Miss Helen Smith
Sara Morris Swetcharnik, 26 January 1994
Let us now praise famous artists. Let us praise the famousest artist in Frederick, Maryland. We speak not of names like Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg, but of Miss Helen.
"I make art to please the people I work for," says Miss Helen, "and not myself. You do that, and they come to rely on you. If we were to have another Depression now, some of those artistic primadonnas would have a struggle."
Helen Smith, known to the local art cognoscenti as "Miss Helen", should know. She was already well into her own artistic career when the Great Depression came around, and it never slowed her down. At ninety-seven years of age, she's still making her living as an artist, still painting pictures to please the people she works for, still tending her wildflower garden, living simply, frugally, happily.
"What's your secret to happiness?" I ask her.
"I don't know" she answers – “I've worked awfully hard -hard work, long hours. And I tried to get something out of it."
She worked hard from the start. She went to art school in Baltimore on a scholarship, at the Maryland College of Art. She taught art at Hood College in Frederick for eight years, then in 1925 opened her own art and gift shop in Frederick. She kept the shop for fifteen years, right through the Great Depression.
"Of course it was difficult. But everyone had the same problem. And back then, even five cents was worth something. You would just make do, and use things over and over again." Helen would freelance all over town, doing illustrations for brochures, newspaper articles. For her gift shop, she hired three girls from Hood College, and they painted lampshades and various knickknacks. She made hundreds of cloisonne portrait pins, very popular among local residents and Hood students. She sold so many pins, she even saved up enough money to go to Europe for three months. She bought a Plymouth coupe for fifty dollars. She bought thirteen and a half acres up Braddock Mountain from Frederick.
"Thirteen and a half acres of weeds," she says, "And I didn't have the slightest idea what to plant." She would go to the library to do research on native perennials. "I didn't always like the illustrations ... I guess I had a lot of nerve!" She helped form a garden club with which she meets to this day. She was already active in the art club, which a fellow-teacher had founded with her at Hood in 1917 (and also meets with to this day!).
They were hard days, perhaps, but they were happy. They were certainly busy. As her fame spread, people would come from Washington, D.C. and beyond to have their portraits made. She remembers how she charged only fifteen dollars for the first portrait. She did two portraits for the University of Virginia, one for the University of Maryland, one for Saint James Church in Hagerstown. She painted a mural for the city of Frederick, which now, restored to former glory, can be seen in the old courthouse building. She painted designs and landscape paintings for grandfather clocks, and developed a wide reputation for her reverse paintings on glass for clock faces and other decorative purposes. She did chinaware, tole and furniture decoration: she easily crosses the line between what we call "fine', and "decorative" arts. In her spare moments, she decorated her cottage and its furnishings, grew a garden, put together a little studio.
Frederick was very different in those days. Miss Helen remembers cobblestones on Patrick Street - Baker Park like a meadow. Routzahn's used to sell harnesses and had a big, white, life-size horse statue out in front of the store. Now, if you drive up to her place you must first negotiate miles of malls, stores, theaters, flashing lights, and bumper-to-bumper traffic. But gradually the stores disappear, and one begins to see trees, old houses, things somewhat closer to the way things were. And then you see Miss Helen, and her paintings, and her still-bright eyes, and she is saying, "It's been busy, but I can't say it's been dull. It's definitely not been dull, which has been fun."
Good memories of a life well lived, putting beauty into life ... let us now praise that kind of fame!
The New Paper, Frederick, Maryland (26 January 1994).