BAIA BITS: Vernon Smith


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art

This past week, the art world lost talented St. Louis-based painter, Vernon Smith. We at Black Art In America send our thoughts, prayers, and condolences to Smith’s family and loved ones.

The 86-year-old Smith was a longtime creative fixture on the St. Louis art scene. Known as a proud and outspoken Black history scholar and community educator, Smith’s representative drawings and portraits were showcased at the city’s Portfolio Art Gallery as well as the St. Louis Art Museum.

In a recent piece by Sylvester Brown Jr. in The St. Louis American, Portfolio Art founder Robert Powell notes that the passionate Smith “had a philosophy on black history and everything he did came from that perspective… He was always teaching and would get upset with you if you didn’t understand what he was saying or if you debated him on what he knew.”

And what he knew was substantial. Coming into prominence in the 1960s and ‘70s, Smith was an original member of the St. Louis Black Artist Group,  the popular multidisciplinary arts collective that incorporated visual art, jazz, music, and theater. The group did so while promoting Black pride and knowledge of self, history, culture. Smith’s circles included the likes of prominent painters Emilio Cruz and Oliver Jackson, and such noted musicians as Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, and Hamlet Bluiett.


BAG (Black Artists’ Group) meeting in 1969
Photo courtesy of Oliver Lake


Smith used his artistic talents and accumulated wisdom to teach others both in classroom and the community. He influenced countless students and young artists as an art and figure drawing instructor at Meramec Community College. He opened the Hobnail Gallery around 1980 on Lee and Newstead Avenues as a place to promote Black art, represent Black culture, and to engage and facilitate community dialogue.

Given his creative talents, his cultural pride, his outspokenness, and his ongoing impact on others, Vernon Smith was easily one of the most popular and recognizable figures on the local St. Louis art scene.

In The St. Louis American article, Smith’s son, Stuart, summed up his father’s legacy in the following fashion:

“He was a talented artist who dedicated his time to his artwork. He never made the kind of money he wanted, but he did what he wanted in life,” offered Stuart, noting that “we had our differences, but he was still my dad, and I love him.”


Vernon Smith surrounded by his artwork at his apartment in 2019.
Photo compliments of Monica McFee, family friend and arts educator


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