Lucy Ellen Smith is not only an exceptional artist, she is an exceptional teacher.I met her several years ago when she and her husband Carroll moved to Maine from Chicago to take care of her mother Fran. Thinking about that, I need to add that Lucy is simply an exceptional human being. She and Carroll left their home, jobs, family and friends to move in with Fran and care for her until her death seven years later. They are now back in Chicago, where Lucy continues to create beautiful art and nurture other artists in her drawing and painting classes at the Center for Life and Learning.I was fortunate to take several drawing and painting classes with Lucy (there we are in the picture above.) When she taught me the fundamentals of drawing I began to understand why she called her class Drawing to Learn rather than Learning to Draw. Instead of focusing on trying to get everything right, I started to notice little things, like how there are angles in curves, for instance. Study a curved object and see how the angle of the curve changes. I can no longer look at a circle without seeing the subtle angles. Here’s Lucy’s explanation of why she came up with the title Drawing to Learn:
It grew out of a realization that drawing is a learning process — about the piece being worked on, the activity of making art, or some personal revelation. We often set unreasonable goals when we set about learning to draw. Sometimes we miss what lovely things we’ve done because we’re stuck on some other result idea. Focusing on what can be learned frees up the mind to be less judgmental about the outcome and more accepting of the process as a journey.
Even though Lucy now lives in Chicago, because she lived in Maine and left her mark here, I’m including her in my series of profiles on Maine artists.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I’m not sure I ever wanted to be an artist. I just kind of showed up in this world as an artist, but it took me a long time to figure that out. I have engaged in the activity of making art for as long as I can remember. I switched my major in college from elementary education to art because I didn’t think I would survive in the public school teaching system. The only place I felt at home was the fine arts building.
I never intended to make a living as an artist. I never intended to make a living at all! When I was young, women were not encouraged to develop a career. And when I got married the economy did not require many of us to have two-income households.
In the 1980s when our children were young, I needed to contribute to the family income and had a string of awful jobs. That’s when I decided that if I was going to be in the work world I needed to find something creative. I “backed my way into” graphic design for educational publishing companies. In other words, I had no training and no idea what I was doing! I watched and learned and it turned out to be a somewhat creative and respectable way to make a living.
But my heart yearned to paint again. My first attempts after years of hiatus from painting were dismal. I questioned whether I really was an artist. From that great searching period in my life, I came to the conclusion that, yes, I was an artist. And it didn’t have anything to do with the quality or quantity of my paintings.
I realized I had always thought of artists from the doing aspect — never from the being aspect. I came to know myself as one who was and always will be an artist even if I never produced another piece of artwork again. I see and think and feel as an artist, and that’s just a part of who I am.
When the time was right, I left my nine to five job and focused on being a professional fine artist and art educator.
Where/when did you go to school?
After high school, I went to Otterbein College, a small liberal arts school (now Otterbein University) in central Ohio, near where I was then living. The art department was small and the art world was still basking in the glow of an abstract/non-representative style of painting.
I loved being immersed in the world of art and artists. It was a relief to be around people who were as passionate as I was about making art. I minored in music — another manifestation of created art — and soaked up everything I could about the creative process.
I didn’t paint again until a decade after graduating college. It was then I realized my inspiration came from the physical world. I saw abstract patterns and compositions in the natural world around me. But, unlike what was going on in the art world at the time, I needed to represent those forms in my work. (That’s a fancy way of saying my style of painting is representative, but I am not fond of labels!)
For many years, I was left to my own devices — books and trips to art museums — to learn how to develop traditional drawing and painting skills. In the 1990s, my friends pointed me in the direction of the American Academy of Art in Chicago, where we’d been living since the 80s.
I took a figure drawing class and discovered there was a resurgent interest in learning the skills of the masters and applying them in a contemporary way.
I went on to study at the Richard Halstead School of Portrait and Figure Art and Palette and Chisel Academy. I also did workshops with contemporary masters such as Daniel Greene and Henry Yan. I continue regular practice in drawing from life and attend workshops whenever I can.
What is your preferred medium and why?
My current medium for paintings is dry pastel on Canson or textured pastel paper.
For many years, I was a watercolorist, and I love that medium. When I wanted to master the art of the figure I realized watercolor is a difficult medium to work with while learning to render classical form.
Because pastel is both removable and opaque, it’s easier to correct mistakes and develop the composition.
I have always loved drawing, both as a preliminary to a painting and as a finished product on its own. I use graphite pencils for sketching as well as for finished portraits.
This past year, I discovered a way to be expressive with Conté crayon — a medium of the masters.
I have also begun exploring colored pencil as a fine art medium. Most of my students at The Center for Life and Learning use colored pencils. Like all media, it has its own qualities that enhance (or not) what goes down on the paper.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in everything around me. And I mean everything!
A sky reflected in a mud puddle can send me into aesthetic rapture! The way the afternoon sun lights the cluttered surfaces of my studio. Rocks and seashells. The folds of a velvet scarf. They are all material for a composition.
When I’m stuck on a painting or between projects and need a kick-start, I’ll go to the Art Institute of Chicago, take a walk in one of our many parks or flip through one of my art books. It always brings me back to the beauty and potential creative expression that is around me at all times.
Sometimes inspiration drops in unexpectedly — during a conversation with a friend or when I’m at a play or music concert. I am always on the search for well-written novels and beautifully produced movies. People are producing great and soulful things today. I consider it part of my work to sift through all that’s going on to find them.
When did you start teaching and how’s it going?
I started teaching the fundamentals of drawing and painting to adults about seven years ago. I never had a strong interest in teaching because I was afraid it would take me away from my own studio work. But once I got into it, I discovered how much I had learned over the years and how satisfying it was to pass that knowledge along.
My students inspire me and, as they say, if you want to learn something: teach it! The process of figuring out how I do something reinforces how I do it and even opens up new approaches for my own work. The time away from my studio while I’m teaching circles back to enhance my studio work when I’m there.
I am currently teaching a class of senior citizens in downtown Chicago. Twenty-five to 30 students come every week from September to June to learn. For some, it’s for the first time and others want to continue learning how to draw. They are hard-working and eager to learn. They challenge a common perception that beyond a certain age we can’t learn new things. Their desire to learn and their obvious improvement each week is a hopeful sign to all us “baby boomers” as we move into those later years in life.
Do you have some words of wisdom for beginning artists?
My hope is for all young people today to feel encouraged to do some form of creative work. When I was a young adult I wanted to make a contribution to the world. I wanted to be a rocket scientist, or a doctor, or a Mother Teresa.
It took me a long time to realize that although the world needs all the above, it’s lacking in artists and people who encourage creativity for its own sake. I realized that being an artist in society is an important contribution.
We have to be careful about how we react to judgment about our work — our own judgment as well as everyone else’s. I listen to it all, including my own voice. Most importantly, I keep working. Listening doesn’t mean I take all advice offered. Sometimes my own voice leads me astray. Sometimes other, well-meaning voices have led me astray. I listen to it all, weigh it all, take what I see as the best path at that moment, and keep moving.
I remember a quote which I think is from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, that goes something like: “You take care of the quantity, let God take care of the quality.” That pretty much says it all for me.
Where to see more of Lucy’s art
Visit Lucy’s website to learn more about her and see more of her work.