If it hadn't been for the kiss a 10-year-old boy planted on her cheek nearly 20 years ago, Kay Smith says, "I might have missed the greatest adventure of my life."
The Chicago artist was selected in 1970 to do a series of watercolors on historic sites and events to illustrate several books planned for the nation's Bicentennial.The first subjects were Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia.
"After two days of sitting in front of my easel in front of Independence Hall, I was almost in tears," she says. "I just couldn't get a handle on it."
But the next day, she found herself surrounded by a group of children touring the area. As they gathered for their buses at the end of the tour, some stopped by again.
"Nearly all of the children had left when one little boy, about 10 years old, broke away from his group and came back to stand beside me and look at the painting. `I just had to see if you've finished it,' he said. Then, he leaned over and gave me a quick, wet kiss on the cheek. `Lady,' he said, `you were the best part of the trip."'
The youngster inspired Smith, and her "American Legacy Collection" of more than 250 paintings of U.S. landmarks has earned her national recognition. It is the largest such collection of paintings by a single artist.
Smith, one of six children, was raised on a farm near Vandalia, Ill. "I just always drew," she says. After graduating from high school, she entered the Chicago Art Institute and then became a commercial artist with an interest in watercolors.
Her American Legacy Collection illustrates some 450 years in the nation's history, beginning with the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in 1565 to the relighting of the Statue of Liberty. She has exhibited more than 50 of her paintings at the Truman Library and portions of the collection have been shown in New York, Chicago, the Yorktown Victory Center in Yorktown, Va., the Valley Forge National Historical Park and several colleges and universities.
Smith was commissioned as the official artist of the rededication of the Statue of Liberty and of the Yorktown Bicentennial Surrender Ceremonies. She has received the George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge for "an outstanding accomplishment in helping to achieve a better understanding of the American Way of Life."
Art critics have described her paintings as "dramatic, fluid, bold . . . She does not get bogged down in didactic details and clutter. She's into spontaneity of form and color, and both work very effectively in conveying mood."
"One of the things I would like to do through my paintings and lectures," she says, "is to give people back the romance of the country. I would like for my paintings to create for them the excitement and pride in our history that I have discovered."