At 100, Artist Kay Smith Documents American History in Watercolor Paintings

Over the course of 100 years, you could watch the world change, literally. Illinois Artist Laureate Kay Smith has been documenting those changes for the last 75 years, and her work is all rooted in her love of American history.

WTTW News arts correspondent Angel Idowu visited Lincoln Park to meet the watercolorist, who turned 100 last month.

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For Smith, there is only one focus in her work.

“I love America,” Smith said. “Been interested in American history forever.”

From the Statue of Liberty to Mount Rushmore, Smith spent 50 years traveling the country and documenting historical landmarks with her watercolors.

“I didn’t have a favorite location,” Smith said. “I paint where I need to paint and do what I need to get done.”

She created what would later be known as her American Legacy Collection. That 250-piece collection led the former teacher to be honored as the Illinois Artist Laureate.

“I’m grateful,” Smith said. “It’s recognition, and I’ve had a lot of recognition, thank goodness.”

Smith’s depictions of American history have led her to receive many accolades, which include recently being honored by the city of Chicago with the declaration of Kay Smith Day on Feb. 27.

“I’m 100 years old now,” Smith said. “I’m thankful that I can do something. I did quite a lot of artwork.”

Even at the age of 100, Smith spends at least one hour per day putting her watercolor wand to the test, doing what she does best.

“You don’t have to be fast,” Smith said. “I have a regular schedule. I have an hour in the morning that I can paint, my ‘relaxing hour,’ then the next hour it’s down again to rest. When you become this age, people become concerned about what you’re doing. So I try to keep them happy, and I can’t do it with anything but watercolor.”

As for her still growing collection, Smith said the perfect place for her pieces is in the classroom, educating the next generation on American history.

“They don’t know a thing,” Smith said. “It’s sad, it really is. People don’t respect the fact that we have this great country right here.”

For more information on Smith, visit

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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