Staying After Class
Ferol Smith and a group of artists still meet regularly after having taken an art class by Ferol’s internationally acclaimed husband, the late William Arthur Smith
Bucks County Magazine
It was at the beginning of World War II that Ferol Yvonne Stratton decided to go the Grand Central School of Art in New York City. Born in Kansas, Ferol had moved to the Big Apple and later decided to pursue a career in advertising. The school, located at the top of the famous train station offered a course in advertising, but Ferol Stratton, now Ferol Smith received more than an education from the school. “I married my teacher,” she says.
Her teacher, William Arthur Smith, was teaching art and he worked as a book illustrator. “Imagine having a teacher 25 years old. He took the place of someone else who had gone into the army, another teacher. You know all the teachers there went into making maps and doing stuff like that. So they kept being replaced at this school.”
The school was closed down shortly after Ferol met Bill. Ferol says “They had to close the school down because it was on top of the roof and wouldn’t be safe if there were an air raid.”
When the school closed Bill joined the army where he was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services in China.
After the war Ferol and Bill met again. “When he came back he was divorced from his first wife. He had a young son. I found out he was back home, somebody gave a welcome back party in New York and that’s where we picked up again.” They were married in 1949. “We had a city hall marriage in New York and then we were married in a church in Paris. My dad came to the wedding in New York and my mother came to the wedding in France. My mother is French. We took the boy to France with us and he had quite an experience. I already had a family when I married him, an eight-year-old boy, Richard.” In the course of time, Ferol had two girls, R. Kim and Kathlin Alexandria.
Bill, who began illustrating books at the age of 17, quickly became a world-renowned artist. He lectured at prestigious art schools in Athens, Manila and Warsaw. Bill also has work in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Library of Congress as well as other notable museums, including Bucks County’s own James A. Michener Art Museum. He has illustrated U.S. postage stamps on historical subjects, authored a book, He has also had innumerable exhibitions and awards for his work in graphic art, painting and watercolors. And he became a personal friend of the poet, Carl Sandburg.
In 1969 Ferol and Bill moved to Pineville in Bucks County. “He had a big studio, downstairs and a studio upstairs,” she recalls. “It was a neat house. It was really a beautiful house with a renovated barn and it is still there. Bill was a freelance artist with a family, so to get a little more income, we started a class. The group originally had around twenty-five people and met once a week.”
Ferol didn’t attend the class held in her home, but instead took on the job of bookkeeper for the group. “I was also the one who made the coffee and refreshments for the class before I went to do something else. I was working for Nakashima, the famous Bucks County furniture maker at on Saturdays. I was the glorified receptionist and order writer. I also worked in a shoe store in Peddler’s Village. These were lean times for us.”
William A. Smith died in 1989 After his passing, the class didn’t disband but became an art group. The people who attended the class didn’t want to stop meeting. JoAnn Gari, who began with the class in the ’70s says, “We hired people to critique our work. There was a woman who was in the group that moved to New York who would hold the critiques. She would discuss our work with us. We had teachers but they mainly would do critiques” Ferol adds, “Bob Beck was our teacher for a while. We also had Pat Martin. And we had Cheryl Raywood. So those three were the main influences. Otherwise we painted pretty much on our own. They would set aside blocks of time and they would come in for two or three weeks. Then we would be on our own for a while. I guess it was what you would call freelance teaching.”
After her husband died, Ferol returned to painting and joined the group that she and her husband began. She always loved to paint, but says, “I didn’t paint during those years. We had two young kids.”
The group painted together every week. JoAnn, who was an art teacher at Conwell Egan in Fairless Hills for 16 years says, “We are all somehow related to the art field. It’s great to have these great established artists to spend some time with you. It gives you a great perspective.”
The group painted inside and out. JoAnn recalls, “We painted at Trevellini’s farm a few times too. George Trivellini is a sculptor who has a piece of sculpture outside of the Michener Museum. During the summer we painted outside. We still do that but not as much. Indoors we do still life or sometimes we pose for each other. You know, so we can do our figure painting. And when the weather is nice, we do go outside. We go to different locations.”
Over the years some of the people who were in the class left the group and new ones came in. New people usually find the group by word of mouth. JoAnn says, “I found one person at the Bucks County Community College.” JoAnn had done a project with Shawn, who is still a member of the group. It was for a celebration at the convention center. “It was a Benjamin Franklin something. And we made these kites. We used photographs of the people in Chandler Hall.”
The group uses a variety of media. “We sometimes use Pastels, but they are very messy. We would be strongest in watercolor and oil,” Ferol says. “I still live dangerously because I still use oil.”
Styles of painting vary among group members. Ferol says, “I am in my middle nineties. I come from a long hearty line. It’s my French peasant blood. I am still eager to get up in the morning to paint. I do mainly realist paintings.” JoAnn adds, “I am also a realist, but every once in a while I paint abstract.”
The group now meets at the Pine Run Activities Center, which is in a building that looks like a barn. They meet every Sunday at 10 p.m. And while they are there they paint, usually sitting around a table. Sometimes they have a still life set up for them and other times they paint one of them that is posing for them. They go outside during the summer and occasionally they show their work at various venues. As a group they have gone together to Museums in New York, Philadelphia and locally.
For a long while they had a mannequin that once belonged to Thomas Nast, the famous cartoonist of Boss Tweed Era in New York City. Somehow Bill was able to obtain this and the group used her until she fell apart. “Everybody painted her. They would paint her in different poses. There’s one of her at a desk, one of her standing. They would dress her in different outfits and even put wigs on her. I found some old clothes at a vintage store that fit her,” Ferol explains. “We used her for years. It just disintegrated. Connie says the head was ok, so she keeps it at her house. Everything was very articulated, the fingers, the feet. She was all stuffed with Excelsior. It is like a straw but kind of scratchy.” Some of Ferol’s best paintings were of her. “I like that one painting we did of her where she was dressed in a white dress—a wedding dress.”
Ferol says that she paints in a style similar to her husband. “I would say Bill. Bill Smith was the inspiration for the work of this group that continues. I found that I started painting very much like my husband, particularly watercolor,” Ferol says. She admires the work of local artist Bob Beck and Peter Hunt too.
The group continues to paint every week. They are friends. Ferol says, “I think there is a very good feeling among us. I don’t recall one catty remark or one nasty comment ever being made, which among a group of artists is pretty good.”