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Keedysville woman uncovers genius of great-aunt's art

Suzanne Smith gives new life to Emily Clayton Bishop

July 17, 2010|By DANA BROWN
  • Suzane and Marvin Smith are shown in their Keedysville home with artwork created by Suzanne's great-aunt Emily Clayton Bishop.
Dana Brown, Staff Writer

KEEDYSVILLE -- What began with a childhood fascination for Suzanne Smith of Keedysville has developed into a discovery mission to find the artwork of her great-aunt, Emily Clayton Bishop.

What she also is finding is that she is uncovering "a genius of the first order."

Smith's aunt was heralded in her time as a promising talent. Bishop, a Smithsburg native, was said to have been on pace to becoming a major figure in the art world in the early 1900s. Bishop earned numerous awards, scholarships and commissions for her work. She was a classmate of Mary Cassatt and a student of Auguste Rodin before her death in 1912 at the age of 28.

The New York Times noted in Bishop's obituary that "she was regarded as one of the most promising of America's sculptors."

Now, nearly 100 years after her death, Smith has worked diligently to uncover Bishop's body of work.

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"I remember being enthralled as a young child by her work," Smith said of the her aunt's drawings, which were displayed in the grand hallway of the family home.

While Bishop's artwork was readily displayed, Smith said her family -- perhaps due to their grief -- didn't talk much about the artist.

But something, Smith said, led her to uncover her aunt's life and her talent.

That something, she added, was a challenge issued by her husband, Marvin.

Smith said she often had mentioned to her husband throughout the years that her grandmother's sister was a great artist.

"He said if she's so great, let's look into it," Smith said. "He thought I was exaggerating."

"If I hadn't challenged her, nothing would have happened," Marvin Smith said. "It's kind of a detective story."

Soon, pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place.

The first piece was a letter from a relative, which included a story from a 1913 edition of The Baltimore Sun on female artists of the area, including Bishop, Marjorie Martinet of Baltimore and Beatrice Fenton of Philadelphia.

Smith was able to make contact with a nephew of Martinet, who remembered a strange piece of art that hung over his aunt's fireplace. The piece was a bas-relief lunette signed and dated by Bishop that the Smiths rescued from the nephew's basement.

"That was our prize," Smith said.

But a bigger prize was yet to come.

During her research, Smith found Beatrice Fenton, a former classmate and close friend of Bishop, living in a nursing home in Philadelphia. The only living person who knew Bishop, the then-93-year-old Fenton was delighted to meet the Smiths and tell them about Bishop's exceptional talent.

Soon after their visit, Fenton died, but the connection had been made. Fenton's guardian contacted the Smiths about "hundreds, maybe thousand of pieces of Emily's work," Smith said. The find included lecture notes Bishop had written during anatomy classes, a portfolio, countless sculptures, drawings and more.

"Our timing was so perfect," Smith said. "It was meant to be."

The pieces continue to fall into place.

Last year, Smith completed a book about Bishop. The book caught the interest of Cheryl Keyser, a local freelance writer who shared Smith's story with Bonnie Iseminger, administrator of the Renfrew Museum in Waynesboro, Pa.

Together, the two women endeavored to help Smith bring Bishop's art to the public.

The Renfrew Museum is hosting a retrospective of 62 pieces of Bishop's work through Oct. 16. Iseminger said they have incorporated a sample of every medium Bishop used and display it throughout the museum house.

Iseminger said the Bishop show "means bringing the true art world to everybody. (Bishop) is a local person who exceeded a level you don't normally see."

She commended Smith for her efforts.

"It really took a lot of dedication to find these works," Iseminger said.

For Smith, there still is more to uncover. Her dream, she said, is to purchase the family home with the grand hallway and turn it into a museum for a permanent display of Bishop's works.

"It's like giving her new life," Smith said. "It's just been a journey ... an incredible journey, and it's not over yet. I am so happy others are picking up on it."

If you go



What: "A Genius of the First Order," a retrospective art exhibition of the works of Smithsburg artist Emily Clayton Bishop. The exhibition includes 62 pieces of Clayton's artwork including sculptures, pen and ink sketches, charcoal sketches and portraits, oils and watercolors.

Where: Renfrew Museum, 1010 E. Main St., Waynesboro, Pa.

When: The exhibition is on display through Oct. 16. Museum hours are Tuesday to Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.

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