Nearing 100, Artist Laureate of Illinois Kay Smith says her passion for painting keeps her going

Smith was named a laureate along with five other recipients in 1994 by the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, for “contributions to the betterment of humanity that have been accomplished in or on behalf of the State of Illinois.”

SHARE Nearing 100, Artist Laureate of Illinois Kay Smith says her passion for painting keeps her going
Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith is photographed in her Lincoln Park home.

Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith is photographed in her Lincoln Park home.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

At 99, Kay Smith has worn many hats in her lifetime, from mom and commercial illustrator to teacher and artist.

It’s the latter distinction that puts a national spotlight on Smith, who turns 100 on Feb. 27.

The city of Chicago has declared Feb. 27 “Kay Smith Day,” in recognition of her role as Artist Laureate of Illinois.

Smith was named a laureate along with five other recipients in 1994 by the Lincoln Academy of Illinois. The honor recognizes individuals who have made “contributions to the betterment of humanity that have been accomplished in or on behalf of the State of Illinois, or, whose achievements have brought honor to the state,” according to the organization’s website. Jane Addams, Richard J. Daley, and Walter Elias Disney are among other laureates in the Lincoln Academy of Illinois Hall of Fame.

Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith briefly attended the School of the Art Institute before being offered an assignment that launched her career decades ago as a commercial illustrator.

The work of Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith surrounds the watercolorist in her Lincoln Park Home. Smith briefly attended the School of the Art Institute before being offered an assignment that launched her career decades ago as a commercial illustrator.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Smith spent the vast portion of her life working on commissions for organizations and foundations, which led to her work being recognized across Illinois.

As Smith approaches her milestone birthday, she said she’s hugely appreciative of her career, which she claims keeps her going every day.

“Becoming an artist was odd,” Kay Smith said. “Being an artist was not what my father considered a career. But I knew I wanted to be one, and I promised my mother it would happen.”

Smith grew up on a farm in Vandalia, Illinois, and moved to Chicago with a dream and $75 in her pocket in the 1950s.

“I moved to Chicago for a reason. I wanted to make my reason an actuality by becoming a real artist,” Smith said during a recent chat.

Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith’s painting set-up graces her Lincoln Park home.

Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith’s painting set-up graces a table in her Lincoln Park home. If arranged properly, Smith says her paintings “can show you the history of the U.S.If you went through all my 250 paintings, you would see history [unfold].”

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

She briefly attended the School of the Art Institute before being offered an assignment that launched her career as a commercial illustrator. Tom Jones, who was working on a series of books for the Ferguson Publishing Company, was looking for an artist to illustrate a series of books for the U.S. bicentennial. Smith jumped at the opportunity and began her career as an illustrator before shifting to an on-site watercolor painter.

She traveled the country with her paintbrush, capturing landmark events and sites. Her body of work is known as the American Legacy Collection, and it includes 250 paintings.

The collection was created as a way for Smith to curate her lifetime of work, which she says, “can show you the history of the U.S.,” if arranged properly.

“If you went through all my 250 paintings, you would see history [unfold],” Smith said.

Smith traveled for many years on various commissioned projects, often leaving her family behind but staying true to her dream.

Her daughter, Julia Smith, 64, says her mother has never stopped being determined.\

A watercolor painting of Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith’s grandparents’ homestead is seen inside her home in the Lincoln Park

A watercolor painting of Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith’s grandparents’ homestead is displayed inside her Lincoln Park home.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“Watching her career as I grew up was beautiful; I was always proud of my mother, and her career lives on through her art all over the country,” Smith said.

Julia Smith says that she and her father, the late William Smith, had always understood her mother’s career.

“My father is no longer with us, but he recognized her determination and understood she wanted to make history,” Smith said.

Smith’s determination never wavered, and in her early 70s, she began teaching at the Old Town Triangle Association. She taught once a week until she decided to retire at the age of 90.

Doris Ayres, 74, a former student, says she has never met anyone like Smith.

“Kay and her pupils gave me great hope for my future,” Ayres said. “I saw people in their 60s and 70s open to trying new things in her classes — it was encouraging.”

Ayres says she couldn’t begin to say what all Smith has taught her, but hopes to have the same grit as her one day.

Smith’s milestone birthday is a celebration of her life’s work and legacy. She continues to paint to this day.

Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith’s watercolor paints and other supplies are photographed in her home in Lincoln Park. Park, who turns 100 on Feb. 27, still enjoys painting.

Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith’s watercolor paints and other supplies are photographed in her home in Lincoln Park. Soon to be 100 years old, Kay says she still enjoys painting.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“My mother’s set-up did relocate, but she still paints whenever she can,” Julia Smith said. “When someone brings her flowers, she paints them; painting still brings her a lot of joy.”

Kay Smith says she continues to paint in the hopes of inspiring future generations.

“My birthday wish is for people to recognize the importance of art and the need for passionate artists,” Smith said. My advice to aspiring artists is to be persistent; it will take you a long way.”

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