Hard work and art get together in one determined teacher

Teaching art to more than 12,000 students at five high schools, three colleges, and yes, one jail has solidified this 71-year-old artist’s reputation from Kalamazoo and Marquette to southeast Michigan.

Former Notre Dame teacher mounts 50-year retrospective of a career in education and art.

Kirby Smith “officially” retired from teaching nearly 10 years ago after finishing up a 14-year stint at Notre Dame Prep, his last full-time job. But his retirement has been nothing like what one would call taking it easy.

He’s currently teaching ceramics at St. Clair Community College in St. Clair, Mich., and has been super busy of late putting together a retrospective exhibition of 50 years of his art that will open May 2 at Studio 1219, a gallery located in Port Huron.

“It’s mostly ceramics,” Smith, 71, said, “but I’ve also got a few paintings in the exhibition as well.”

Kirby Smith has devoted a lifetime of hard work to making art and teaching art to students — more than 12,000 students by his estimation — at schools that include most notably Notre Dame High School, Notre Dame Prep and Cranbrook.

He is tickled by the fact that Notre Dame Prep is planning to build a bigger, more dedicated space for the visual arts as part of the recently announced “March on to Victory” capital campaign.

“I’ve been hearing something about that for years,” he said. “Now it looks like it’s going to happen. With art, space is one of the most important things. Plus, it’s another example of how this administration supports the arts. Actually, everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been lucky to work at schools that value art. Cranbrook is noted for the arts, and at both Notre Dames, I always had big budgets to do what I needed to do.”

Smith thinks the new building campaign and renewed focus on art come at a perfect time. 

“Businesses and companies are now realizing that hiring people with an art background or education is oftentimes a better thing than if job candidates do not have any art training,” he said. “Having the ability to use both sides of your brain creates a very well-rounded and intuitive young person who can be much more valuable to an employer than those with strictly a business education, for example.”

Late nights and hard work

A native Michigander, Smith grew up in Kalamazoo and attended Loy Norrix High School where he and his fellow students comprised the school’s first graduating class. Post-high school, Smith studied art at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek after which he matriculated to Northern Michigan University where he received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art.

So dedicated to his art at NMU was Smith that he would actually work in the school studios late into the night — so late that he would have to hide when the security guard made his last rounds of the evening.

“I blocked out the windows at night so the lights couldn’t be seen from the outside,” he recalled. “I got caught twice. The first time, my professor was okay with it, and probably realized he was just dealing with a rather ambitious student. But the second time I was caught, it was three in the morning and I could tell the prof was really upset. So I stopped the late nighters.”

After graduation from college, Smith student-taught at a high school in Green Bay, Wisc., as well as a nearby community college, and then picked up his first real, full-time teaching position at Forest Park High School in Crystal Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was at FPHS where he also took up coaching football, which was something besides art that he was good at after a fairly successful playing career at Loy Norrix.

Forest Park won two state championships during Smith’s coaching tenure and the team occasionally played Iron Mountain High School, which featured at the time current MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo and former NFL head coach Steve Mariucci.

But his heart was into his art — and teaching art — and when a job opportunity opened at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, a school with an international reputation in art education, he thought he’d apply.

“I remember that while at Forest Park High, I would put on student exhibitions and advertise in the local media and promote the heck out of it, but no one would show up,” Smith said. “It just drove me nuts! So when I found out Cranbrook was looking for an instructor, I sent my resume to the school, and lo and behold, much to my surprise, they called me for an interview.”

He drove all the way from the U.P. to Bloomfield Hills in his old car and about three miles from Cranbrook, his car broke down. But thankfully Smith was able to talk the tow truck driver into driving him the last three miles to his interview. 

When Smith finally arrived — 15 minutes late — unfortunately, the headmaster had already left his office.

“But I was determined. I walked across campus, which is about 500 acres, and looked for him,” he recalled. “I did find him eventually and apologized up and down for being ‘so late.’”

Smith said the interview process at Cranbrook was decidedly different than any other school he’s ever encountered. 

