Wayne State art instructor Alice Smith had one goal in life — to make art.
Somewhere between learning and perfecting her craft, she found her true calling. She discovered a love for teaching.
Smith, 52, began teaching in after school programs for underprivileged communities in and around her hometown of Detroit. With the goal of reaching out and helping youth by exposing them to art and cultural diversity, Smith found she could give kids hope by allowing them to be creators.
“When I actually started to feel that impact with our kids,” she said as she leaned forward, her hands and shoulders moving back and forth as she spoke, “then I knew I was in the right place. Then I fell in love with teaching.”
Smith teaches sculpture courses in Room 250 of the Art Building, where she can be found standing slightly slouched at the front of a class, reminding students to think about the art they create.
Joseph Lalonde, a senior who took 3D design and intermediate sculpture courses with Smith, said she is the reason he changed his major to sculpture.
“She inspired me a lot to find myself and try new things,” he said.
In the classroom, Smith is energetic and passionate, but can also be strict, Lalonde said. He recalled an incident when Smith yelled at a student for repeatedly washing plaster in the sink, a practice that destroys the pipe system.
“She can have a short temper with those that goof around,” he said.
Her style includes wearing a buttoned-up shirt that fits loosely on her thin frame and falls over her forest green cargo pants. Her dreadlocks, which stop at the center of her back, are pulled off of her face, highlighting two wooden necklaces that accent her chocolate-brown skin. Gold, elaborate chandelier earrings with a round charm dangle from her ears, and her dark brown eyes are shaded behind her small, circular sunglasses.
“She’s got her own style,” Njia Kai, Smith’s friend who worked with her at the Cultural Art Mentors Program, said. “You get that kind of artsy, creative feel from her appearance, but you don’t know how deep she is, how big her heart is and the wealth of experience she has because she makes herself one of the people.”
Smith found her niche in the art world while studying at the College for Creative Studies. After a year majoring in clay, she wandered into the glass department, a place she’d later call home.
“God, I was so seduced by that glass,” she said as her low-toned voice turned to a whisper, eyes sparkling with passion. “When I saw the heat, the molten glass, the whole ambiance was so seductive. I said, ‘Oh my God, I have to be here.’”
She quickly changed her concentration to glass, where she found much joy but also many challenges. Smith, being the only African-American woman in the department at the time, struggled to find a glass-blowing partner, a relationship necessary to advance in the glass world.
“It always takes two people in that department to get you elevated to where you needed to be, so if you’ve actually been put into a position where there’s no help, you just have to do what you have to do on your own,” she said. “And that’s what I did.”
Growing up, Smith recognized her passion for creating. She used to build things with her siblings; they took apart and put together bike parts and made race cars out of scraps found on the street.
“Back then our parents couldn’t really afford to buy things like skates and bikes and go-carts, so we just started designing and building our own,” Smith said.
Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Smith lived with her mom, dad and seven brothers and sisters. Her mother, Bernice, was a strict, hard-working custodian, who didn’t allow her kids to date until they were 18. Her father, Rufus Gilmore, was a steel worker, army veteran and outdoorsman.
Smith felt closest to her youngest sister, Cassandra, who died of cancer a couple years ago.
“She was a visionary, and I was, too,” she said. “She always had great ideas about all kinds of things.”
When Smith graduated from high school, she left Birmingham looking for equality and diversity. She moved to Los Angeles for two years, then Cleveland and later settled in Detroit where her aunt and uncle lived. After completing her bachelor’s at CCS, a push from her mentor and a desire to further her studies in glass led her to Wayne State’s graduate program, where she received a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2005.
Smith has four children, Erin, 28, Rainier, 26, Jana, 23, and Joshua, 20, none of which have followed her path of art.
“They see the hardship that this brings — no money,” Smith said in laughter. “I guess that was a deterrent for them because this is a hard space to be in.”
Smith’s most valued creations are those that stand for a cause. In 2007, Smith created two sculptures, one in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and one for Rosa Parks. The steel sculptures were conceptual pieces with bright orange accents that represent the warmth and passion Parks and King had for America, Smith said.
“Those pieces were a reflection of how I looked at them in this universe,” she said. “They were people who had to stand way above the rest of us, and they had to have an outer shell that was harder than steel.”
Her works found on campus also have profound meaning. In 2006, she was chosen to create a sculpture in honor of the university’s fifth president, William R. Keast. The steel-glass sculpture is titled “Iktomi,” a name Smith said is derived from West Indian folk lore that means “teacher of wisdom.”
“It is a conceptual piece that represents equality, growth and vision,” Smith said.
She also created a sculpture of the university’s emblem to commemorate the 35th year of women’s athletics at WSU. The steel sculpture sits in front of the Matthaei Building and symbolizes a door that has been opened for women into athletics.
Even with her success, Smith remains humble and looks for ways to use her art as a platform to speak out on educational issues.
“My mission is just to get out there and be a part of the community, help as much as I can and be a positive influence,” she said.