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Vilma Smith paints for healing and beyond

MIDDLEBURY — When you live to 90, it’s safe to say that you’ve seen some stuff. It’s also safe to say, getting old is tough. Loved ones pass on, you move into assisted living, you lose your driver’s license and your memories… and even a rhyme can’t hide that it’s rough.
But don’t despair. People like Vilma Smith are proof that even though life changes, it is still beautiful.
Smith, mother of four, moved into the Residence at Otter Creek in Middlebury a couple years ago — after her husband, Malcolm Smith, died. And picked up her paintbrush to begin the healing process.
“It was a big trauma when my husband died,” said the New York native in an interview last week. “It changed my art. Every time a major thing happens in my life, my art comes out differently.”
Smith walked around the dining room at The Residence, where dozens of pieces of her art are on display through November, pointing out the different styles.
At one time she did porcelain paintings on plates, as well as tiles for countertops. The floral details are soft, the colors pastel — think fancy old English China. These pieces are quietly unassuming, despite the immense amount of effort that goes into them.
“This was very popular back in the 1800s when ladies who couldn’t go out didn’t have anything to do,” Smith explained. “You grind up the paint until it’s smooth, mix it with any good oil, then paint and fire… about eight times. It’s a lot of work, expensive and time consuming. So it’s not popular any more.”
Smith took her floral patterns to the canvas using a pallet knife and oils. There are several flower paintings in the exhibit, some small and some large.
“Everyone likes the big flowers,” she said, gesturing to a grand painting at the back of the room of multicolored flowers in a vase sitting on what looks like a disappearing table. “People always ask, ‘Why didn’t you finish the table?’ I don’t know, I just got to that point and knew it was time to stop.”
However, not all of Smith’s paintings are cheery and peaceful flowers. Nope, she has included one piece of her “political art” that she loves.
“In 2008 I took an art class at the Richmond School of Art. The teacher had us draw an old Celluloid blond doll, then fill in the background around him. I saw a World War I soldier, so I painted the world behind him with three cracks: the first for WWI, the second for WWII and the third for… WWIII?
“No one likes this one,” said Smith. “It’s not a happy painting.”
And that’s OK. Painting is something Smith does for herself, and always has.
When she was a girl, her Italian parents didn’t approve of her becoming an artist. “They wouldn’t buy me any art supplies, so I sketched on paper bags,” Smith remembered. “But I knew that’s what I was — I was an artist.”
To expand her skills, Smith would find an artist who she admired and take a personal course with them. She also attended various classes; and, of course, “practice, practice, practice.” She and her husband also traveled all around the world — Egypt, Peru, Greece, India…
“He worked at the GE Atomic plant on the Hudson River,” Smith said. “When he retired, we decided to have some fun and travel around… I’m so happy we did that.”
But then her husband died, Smith suffered a serious back injury and she moved into The Residence. Life was different, and her painting changed.
Smith began painting pieces that helped her contemplate big concepts like healing and the vastness of the universe.
“Unfinished Wonder,” is a piece Smith started about a year ago that’s inspired by the sun, the grand sun and the grand central sun. It has concentric circles of purples, yellows and gold leaf, a flying spaceship, Earth and faces (some human, some not).
“Gold is fun to work with,” Smith said. “It demands all of your attention. If you sneeze, forget it — the gold is all over the room!”
She also painted a large red painting with Reiki symbols of healing and a bluish center that depicts a “lady chanting.” Smith says this is her “least understood” painting.
“You just gotta swim through,” Smith said, remembering her late husband and swallowing a few tears.
Every morning, Smith sits in her apartment — on a chair bathed in sunlight — and says her prayers and meditates. This is where inspiration often finds her.
She’s tried to capture the feeling of meditation in a self portrait, and the “oneness” of life under the sun in another. “I don’t dare explain it,” she said. “I paint the way I paint. And I’ll paint until I’m not here anymore. It’s a good thing for me.”
Smith said she tries to get her neighbors to paint, too. “You’re never too old to start,” she said, adding that the administration at The Residence is very supportive of artists.
“Art helps seniors fight depression, isolation and disease,” said Courtney Allenson, the Senior Reflections and Engagement Director for LCB Senior Living and the Engagement Director at The Residence at Otter Creek. “Art helps seniors just like it helps people in all stages of life — by finding a way to connect to community, to express joy, pain, longing and curiosity, and to root themselves as humans.”
Allenson teaches art classes to both traditional and reflections (memory care) residents. “It is my true joy and passion in life,” said Allenson, who is also working on her Master’s degree in Art Therapy.
The art in the dining room at The Residence changes every month or two; artists include residents, community members and associates. The public is always welcome to come view the work.
“Our community is full of artists —painters, sculptors, woodcarvers, woodworkers, blacksmiths and fiber artists. They are incredibly talented,” Allenson added. “I love Vilma’s work for so many reasons: it is vibrant and uplifting, it is spiritual and reflective, and it is so diverse. When you look at this body of work, you can begin to grasp the depth of Vilma’s talent. You look at the walls of our dining room and you can see a piece of her soul.”
“Everybody has their own way of creating art,” Smith said. “Everybody is creative because God created them… Whatever you want to call God, that source is there.”
And it’s given Smith a divine talent. Go see her work and say hello. Smith is so much more than words can describe.

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