TEXARKANA, Texas — Art teachers create legacies through the influence they have on students, and some also leave legacies with their own powerful art.
Such is the case with Scott Smedley, a longtime Texas High School art teacher who died earlier this year of pancreatic cancer. A Texas native, Smedley was a passionate, beloved educator who, in his own work, remained unafraid of confronting the painful things we find in life.
Now, Smedley's art has been donated by his family to Texas A&M University-San Antonio, where it can be seen by others as they learn about a time of which we often say, "Never again." If it truly does never happen again, art like Smedley's can surely help in that cause.
"I believe this and the fact of getting a late start in teaching has provided me with the life skills to be the teacher I am," Smedley wrote at the time, noting his love for art helped inspire his students. "Through me, they see my professional and spiritual struggles as an artist. This is why I teach: to encourage them to dream of what they love and go for it. I hope to give them the self-confidence to stand up to the challenges they will ultimately face."
With the art being so large and unlike art that traditionally hangs in the home, Wheeler wanted to find a new place for the paintings. It's not just his Holocaust paintings that filled his Texas-side Texarkana home, it was student art and so much more — stuff for future art projects like a bag of corks.
But in A&M-San Antonio, she found a new home that could display Smedley's "Faces of the Holocaust" collection. There, his paintings could serve an important purpose.
"My brother was an artist, my brother was an educator. We wanted these to be used for continual education. Too many people, even today in 2019, will disavow the Holocaust," Wheeler said.
She said they considered a permanent loan but opted for a free-and-clear donation. The art can be used anywhere in the A&M system, she said.
"They will get them cleaned up," Wheeler said. They'll be preserved and cared for, safely stored when not displayed, she said. Some will be displayed at all times. There's even a bit of irony here, too.
"It's going to be funny because we joke that if we hadn't had him cremated we'd say he'd roll over in his grave, but now we just say he's gonna 'poof' because he was a die-hard UT (University of Texas) fan," Wheeler said. "I mean crazy man UT fan."
Wheeler says her brother, who had those "pretty blue eyes," as she described them, would be "busting his buttons proud" that the art is displayed, but he might have an issue with the venue. He actually took classes at the local A&M campus here in Texarkana, his sister said. Several years ago, they worked together on an exhibit displayed in Arlington, Virginia, at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
"He helped me do the display for the 40th anniversary of women chaplains in the military (exhibit). He did all the display cabinets he helped pick out the pictures," Wheeler said.
Among his many other artistic accomplishments, Smedley's work "Don't Leave a Muse Waiting" was chosen as Best of Show for the Regional Arts Center's 19th annual Juried Exhibition.
At the A&M-San Antonio campus, Smedley's paintings will speak to Holocaust history and document its grim reality. They communicate what words may be unable to convey. The campus already houses a collection of items about the Holocaust.
"Texas A&M University-San Antonio's Harry W. Mazal Collection intentionally confronts Holocaust denial. Yet students can miss the meaning of Nazi atrocities amidst the staggering numbers of murdered Jews. Scott Smedley's haunting paintings tell a visually compelling story," said Tim Gritten, executive director of the library at A&M-San Antonio, in an email about the donation.
Says Gritten, "Their visceral power challenges observers in a way books can't. For me, the most powerful piece is 'Nazi Youth.' Two young boys, indoctrinated by hate and corrupted for a criminal cause, have lost their souls. Never again."
For students, this Holocaust-themed art can show, in an indelible way, what happened decades ago, bridging the gap of decades. Educators appreciate what it offers.
"Scott Smedley was a dedicated and passionate teacher and a gifted artist, and as a Holocaust scholar I feel honored that our university has received his powerful paintings to support student learning about this dark chapter in human history," said Dr. Edward B. Westermann, the professor of history at A&M-San Antonio who worked with Wheeler to bring the donation to the campus.
Shea Phillips, a Texas High School art teacher and former Smedley student, said art's power to comment on our society is what he taught students to see. Count her as one of those students who feel his legacy at work in her own life.
"Scott Smedley was a revered art teacher in TISD and he dedicated many years to educating the students of Texas High. He inspired me and countless others to love art and to express ourselves through painting, sculpture and printmaking. He also taught me that art transcends the artist and that our craft could be used to ignite social justice, comment on our society and reflect on what is is to be human," Phillips said.
About his art, she says, "His paintings are raw, powerful and hard to confront and make the viewer empathize with the subjects. His style of portrait painting continues to influence my sensibilities as an artist and his passion for teaching also inspired my career as an art teacher."
Smedley's belief that art "transcends the artist," as Phillips said, can be seen in the teaching philosophy he wrote. He was mindful of the realities his students faced.
"Texas High is in a small but growing town, and one sees the gamut from rural to urban issues. Racial bigotry, drugs, and violence are all things these kids deal with, and hopefully my class provides a chance to turn that off for a while," he wrote. "My students know that they are all treated fairly and equally."
In Smedley's career as an art teacher, he started in Wickes, Arkansas, after receiving a teacher certification from Henderson State University. He taught in Atlanta, Texas, then North Carolina for a year, only to return to his native Texas and land at Texas High from 2002 to 2014. He then taught at Redwater Independent School District before retiring because of disability, according to a bio prepared by his family.
Across the country, his art has been included in collections and juried shows, including the annual juried exhibition at Texarkana's Regional Arts Center. His freelance art jobs included set decoration for the TexRep production of "A Raisin in the Sun," plus work for the Sevier County Historical Society and Junior League of Dallas.
When Scott, the son of Bobby and Ruby Smedley, got sick, Wheeler heard from the students he taught.
"The number of former students that talked about how he changed their lives, how he made high school bearable. One kid said how he brought color into his high school years. That no matter how the day was going when he got to art, he got to that art class, he knew it would be OK," Wheeler said.