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At 94, featured artist never puts down a brush

Friday, May 9, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — It's an unlikely setting for an art show: a fourth-floor, one-bedroom display apartment at the Park Pacific building on 13th Street.

On a recent afternoon, its walls were covered with paintings and its rooms filled with people enjoying refreshments, examining the work and waiting to chat with the artist.

Some of his art is on display in a Kansas City-area gallery, too, but he's not a gallery regular. George Edward Smith doesn't paint for a living. He paints, instead, to live.

"I'm not a fine artist, truly," he said later at his apartment at Meramec Bluffs, a senior living community in Ballwin. "I always wanted to be in fine arts, but as far as making a livelihood at it..." He laughed. As a professional illustrator, "I took the easy route."

The route there wasn't easy. Smith, 94, who is known as Ed, is a native of Fort Wayne, Ind. In World War II, while serving as co-pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, his plane was shot down over Germany.

Smith spent 18 months as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft 1 in the town of Barth, 105 miles northwest of Berlin on the chilly Baltic Sea. He was prisoner No. 2223, according to his German dog tags; more than 9,000 men were incarcerated there when the Russians arrived and the Germans left.

The Americans shared their captivity with an international group of POWs. "English, Polish, French — just about every nationality," he said. There were Russians, too, but they were in a different camp. As non-signatories to the Geneva Convention, they were treated far more harshly than the others.

The Red Cross provided parcels with art supplies, and Smith used his share to produce skillful sketches of aircraft, in flight or on the ground, burning. "I did a lot of walking and did sketches of what I saw out there," he said.

His work, along with newspaper articles, telegrams (his mother fainted when the one arrived saying he was missing in action) and American and German documents, fill a large scrapbook that he keeps in his studio.

The camp was liberated by Soviet troops in early May 1945; Smith and his comrades were sent to Camp Lucky Strike, near Le Havre in Normandy, then shipped back to the States. "I was going to be assigned to B-29s until the bomb was dropped in Japan," Smith said. The war over, he was released from the service.

His next stop was art school, the Central Art Academy in Cincinnati. "At that time, illustration was at its peak," he said. "That was my purpose, to be an illustrator."

His first job was at the Arthur Meyerhoff agency in Chicago's Wrigley Building, where the accounts included the Chicago Transit Authority, Brach's Candy and Wrigley Gum. In 1956, he left to come to St. Louis and the D'Arcy Advertising Co. as director of illustration and design, working on the Michelob and Budweiser accounts in what is now the Park Pacific building. Smith retired in 1986.

Through it all, he painted.

As a professional illustrator, one would expect Smith to be adept in a variety of styles, and he is. The paintings on view in the Park Pacific display unit include a realistic "Indiana Farm Land" and an abstract "Irish Landscape" in shades of green. There are pen-and-ink sketches, paintings in oils and acrylics, self-portraits and portraits of his wife of 47 years, Helen; his current roommate, a cat named Annie who supervises visitors of his apartment; and her feline predecessors.

The exhibition was the idea of architect Paul Doerner, a partner in the Lawrence Group, the architectural firm that developed the Park Pacific. His father, Russ, worked with Smith at D'Arcy and suggested that his son store some of the prolific Smith's artwork. "This is probably one quarter of what I have stored in my basement," Paul Doerner said, gesturing around him.

"Ed asked me, 'Would you say that this is an apartment or a gallery?" Russ Doerner said. "I told him, 'I'd say it's a gallery.'"

Helen Smith (whom Ed said was "a beautiful, beautiful woman, inside and out") died Valentine's Day 2013, just two weeks before they were to move to the Bluffs, but she had laid out the apartment, and her hand is evident there. A strikingly colorful portrait of her with a white cat named Sugar dominates the wall over the sofa. Next to it is a skillful painting of a tuxedo cat, Sweetheart Angel, Smith's all-time "favorite kitty."

A sun porch is set up as a studio, with an easel, lights, photos and stacks of paintings. Other paintings cover the walls in every room. These days, Smith said, his style is more abstract.

"Subject matter doesn't make any difference," he said. "It's the approach. I think later in life you have less patience for detail. I don't think you're able (to be so detailed) because your eyes aren't as good; your hands shake; your thinking isn't as nimble as it was."

"Now I have the experience, and I have a freedom of approach that I think is just as interesting. If you want a picture of something, take a photograph," he said.


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