Visiting Smith’s Hometown of Wichita, KS

I got here last night and found the two homes where Smith lived from birth to high school graduation, 1918-1936.  I also found the old hospital where his father William Smith committed suicide in the parking lot in 1936.   Today I’m in the public library all day.  Tomorrow I’m giving a public talk at the Ulrich Museum of Art, which seems like a first class organization.  When I arrived in my hotel room last night I found a packet from the Ulrich staff with an updated itinerary for my trip, down to the exact minute, plus maps and other local literature.  You don’t see this kind of planning and attention to detail every day.

Novelist and short story writer Antonya Nelson, a native of Wichita, has written a brilliant brief imagination of Smith’s famous image, The Walk to Paradise Garden, for a catalog to go along with the current exhibition of selections from the Ulrich collection which is the occasion for my talk.  I’m not sure I can do much better than just to stand up there and read Nelson’s piece out loud.  She evokes a hint of something ominous in the image.  Where are the adults? she asks.  Most people – including Ford Motor Company and others who used the image for marketing decades ago – find it to be a feel-good piece.  I’ll seek permission to publish her piece here later in the week.

Playwright Neil LaBute found a color velvet knock-off painting of The Walk to Paradise Garden in a Los Angeles flea market and he said it had a “healthy balance of foreboding and hope.”  Of course, color and velvet bring something new to the image, but his words ring with Nelson’s.  It takes artists like Smith, Nelson, and LaBute to see that foreboding and hope are an inextricable mix.

-Sam Stephenson

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