Chester Martin Remembers Maria Kirby-Smith

Thursday, May 12, 2016
Maria Kirby-Smith
Maria Kirby-Smith

Maria (pronounced, "Mariah") Kirby-Smith is a most distinguished sculptor-lady with very strong ties to Chattanooga and to the State of Tennessee.  Her father was a West Point graduate  and stationed in many places while in the Army. Maria was born at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Through family ties she early made connections with Chattanooga and always had happy remembrances of extended visits here.

While her father, Col.

Edmund Kirby-Smith, was a military advisor (MAAG) on Taiwan, Maria, as a child, became fascinated with a retired soldier/artist who deftly conjured up Chinese mythological beings and various other creatures using colored rice paste. The magic of seeing paste transformed into opera characters in full dress, and other such curiosities, entertained all the "Army brats", deeply impressing Maria.  He would take the soft paste, freshly mixed, and rapidly convert it into human or animal shapes before the eyes of the amazed children. Maria would then go home and try to emulate what the artist had done, finding the necessary supplies in her mom's kitchen.

One thing led to another and soon Maria Kirby-Smith was pursuing the field of Sculpture as a career. But even when a person "studies" Sculpture formally, it is basically a skill that is self-taught. "Mastering" the traditional materials - of clay, plaster, etc., is relatively easy, and can be taught in school, but it is the "cerebral" part of the job that separates the true sculptor from the amateur. This Ms. Kirby-Smith was easily able to do and the excellence of her work - her personal "interpretations" - soon won critical praise and earned her many awards.

Upon meeting Maria for the first time one might be inclined to think that she was "frail" and might have a rather "dilletantish" approach to the medium. That assumption would be wrong, as she relates a story of one entrance exam she was required to take in order to gain admittance to a prominent Philadelphia Sculpture school. That qualifying feature: to lift a 100-pound bag of plaster and carry it up a flight of stairs. Not too easy a task even for many men! Also, the over-life-size figures she now regularly sculptures are far too heavy and unwieldy for any weakling to maneuver about.

She was among the very most fortunate art students on the planet to have the famous sculptor Donald DeLue as a family friend who was able to give her constructive criticism and advice from time to time at home. Through him, and through her own in-born intuitions, she was  soon able to market her talents, and commissions began to arrive at her door.

Maria has had a life-long love for animals - especially pigs (!), and even appreciates insects for their intrinsic natural beauty. (Our local artist, Miss Fannie Mennen shared that same love for insects). One of Maria's earliest commissions was from the Franklin Mint near Philadelphia when at the height of its popularity. She was commissioned to do a series of three-inch in diameter medals, a "series of bits", as she describes them, with the theme of "water fowl", for their Audubon collection of birds. Her love of the subject, plus her skill at rendering them accurately, paid off, and she thus created a very remarkable addition to that mint's catalog of art medals.

Then, there was suddenly an opening in the Sculpture and Engraving Division of the U.S. Mint where I happened to be working. I had never personally known Maria until then - although I had known of her work. She was soon sitting at the desk next to mine - two Tennessee artists in a room with four Yankee artists! We got two little Tennessee state flags to display and prove our point: that we were the first Southerners to work as Engravers at the U.S. Mint, in like forever! I got acquainted with some of her work through the photos she would bring in - and I knew there was a very large commission pending, which she was hoping to receive, despite the new and very good job.

Maria worked at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia for about a year before the hoped-for commission came through, but it was a great one, and one worth waiting for: a war memorial for Bristol, Tn/Va. Our department at the mint included three machinists, called "Transfer Engravers" who were big and brawny men - strong enough to handle heavy pieces of die-steel - and they became the models for the soldiers in her new monument down south!  By the end of the project, Freddy, Danny and Mike had been transformed into bronze soldiers!  By their posing for less than one lunch hour, Maria was able to take the necessary photos of those men to get her new project off the ground. She soon resigned her position at the Mint to complete the designing and do the actual sculpturing. An invitation to South Carolina caused her to move there from Philadelphia, where she soon had an ideal new studio and from that location she completed her commission.

When the Bristol war memorial was finally in place, a large number of people were invited to its dedication. The project's donor, from Texas, was not able to attend the ceremonies, so a surrogate delegate, Ms. Lynda Solansky, was fortuitously sent in his place -  as a second alternate!  Ms. Solansky had never met Maria, and had never been to the Southeast before.  Maria and Lynda  first met at the "Meet the Artist" event following the monument's dedication. Lynda was immediately "taken" by what she saw, and learned about Maria from others in attendance. One glimpse of Maria's studio clinched matters; she soon quit her Texas job as a Special Education teacher and moved to the Southeast  to become Maria's business manager. They have been together ever since. Maria, the artist, and "Sgt Solansky", as Lynda is affectionately called, as the business manager. Twenty "plus" years a Team!

Together they have tackled many challenging jobs - of sculpturing both people and animals. Federal Judges, the famous Richland, Viginia, coal miners, Native American chiefs, Senator Strom Thurmond of S.C., and a long list of others. She was even commissioned to create a sculpture of her own great-great-grandfather, Dr. Edmund Kirby-Smith, founder of the University of the South. It stands in the courtyard of the St. Augustine (Florida) Historical Society, where Kirby-Smith was born, and lived as a child. Much more recently she was commissioned to create a monument to Bernard Baruch at Camden, S.C., the famous man's home town. A figure of  All-Star baseball legend, Larry Doby, shares the same limelight with Baruch in a public park. Brookgreen Gardens, largest sculpture garden in the U.S., near Myrtle Beach, includes one of her life-size figures in their permanent collection.

Although temporarily displaced to South Carolina, Maria still has that little Tennessee flag from her U.S. Mint days which just might beckon her home to Tennessee again one day! She has been regularly visiting the thriving artists' colony of our Chattanooga "Southside" and likes what she sees! Let's keep our fingers crossed!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

 

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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