Lover of life paints S.C. with happiness
Van Gogh cut off his ear. Pollock drowned his depression in alcohol. Goya's paintings reflected his growing despair as he faced deafness and old age.
Then there's Ilona. She paints, teaches, sings, and dances with a contagious joie de vivre. This octogenarian artist exemplifies the creative spirit finding joy and beauty in art - a perfect counterpoint to the brooding, suicidal artists of history.
"I love teaching, sharing what I have learned about painting and drawing," she says. "It's so rewarding to help bring beauty and pleasure into the lives of others."
Ilona Royce- Smithkin has been doing exactly that for most of her 87 years, much of that time in South Carolina. This native of Poland, now a U.S. citizen living in eclectic Greenwich Village in Manhattan, has found her niche leading classes for budding artists.
"I maintain a studio in Manhattan, and another in Provincetown on Cape Cod," she says. "Over the years I traveled to many other places such as Kentucky and Indiana to teach. But airline travel has become such a burden I have cut back on most of that. South Carolina is my favorite place outside New York. I have many friends here who have made me feel welcome."
She discovered South Carolina in the 1970's, when she was invited by Mick McCutcheon to teach in Bishopville. During that first stay, she set up classes in Bennettsville, Hartsville, Marion, Myrtle Beach, Aiken, and Orangeburg.
Then she was lured by SCETV into doing a series of 40 half- hour lessons called "Ilona's Palette," later followed by another series, "Painting With Ilona," then another, "Finishing Touches with Ilona." These classic lessons continue to be shown on local ETV often and have been picked up by National Public Broadcasting.
"Finishing is an important part of art training," she points out. "Knowing how to finish a painting and when to stop. Some say it takes two people to produce a painting, one to wield the brush, the other to say 'Stop!'"
Oil painting, water colors, pastels, charcoal drawing, all are favorites of Ilona, who admits to a penchant for Impressionism. And then there's music. "I discovered a flair for singing, which I have developed into a program using the music of Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. And until I had a hip replacement not long ago, I ended each show by doing the split. When we were doing a fundraiser for the Provincetown Museum, we set up the Eyelash Cabaret, Tanhde aE fyreielansdh w Sroonteg for me , with words about eyelashes which cause car crashes."
It won't take you long to notice these trademark eyelashes of Ilona's. She makes them herself from her own bright orange hair, with inexorable logic: "How else could I get the color right?"
Her philosophy of joy spills over into life lessons also she says. "I try to help people realize that mistakes are how we learn. Don't worry about them, just learn from them. Painting can teach us other things, too. Don't try to keep pushing too long, rest when you're tired. Patience and understanding and tolerance can help us in art as well as life."
Ilona is bringing her brand of optimism to Columbia this month with her regular class.