“I interviewed with 12 people over the course of two days,” Smith said. “The job was described to me as being a ‘general practitioner’ in the art department, teaching design, painting and drawing alongside seven other full-time art instructors.” 

After the multiple interviews during those two grueling days, Smith drove back to the U.P. in his now—repaired car, thinking that he was never going to get the job, even though it seemed like a dream position for him.

But Smith eventually did get the job and spent the next six years at Cranbrook teaching art and also coaching football. When he was passed over for a coveted ceramics teaching position at the school, he decided it was time once again to move on.

The Notre Dame era

“I quit Cranbrook without having anywhere else to go,” he said. ”It was probably not the smartest thing I could have done, especially since I just got married.” 

Bill Raymond was the principal at Notre Dame High School in 1985 when a teacher Smith knew from Cranbrook who was at NDHS at the time suggested that Smith take a look at that school in Harper Woods. 

“So I interviewed with Bill Raymond, which to the surprise of no one who knew Bill, did not turn out to be a quick process,” he said. “Not as involved as Cranbrook, for sure, but still pretty involved.”

Raymond was impressed enough with Smith that he was hired at NDHS and subsequently taught art and coached there for 10 more years. 

Then, shortly after Notre Dame Prep opened in Pontiac, Smith moved north to teach art at that fledgling school, which, like Harper Woods Notre Dame, was run by the Marist Fathers.

At ND Prep, Smith established the art program from scratch and since he was working nearly day and night to get the program going, he decided to finally give up coaching. One of the first things he did during the initial few years at the school was to move the art room from a small, regular classroom to what at the time was a much-larger home-economics room. 

“They had 220-volt electric service for my kiln plus a lot more room for art tables and storage,” Smith said. 

“Then, when Notre Dame was planning to build a new wing a number of years later, Fr. Leon (Olszamowski) came up to me one day as only Fr. Leon could and asked me to design a new art space for the new wing,” he said. “I said ‘great!’ But then he said he needed the design by 7 a.m. the following morning. Fortunately, I got it done in time.”

Smith taught at Pontiac Notre Dame a total of 14 years and served as chair of an art department that had included as many as three teachers. 

He finally retired in 2008 after 38 years and five different high schools.

On to night school and jail

Never one to let any dust settle, Smith continues in his ceramics position at St. Clair Community College. It actually isn’t his first teaching gig outside of a high school. 

While teaching at the two Notre Dames, he also served as an instructor of art at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, where he turned a failing program around in fairly short order. 

Some of his most successful “success” stories in teaching were from his time at WCCC. 

“I get emotional thinking about it now,” he said. “Some of my students came from very challenging environments at home and in high school. Plus, the classes at WC3 when I first got there were just not very good at all. But those students really came around and were so proud of their work. And I, too, was very proud of their work as well as the students themselves.”

If all of that that wasn’t enough work for Smith, while at Notre Dame in Harper Woods, he began teaching adult-ed at night through a program sponsored by the L’Anse Creuse school system.

“It wasn’t just any adult-ed,” he said. “I actually taught commercial art in the evening at the Macomb County jail. I spent 10 interesting years teaching art to rapists, murderers, thieves — you name it. But there never was a time when I felt threatened or afraid.”

50 years of work

Smith is now putting the finishing touches on the art that will go into his Port Huron show that begins May 2 and runs through May 30. It’s a lot of work given the fact that he’s got more than 50 years of work to curate and organize into one place.

But he’s not complaining.

“Art has always been a good fit for me,” he said. “The other thing that I believe was just as important for me as art was the drive and hard work my parents instilled in me from the time I was very young. I remember my father working sunup to sundown as a roofer and my mother working in a laundry until she was 74 years old. I believe that work ethic has served me very well, both in my teaching and in my art.”

“Kirby Smith – 50 Years”
Studio 1219
1219 Military Street
Port Huron, Mich.

Opening reception for the artist is May 12, 6-8 p.m.

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.

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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy

Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." The Marist Fathers and Brothers sponsor NDPMA's Catholic identity and manages its educational program. Notre Dame is accredited by the National Association of Independent Schools, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org.