Written by Jenny Fillmer
Artist, writer, singer and actor Robert Eugene Smith peacefully passed away Feb. 13, 2010, aged 82, surrounded by friends and family.
Robert was born Oct. 14, 1927, in St. Louis, Mo., the only child of Clarence and Mary Agnes (Walls) Smith. He grew up in St. Louis, Union and Garland, Tx. He was forced to drop out of high school to help support his family, and was very proud to have earned his diploma in 1970, at age 42. In 1981, he completed 60 college hours at SMSU and earned a substitute teaching certificate, and later taught occasional art classes.
Robert moved to Springfield in 1975, with hopes of acting at Landers Theater. Although he spent time in Columbia, Jefferson City and St. Joseph, Springfield became his home.
Robert held many jobs, among his favorites, selling concessions at Busch Stadium and selling Grit newspapers. But it was Robert’s artwork that brought him fame and national recognition. Though he had drawn since childhood, he didn’t take his art seriously until 1967, when he sold his first collection of drawings to a friend for $25. Robert was self-taught, taking inspiration from coloring books, photos, history, news stories and his own experiences. His “story paintings”— complete with a hand-written description of the painting and a cassette of Robert himself reading the story . The paintings overflow with color, humor and incident, representing a triumph of the imagination over a strenuous and difficult life. They have been shown at New York’s Museum of American Folk Art, Vanderbilt University, the Springfield Art Museum and sold at distinguished galleries across the country. He is featured in The Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Folk Art. His paintings are on display in hundreds of Springfield homes and businesses. A mural of his painting of Springfield’s former Colonial Hotel, complete with Elvis Presley and Ray Charles, remains downtown at Campbell and Walnut.
Robert was also a prolific writer, producing many self-published volumes of poems and semi-autobiographical stories.
Though he didn’t drive, Robert traveled coast to coast by Greyhound Bus and bicycled all around Springfield — once even riding to Branson. He carried a camera everywhere, to record scenes and faces for his paintings.
Robert loved life. He loved to sing, anywhere from recording studios to answering machines. He loved to be on stage and on camera, recently appearing in the film To and From. He loved to dance with pretty girls. He loved wearing bright colors and costumes, often appearing in a sombrero, wig or clown shoes. He loved baseball, holidays, parades, Shirley Temple and telling stories.
Robert had an incredible memory. He recalled the make and model of every car his family owned, St. Louis Cardinals scores, and the names of girls he danced with when Sinatra and Elvis songs first played the radio. Friends’ birthdays were always marked with a phone call, a song and often, a small painting.
Robert is survived by several cousins: Jean Frazier and husband Mike, Rolla; Grace Matthews, San Diego, Ca.; Evert Smith, Rolla; Judy Huber, Jefferson City; Pat Knapp, Baden, Ok.; Sally Smith, Rolla; Eugene Smith, Lamont; Shirley Lange, Belle; and a vast network of supportive friends in Springfield.
A celebration of Robert’s life will be held at a later date at the Springfield Art Museum.
His remains were donated to medical research, as per his request.
Email updates from Cina
about Robert's last days
about Robert's last days
Feb 13, 2010
Tonight, at eight o'clock, surrounded by some of his closest friends, Robert slipped on to his next big adventure. It was a quite, peaceful passing. Those of us who have watched him painfully struggle the last few weeks were giving thanks for a gentle release.
Please stay tuned for information about an upcoming memorial sometime in the next month or so. It seems that everyone is in agreement that time is needed to pull off the kind of memorial that would truly honor a Robert E. style send off. Cina
Friday, Feb 12, 2010 at 8pm
Well folks, it's been an emotional roller coaster today, to say the least. Many of us were here together, gathered around Robert, laughing, crying singing and simply loving him on his way. And wow, did he sure recognize all the faces of his trusty friends! We watched him perk up at familiar voices, squeeze hands and try to give some hugs. Of anything I am certain, it is that Robert has felt special today and very, very loved.
He was pulled from ventilation at around 11:30am, then shortly after, moved to a private room upstairs. In parade style we followed and gathered a bit more closely in his new place. At first the air was filled with quite anticipation, wondering how long he would be able to sustain breathing on his own. Then, as the hours passed and his breathing actually improved a bit we all began to wonder what was in store. Moods lightened as people came and went. Gosh, who knows with Robert, right? It may not be too crazy a thought that we could be pulling him in the St. Patty's day parade in true Robert form... in a green wagon! However, the hours of watching him move in and out of awareness and not, have more or less kept us all in suspense.
Now, it's eight o'clock in the evening. The room is quite and Robert is in and out of restless sleep. His breathing is steady, less raspy, but still a bit shallow. He's relaxed more but still struggles to be comfortable. We don't know what he's trying to say when he does try to talk but many of us have wondered if he's talking about whether or not he's ready for what he sees. Sometimes it seems as though he's looking past us.
I believe Robert will let go when he's ready, and I'm certain that part of being ready is knowing his friends and family are with him as he goes. Thank you all, for being an inspiring community. I hope with all of my heart that some day I will have the kind of friends that Robert does, the kind of community that would never let me leave, alone.