Stephanie Kerr Smither, a champion of the work of self-taught artists and patron of arts organisations, died at her home in Houston, Texas, in June, at the age of seventy-five. In recent years she had suffered from pulmonary fibrosis and undergone a double lung transplant.
Stephanie was born in Huntsville, Texas, where her father owned a department store, and where she met her future husband, John Smither, who became a prominent Houston attorney. Stephanie and John were married while they were students at the University of Texas, in Austin. There, Stephanie taught at the Texas School for the Deaf while John attended law school. Later, they settled in Houston.
Their son John Kerr Smither recalled that his mother “took a creative approach to home-making; at first her art-collecting was an extension of her assembling of fabrics, silverware and other items for the home, then she and my father realised that what they had been doing was creating a real art collection, something substantial and significant. Building it turned out to be my mother’s own form of artistic expression.”
Stephanie dated the start of her serious collecting to 1988, when she took part in a museum-organised trip to Africa. At that time, she met and became friendly with Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. (1929-1998), the first curator of the Museum of American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum) in New York. She was influenced by Hemphill’s expansive, appreciative view of a wide range of vernacular art forms and self-taught artists’ works, an outlook that revolutionised the folk art field in the United States. Stephanie and John Smither acquired paintings, drawings, ceramic face jugs, and more by artists from Texas and other parts of the American South, many of whom, such as Mose Tolliver and Howard Finster, they got to know personally during their art-collecting road trips. They became major collector-promoters of the Huntsville-based Johnnie Swearingen’s oil paintings and the carved- and painted-wood sculptures of the Navajo artist Charlie Willeto.
In an unreleased short film by Tacey A. Rosolowski and Ben Doyle about the history of Stephanie Smither’s involvement with art, the collector observes, “To me there is an honesty, a realism and a warmth about self-taught artists. There’s something about the handmade, about making something from very little, that really appeals to me.”
Michelle White, a curator at the Menil Collection, a museum in Houston known for its modern-art holdings, including many Surrealist works, also appears in the film. She points out that the Smithers’ collection is unique in that it began with a focus on art of the American South when it was still possible for collectors to acquire works in person from now-legendary artists, but that it also reflects a broader, more international sensibility, a result of its owners’ embrace of European art brut and works by self-taught artists from other parts of the world as they were being discovered in the 1990s and 2000s. After John Smither died in 2002, Stephanie continued adding to the collection, a portion of which she donated to and is now on view, through October 16, at the Menil in the exhibition “As Essential as Dreams: Self-taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither.”
In Houston, Stephanie generously supported such organisations as the Houston Ballet, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, and its neighbouring, mosaic-filled Smither Park, which was designed by the artist-builder Dan Phillips and created in honour of John Smither. The now-retired art dealer Phyllis Kind said of her close friend, “Along with having a sharp eye, Stephanie was always passionate about art and adventurous in the face of something new. She had a mind of her own and never followed the pack.”
In Texas, Stephanie Smither is survived by her children, Paige Johnson, Ashley Langley, and John Kerr Smither, and their families.
by Edward M Gómez