upon the Japanese. Inside the gates conferences were held which resulted in the surrender of the camp. One of the conditions of the surrender was that the Japanese should continue to furnish sentries to guard the camp against any possible outside danger."

"The next day Major Steiger arrived at the airport to meet a supply plane and found two hundred Jap soldiers in battle positions around the field. The Americans signaled the plane to return to Hsian without landing and the Major immediately demanded an explanation from the Japanese authorities. The ensuing stormy session was a great victory for the twenty-seven-year-old American Major. After this incident the Japanese became docile and extremely cooperative."

"Several days later I was flown in on a special mission for Col. Richard Heppner, commander of all OSS operations in China."

* My thanks to Kim Smith for providing both the art and article for this week's topic. Our story continues tomorrow.

William A. Smith Describes Life in Weihsien

From an article that originally appeared in Asia and the Americas magazine in July, 1946, written and illustrated by William A. Smith:

"Shortly after a plane landed at the airfield three miles from the internment centre, a dilapidated truck driven by two Japanese soldiers brought representatives from the camp. Most of the reception committee consisted of members of the Chefoo Boy Scout troop. With enthusiasm they quickly unloaded the plane and transferred the supplies to the truck."

"The former Mission, which incidentally was the birthplace of Henry R. Luce, the publisher of Life, was made up of a large number of solidly constructed brick buildings, surrounded by a high brick wall. The Japanese had built guard towers at strategic locations along this wall, which was topped with electrified barbed wire."

"Most of the families lived in long, one-story buildings divided into several rooms approximately nine by twelve feet. Each of these cubicles was ordinarily occupied by two or three people, a man and wife and perhaps a child. The blocks of buildings had a shanty-town look. Each dwelling had a tiny back yard equipped with an improvised stove, chairs and a table made from available junk, according to the resourcefulness of the tenant. Stovepipes were constructed by piecing together discarded tin cans [shown below]. Bricks, stones, crates, bamboo poles and metal containers were quickly put to use by those lucky enough to be able to find them. There were also a number of larger buildings."

"One was occupied by bachelor girls, another a men’s dormitory. Perhaps the grandest building was the hospital. It was excellently staffed by internees, among whom were some of the best doctors in North China. There was simple church, more than adequately attended to by the missionaries, who practically overran the camp."

"I climbed the wooden ladder in one of the guard towers and when I got to the top I found a somewhat embarrassed Jap sentry. When I greeted him with “Konnichi-wa”, he snapped to attention, saluted me and handed me his rifle. Naturally I was surprised, but I accepted the weapon, inspected it and handed it back to him. He again saluted and after returning his salute I descended the ladder, leaving him with mutual “sayonaras”. I felt that if it was as easy as that, I could certainly get him to pose for a sketch. The next day I made the painting of him in the tower which is reproduced on the third cover. That night I found a bottle of saki that he had left in my quarters as an expression of his gratitude."

"Most of the prisoners were British. There were also Americans, Belgians, Italians, Eurasians and the various other types that would naturally be found in a group of people gathered under these circumstances from northern Chinese towns such as Tientsin, Peiping, Cheefoo and Tsingtao. They were missionaries, soldiers of fortune, businessmen, educators, professional people and scholars, such as E. T. C. Werner, author of many books on Chinese life, customs and mythology. There were the powerful and influential leaders of industry known as “taipans”. These people were accustomed to having servants and living in the luxury of the Occidental in the Orient. When they were all thrown together and forced to make their new home livable it required considerable readjustment. During the first few days of internment, they had the new experience of having to perform menial tasks before the eyes of Chinese coolies, who reclined under trees and watched their humiliation with great glee."

"A committee of nine selected by the internees took care of what self-government was permitted and of all negotiations with the Japanese authorities. They organized schools, set up kitchens, saw that the hospital was staffed, appointed fire tenders and organized games and dances. An orchestra was formed by an American Negro musician, who had come to China to play with a jazz band, a couple of Hawaiians and a few amateurs. They played a conglomeration of early vintage jazz tunes such as “Sweet Sue,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Red Sails in the Sunset,” and, after the liberation, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Every able-bodied person was assigned some duty according to his special abilities. General welfare of the camp was gradually improved, and soon even shower rooms were constructed."

"The women, many of whom had never cooked and sewed before, showed considerable skill. The problem of making clothing last was one of their difficult tasks and they accomplished it amazingly well. One woman was a gifted interior decorator, and she and her husband made their small cubicle on of the wonders of the camp."

"The prisoners were not subject to beating, but infants and old people endured needless discomfort. Daily assemblies were enforced, and people made to stand in formations while they were counted. Bad weather and lack of adequate clothing made this a great hardship. Giving babies as well as adults nearing their ninetieth year a poor diet of rice gruel, turnips and bread, but almost entirely lacking in meat, eggs and dairy products, was unnecessarily inhumane. Located in a fertile and rich part of the Shantung peninsula, the camp could easily have been supplied with more and better food. By an “over-the-wall” black market the internees were able to augment their diet. Those who lacked cash to deal with the Chinese outside sold wedding rings and other personal treasures to individual Japanese guards for a fraction of their value. This black market was organized and run by a Catholic priest internee whose membership in the Trappist Order had prevented his speaking a word during the twenty-five years prior to his imprisonment. His efficiency and volubility were admired by fellow internees."

"Some of the people felt it important to buy black market whiskey as well as food. The ever-resourceful Chinese peasants supplied this demand with “bai gar” (white lightning), a horribly potent drink resembling vodka, but made from millet. If no other beverage is available, it might be recommended, but not very highly."

* My thanks to Kim Smith for providing both the art and article for this week's topic. Our story continues tomorrow.