Skip to main content

I first met Annie Smith in 1982; with her shock of white hair, she was dressed in knee-high Frye boots and a denim skirt and vest.

Annie proudly toured me through a series of weather-beaten portables located behind Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., home to several fine-art studio classes in the art and art history program, a joint venture between Sheridan and the University of Toronto that Annie helped establish in 1971. In 1998, the college opened a special studio facility for the program: the Annie Smith Arts Centre.

Annie grew up in Elmira, N.Y.; her mother was a nurse, and her father a radiologist. She did her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College and her master's at the University of California, Berkeley.

Annie came to Toronto in 1969 with her new husband. The marriage was short-lived but Annie stayed on, starting as a part-time instructor at Sheridan while beginning a PhD in art education at the University of Toronto.

Annie was an enthusiastic if unconventional teacher. In her drawing classes, she might theatrically deliver a lecture attired in her academic gowns and mortarboard, or bring along her guitar and sing Joan Baez songs. This could be challenging for faculty teaching classes in adjacent studios.

Her memos were handwritten and accompanied by her signature cartoon bear. And "Bear" would be pleased or frustrated, as warranted.

Annie adhered to a strict hierarchy of concerns - students always came first, and faculty a close second. Annie was also a very focused administrator. In the 1970s, there was no precedent for college-university BA programs, and in creating one, she encountered support as well as resistance - which she trenchantly fought.

The other great project of Annie's life was her struggle with cancer, which was first diagnosed in 1984. She chronicled these experiences in Bearing Up with Cancer, an illustrated book with Bear as the narrator. We learn of how lost test results delayed treatment and how, later, she taped chocolate bars to her abdomen to surprise and encourage her surgical team.

Annie travelled to international conferences to speak about her approach to cancer. In hospital in July, Annie came to the reluctant realization that she probably couldn't go to Kuala Lumpur. Still, she held out hope: There she would be, she laughed, in her first-class seat accepting only tea and two teaspoons of Jell-O, the "clear liquids" diet dictated by her doctors.

John Armstrong is Annie's friend.