Honoring a remarkable woman

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A special exhibit at UC Santa Cruz is bringing to life the creativity, intelligence, and bravery of Eloise Pickard Smith (1921–1995) on the centennial of her birth. 

The exhibit, now being held at the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery on campus, runs until December 11. Bringing together artifacts that tell the story of her involvement in art, her personal and family life, and her many professional accomplishments, the exhibit, “A Remarkable Woman: Eloise Pickard Smith,” captures the range of Smith’s insights and interests.

Gallery curator Tauna Coulson’s most important goal for this exhibit is to inspire UCSC students with Smith’s story. 

“I wanted them to see what one person achieved with her voice," Coulson said. “To me this is the most important part about the exhibit—about teaching through art.”

Coulson was referring to one of Smith’s most memorable achievements—the California Prisons Arts Project, providing prisoners access to art education and materials, and, in Smith’s words, giving them the benefit of “that mysterious life-enhancing process we call the arts, a realm in which patient application and vivid imagination so often produce magic.” 

The prison art project is now run by the William James Association, which loaned several pieces of artwork for display at the gallery. 

Putting this exhibit together was a learning experience for Coulson. 

“I wasn’t truly aware of just how much she did for anyone in her path, how much energy she poured forth in making art accessible to everyone and especially those who had the toughest time in having any exposure to art, including prison populations,” she said. “What also surprised me was her sheer tenacity in bettering the university and the community at large."

Smith's work in providing art access to prison populations foreshadows the important scholarship currently unfolding at UC Santa Cruz about incarceration and social justice. An ongoing public scholarship initiative called Visualizing Abolition, undertaken through the UC Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Sciences, is designed to foster creative research and to shift the social attachment to prisons through art and education. It recently received a nearly $2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Those who spend some time at the Eloise Pickard Smith exhibit will get a strong sense of her charisma and lasting influence.  “The exhibit evokes the whole person,” Coulson said.

The gallery space has examples of her artwork, her dining room, ephemera, a timeline of her life, and quotes on the walls.

This idea is the brainchild of Cowell College Provost Alan Christy, an associate professor of history at UCSC and co-director of the Center for the Study of Pacific War Memories.The exhibit touches on Smith’s many interests—she was, among other things, an accomplished gardener, and the mother of four children—while paying attention to her life and work as an activist. Smith helped stop a nuclear power plant that was proposed for an area just north of Davenport in the early 1970s, setting off an impassioned community debate and the formation of citizens' groups that rallied in opposition to the massive project. 

As part of that successful opposition, “Eloise Pickard Smith went door to door, she went to all the people with money, attended meetings in Sacramento—unstoppable,” Coulson said. “She created fliers and hand delivered them in all the mailboxes on how the plant would destroy the environment and how dangerous a proposition it was. I researched through online news archives and happened across one article that has her image front and center along with the bumper stickers she had made. Where does anyone find her energy?”

Smith also had a long history with UC Santa Cruz that precedes its opening in 1965. She was the wife of Page Smith, founding provost of Cowell College who joined the faculty in 1964, helping to shape the educational mission of the campus. They were married for 53 years and died within two days of each other. 

The Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m., and Thursdays from noon to 7 p.m. It will be closed Nov 25, 26, and 27 for the Thanksgiving holiday.)