It’s been said that you’re never famous in your home town.
That may be true.
But here, in our home town, nestled into her comfortable home at Minet’s Point, is a visionary, courageous, insightful, energetic woman whose impact in this community is rooted deeply.
Recently celebrating her 77th birthday, one can look back to 1971 when she was 44 years old and quietly changing the face of Barrie’s post graduate force, Georgian College.
Karen Smith is a 1946 graduate of the Alberta Institute of Technology and Art. She is a painter, a fine artist. She was also a polio baby, and could easily have let it sideline her in her adult life.
Look around Barrie today and much of what is our cultural, artistic community would not exist were it not for Karen Smith. The MacLaren Art Centre. The Images Studio Tour featuring the artistic, eclectic work of scores of accomplished artists. The jewellers, potters, textile artists, painters, draftspeople, sculptors… the list is endless.
Because Karen Smith was hired by Georgian College in its infancy and she had a vision beyond what the college foresaw.
These were heady days of community college development and Georgian was just a year old, moving to its two storey, flat business building off Duckworth St, leaving the Wellington Plaza where it had its birth.
And Karen was brought to develop an interior design course. She had vision for much more. First she hired Peter Dennis to teach sculpture and wood. Then she conversed with Don Stuart about his accomplishments as a weaver and metalsmith. She located Bob Paterson, and later Ted Fullerton, for print making. She brought her friend Pat Hart from the Alberta Institute to teach painting. She found Robin Hopper at Toronto’s Central Tech and convinced him that life in Barrie teaching ceramics would be a better move. Tony Gilsenan was teaching drafting to technology students until Karen added the course for arts students, ultimately moving him permanently to arts. Roman Bartkiw for blown glass. And Aleks Sorotschynski for sculpture.
From South Devon College of Art she brought Roger Kerslake to teach ceramics. She found Michael Maynard at the Rhode Island School of Design and Tufts University in Boston to teach graphic design. She encouraged Asher Sadeh of the Pratt Institute to bring photography and illustration skills. Marie Aiken from Vancouver School of Art taught stitchery and weaving and Allan Baker of Ontario College of Art taught industrial design. Wendy Boyd of Royal College of Art in London taught stained glass and John Delves, OCA, interior design. Their classes spawned hundreds and hundreds of talented, producing artists that anchor the country’s creative community today.
Karen had a dream. She played by the rules in hiring arts teachers, and whispered additional opportunities behind a cupped hand. Could Don Stuart teach weaving (and think about a jewellery and metals program?) Karen Smith just kind of ‘did it.’ While nobody said ‘no’ to the faculty and the subjects they taught, it was largely because Karen didn’t ask.
She went for established, talented, young, practical artists. She wanted excellence and she wanted teachers who were artists in their own right. One by one, she singlehandedly built a Design Arts faculty that became a formidable force for the arts community.
Today, in Ontario, only Sheridan College offers as diverse an arts program as Georgian College. The city college and the country college, forged with enthusiasm and vision.
And so, while we bow to the leaders and present awards to the achievers, it seems appropriate to stop and recognize the woman whose vision made it all possible. Look at the founders of our fabulous MacLaren Art Centre… most are teachers or graduates of Georgian’s Design Program. Look at the Images Studio Tour, the artistic anchor of Thanksgiving Weekend in this region… most are teachers or graduates of Georgian’s Design Program. Would these people be out there making a difference? Would Don Stuart possess an Order of Canada? Would Arch Brown? Would Anne Mortimer?
Karen today lives a quieter life, slowed by post polio syndrome. Her husband Bruce is now retired from teaching languages at Base Borden High School. Her children clearly benefitted from the creative environment she and Bruce offered… one daughter is an opera singer, a son in law a designer, a son a contractor, and a daughter doing special effects at Stratford. Most of her original teachers have retired.
But what she envisioned is thriving, indeed fuelling a creative arts industry that is respected across this country.