Canvassing a Legacy
Artist Drayton Smith quietly lived a full and inspiring life in Summerville, creating beautiful art and traveling the world. Recently, some of his best work was found in an unexpected place, bringing to light his talents once more.
Rutherford “Rudd” Smith, a lawyer, sits in his Downtown Summerville office, reflecting on the memory of his brother Drayton, who passed away in 2010. As Rudd recalls experiences and conversations with Drayton, an emotion fills the room, so palpable one can feel it in their soul: pride. Rudd Smith is exceptionally proud to be Drayton Smith’s brother. After a life spent enjoying sporadic, yet inspiring deep connections with his youngest brother, Rudd has every reason to look back on the man’s life with love and pride.
Alongside their other brother, Greg, Drayton and Rudd had a lovely upbringing, by all accounts. Rudd was the oldest, with Greg three years behind him and Drayton another three years younger than Greg. The trio spent their childhood living in beautiful places and making wonderful friends, practices that continued when they moved to Summerville in 1960. With six years between them, Drayton and Rudd were not exceptionally close in their younger years, but all that changed as they entered adulthood. Rudd went to Washington and Lee University for undergraduate school, and finished in 1968. After a stint in the military, Rudd went back to Washington and Lee for Law School in 1970, at which point Drayton was attending the same school for his undergraduate degree. When Rudd and his wife had a son, Drayton became a wonderful uncle, stopping by Rudd’s house to spend time with his nephew, and later becoming a mentor to the boy. During Drayton’s visits, Drayton and Rudd became closer, often spending hours talking, striving to better understand one another as they shared their different outlooks on the world.
“Describing Drayton, the first adjective I would choose for him is intellectual,” muses Rudd Smith. “He was not only the best athlete of the three of us, but he had the broadest interests, the sharpest mind, and he could talk about anything, though he really liked discussing religion, philosophy, and metaphysics. Drayton’s library had so much of that stuff, and every one of his books was dog eared and had notes in the margin.”
After their shared time at Washington and Lee University, it wasn’t long before Rudd and Drayton went their separate ways once again. After graduating with a cum laude degree in Fine Arts, Drayton dove deeper into his art career. He went back to the Lowcountry and taught at Porter-Gaud, then moved to Baltimore, where he worked at a hotel, often connecting with media and sports elite. In 1986, he acquired a Masters Degree in Art Education from USC, moved back to the Lowcountry once again, and taught at College Park Middle School until his retirement in 2002. But it was in his travels that Drayton, who never married, truly pursued his love. In Florence, Rome, Paris, London, and other artistic meccas, Drayton honed his skills and deepened his appreciation for all things creative. He attended cooking school in Paris, and conducted funded, independent research at the Louvre. Across the globe, he sculpted, made pottery, took photographs, wrote poetry, sketched imagery, carved wood, acted in the theater, and, perhaps more than anything, painted. No matter where he was, one thing remained constant: his unwavering desire to create.
“For being a creative type, Drayton was super disciplined about what he did,” recalls Rudd Smith. “He would take six months and work on nothing but a single technique or a single medium, doing it over and over until he felt he got it right. It was incredible.”
Drayton created countless works of art in his life, and his work was displayed in shows across the world. Nonetheless, his overall sales were modest. Many of Drayton Smith’s works of art were given by the artist to professors and friends, a practice that seemed to be worth so much more than any monetary gain. Still, recognizing his brother’s talents, Rudd would often implore his brother to create work to sell.
“I’d say, ‘Drayton, why don’t you sell some of your work?,’” remembers Rudd. “He’d reply, ‘I know what the market wants, but I have to feel what I am creating. What the market wants does not fit how I feel.’ For Drayton, the value was much more about the emotional process of creating works of art than any sort of commercial success.”
In 2003, Drayton went into kidney failure, spurred on by an onset of adult diabetes in his late 30’s. Though the prognosis was grim, the unfortunate turn of events brought the two brothers closer together once again. Rudd started visiting Drayton to help out, beginning with once-weekly visits that later turned into much more regular care.
“Eventually, I was effectively responsible for his care,” says Rudd. “But the time spent with him during those days provided occasions for some wonderful conversations. I’d clean up his house, and I’d ask him to tell me the stories behind what I found, including his artworks. I really treasure those memories.”
In 2010, Drayton Smith succumbed to his illness. On his tombstone, his mother chose to inscribe “True to His Own Spirit,” a statement the family believes accurately sums up the enigma that was Drayton Smith.
After a time, Rudd began the process of selling his brother’s Kings Grant home, including taking an inventory of all of his paintings and other artworks. After packing up the last box, Rudd went into the home one more time to make certain the home was empty and ready to sell. In the shadows of the attic, he discovered a pile of carpet scraps, and brought it downstairs for inspection. Within the pile, he found crumpled canvases, obviously discarded by the artist.
“It knocked my socks off,” remembers Rudd. “These were bigger pieces than anything I had seen from my brother, and the colors were more brilliant than any of his other works. I took them to an appraiser who had seen some of Drayton’s other works, and he said, ‘Rudd, these are the most valuable ones you’ve got here, the ones crumpled under the carpet scraps!’”
Rudd kept the works close, treasuring them within the family for years, until he met local artist April Aldrich, who offered to take a look at the collection for him. Like Rudd, she immediately recognized the intrinsic value of Drayton Smith’s works.
“It’s rare to come across a body of work this size, which spans the course of decades,” says April. “It really is incredible.”
Together, the two are working through the collection, forging a path forward to share the skillful works of the incredible Drayton Smith with the world. Aldrich imagines a future where Drayton’s artworks hang in galleries far and wide, on display for anyone to experience, and purchase if they’d like. Notably, Rudd Smith clarifies that the primary intention behind sharing Drayton’s works of art is not financial, but rather an endeavor to connect people with his brother’s legacy.
“We do not necessarily need to sell the artwork, but we want to share how extraordinary Drayton was. He lived such a good life and there is so much to learn from him. It seems to me you need to celebrate a life well lived, and that’s what we are doing here.”AM
For more information about the works of Drayton Smith, follow @draytonsmithart on Instagram.
by Jana Riley