Joseph Smith: A Hero for All of Us

Joseph Smith at home (photo by Harold Smith)

A look at the veteran Kansas City artist’s multifaceted art and life

I believe there are heroes in our midst that live lives of quiet excellence and unconventional heroism. There is the lady who took early retirement so she could spend her days looking after, not only her aging parents, but also some of the other aging people in her faith community. There is the man who visits his wife, who has dementia, every single day, talking with her even though he has to remind her who he is every single day. There is the high school teacher who taught an extra three years because she had promised a freshman student that she would be there until that student graduated.

Now in his 80s, Joseph L. Smith is one such hero. A founding member of the KC Clay Guild and The Light in the Other Room collaborative of African American, Kansas City-based artists, he has left an imprint of goodness upon Kansas City’s artistic consciousness. He is also known for his impressive body of delicate and masterful watercolors and sculptures in clay.

Living with his wife in a modest ranch home in Raytown, Smith is currently wheelchair-bound and battling cancer, joint deterioration and sporadic seizures. Despite this, he recently made his way to the Clay Guild to visit with former students, cheerfully sharing advice and experiences, and work on the wheel.

I had the opportunity to interview him at his home.

Sitting in his paneled den and surrounded by his artwork, Smith described his unique career pathway in the arts. Born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas, he attended Sumner High School when it was the “Black high school” of Kansas City, Kansas. Art, unsurprisingly, was his favorite subject. “I hated holidays,” he says, “because I wanted to be in the art room every day.”

Even though Smith hadn’t planned to go to college, fate had other plans. “My church decided it didn’t want me to not go to college, so they took up a collection,” Smith said. He completed a semester at Kansas City Kansas Community College. Despite the lack of an art department there, Smith designed the yearbook and received a journalistic award.

From there, he spent two years in the United States Army. “I did not like being in the army but I’m happy that I went because the G.I. Bill paid for my college,” Smith reflected. “I also did some designs for book covers in the service.”

Smith went on to earn an associate degree from Penn Valley Community College, a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and a Master of Arts degree from the University of Central Missouri (then named Central Missouri State University).

Smith’s paneled den is adorned with cherished works he has collected as well his own work, including the watercolor portrait above the mantel and the colorful ceramic works (far left). (photo by Harold Smith)

A Man of Many Talents

Acclaimed actor Denzel Washington once stated, “Do what you have to do, to do what you want to do.” That is exactly what Joseph Smith did by embarking upon a 32-year career as a firefighter in the Kansas City Fire Department.

In those 32 years, he was caught in two house explosions. “One time, I was blown through a wall. As soon as I got to my feet, I had to run back in the house and pull my partner out,” he said. He remembers a fire so intense that, even though the outside temperature was 5 below zero, he and his colleagues nearly passed out from the heat. “I had to stand behind a fire truck and take off my top, down to my t-shirt, to stay cool,” he recalled.

There were dangerous times. One of the first KCKFD EMTs, Smith was shot, shot at, and stabbed twice during his years in the fire department. “They shoot at firefighters too,” he said.

Eyes sparkling, he recalled the one time a firefighter stood too close to a pole while overspray landed on him during bitterly cold temperatures. “When it was time to move, we had to pry him from the pole,” he laughed.

Incredibly, Smith also drove an ATA bus for 22 years. “I liked talking to people. I guess you can call me a people person,” he stated.

Along the way, Joseph Smith carved out an indelible legacy as a beloved and respected artist and teacher.

His superb watercolors have earned him inclusion in the Missouri, Kansas, Texas and world watercolor societies. He counts the world-renowned Dean Mitchell as a friend in the world of watercolor painting.

Smith’s watercolors and pen/ink drawings are tenderly rendered with an aesthetic of sensitivity that brings out the humanity in his subjects. He gently utilizes chiaroscuro to deliver dramatic highlights without overwhelming the viewer. Some of his favorite subjects are jazz players and Black history.

Sculpture is his beloved medium. “I could sculpt all day. Even now, on the days I am up to it, I am ready to sculpt,” Smith said with a wide grin. His paneled den is adorned with shelves of sculpture, not all of them Smith’s. “I’m also a collector,” he said, before pointing to some of his most cherished works.

Smith’s glazed and fired sculptures are ebullient with vibrant colors and deep multidimensional surfaces. From plates to vases to cups to abstract creations, his body of sculptural work addresses local history, cultural significance, social issues and his personal experiences. One of his creations, a tall ceramic vase, features the word “JAZZ” in high relief. Glowing white and red text continues: “is the only original American art form” in low relief.

The vase feels like jazz, and the two thin handles and ribbed top edges bring a Baroque-like feel reminiscent of the New Orleans culture from which jazz itself originated.

A treasured print by leading African American artist Charles Bibbs in Smith’s collection. (photo by Harold Smith)

The website of the KC Clay Guild lists Smith’s impressive history of accomplishments, including more than 12 one-person exhibitions. Smith has participated in the Brookside Art Annual, Prairie Village Art Show, Crown Center Art Exhibition, and Laclede’s Art Exhibition in St. Louis, Missouri — all juried local events — and was selected for inclusion in more than 100 juried exhibitions across the U.S. His artworks are part of multiple corporate and private collections, including the Sprint Collection, Truman Medical Center Collection, Gates and Sons Bar-B-Q and the collection of Christopher (Kit) Bond, former governor and senator of Missouri.

Smith’s founding work with The Light in The Other Room collective placed him in the company of established and esteemed Black artists from Kansas City and provided him a platform for exhibiting his work throughout the Midwest.

As a teacher, Smith has taught art (primarily sculpting) at the Clay Guild and at several colleges in the metro area. He fondly remembers his teaching experiences as “some of the best times I have had in art.”

Smith is very humble about his highly accomplished life. From veteran to firefighter to bus driver to teacher and artist, Joseph L. Smith is truly a hero for all of us.

We are sad to announce that Joseph Smith passed away at home on September 9. Joseph was a stalwart of the Kansas City art world, a wonderful man and a true talent. His loss will be deeply felt.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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