Claudia Smith-Jacobs found what she wanted before she was 10; in retirement, she got it.
Few people can lay more serious claim to a multicultural perspective than the Falmouth artist. Her ancestors are French, Haitian-American, Cherokee, Scottish and Irish. One great-grandfather was both a sea captain in the West Indies and a sculptor whose monumental work adorns the Haitian village of Cap-Haitien. She speaks English, French and Portuguese.
Her own childhood in the upscale suburb of Newton, though, was distinctly middle class American, and she fully admits to being a child of abundance.
“I had a wonderful, privileged childhood; I really wanted for nothing,” said the daughter of Samuel Smith, a well-known scientist who worked on the Apollo space program at MIT’s Draper Laboratory. “I always loved art, and luckily I lived in a family that encouraged and educated me in the arts. I started piano when I was 5, and Saturdays were filled with classes at the Museum of Fine Arts or children’s concerts at Symphony Hall.”
Always in love with drawing and painting, Ms. Smith-Jacobs thrived in Newton public schools art classes. As a teen she added to her repertoire by getting into black-and-white photography.
“I’d preset my f-stops and sit on the MBTA waiting to grab shots of people who didn’t know they were being photographed. I found faces so phenomenally interesting,” she said. But as culturally engaged as the Smith family was, they did impose one restriction on the budding artist: Higher education was meant to lead to serious professions—careers in the sciences, if possible. Art school was a no-go.
After graduating from Boston University with a degree in political science and training in romance languages and African studies, Ms. Smith-Jacobs enrolled in a doctoral program in anthropology at UCLA.
Before long, though, she dropped out to join the fledgling Peace Corps.
“Hey,” she said with a shrug, “it was California in the 1960s, and there I was, listening to John F. Kennedy saying, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’ I figured it was time for me to see what the real world was like.”
Given her linguistic and African studies background, Ms. Smith-Jacobs hoped to draw an assignment in French-speaking West Africa. Instead, she was sent to a poor region of Brazil, where she worked for two years in a program run by the United Nations organization, Food for Peace.
On her return home, she earned a master’s degree in education at Lesley University and set up a bilingual special education program in Cambridge; years later she moved to Cape Cod and created a similar program for the Brazilian population of Barnstable.
During her 30-plus years in the public schools Ms. Smith-Jacobs married, divorced and raised two children. She took art courses whenever possible, with one goal in mind. “I knew that when I finally retired from teaching, I would retire to be an artist,” she said.
Involved as a student and exhibitor with the Falmouth Artists Guild since its early days in the “poorhouse” building on Main Street, Ms. Smith-Jacobs was coaxed back into teaching in 2001 when the guild decided to offer a very preliminary course titled Art 101. The idea was to provide basic art training for people who barely knew how to hold a brush.
There was a problem with the concept, though. So successful was Ms. Smith-Jacobs at lighting students’ artistic fires that many did not want to move on. Instead, they kept re-enrolling in her class. Thirteen years later, Ms. Smith-Jacobs still teaches many of her original students.
“Obviously, we couldn’t keep calling it an introductory course. So we changed it to Art 201,” she said with a laugh.
Today, Ms. Smith-Jacobs individualizes the curriculum for each student.
“I meet them where they are, and that’s where we start. I am not about making people paint like me. I want them to paint like themselves, only better. Along the way, I introduce things like composition and value, but I don’t preach them. I just incorporate them as we go.”
How do you get students to “be themselves” and “tell their own stories,” as Ms. Smith-Jacobs puts it?
“You really have to get them to answer one question: Why are you doing this painting?” she said. “Once they realize what the story is, they often get unblocked.”
A juried member of the Cape Cod Art Association, Ms. Smith-Jacobs also belongs to the Fort Point Arts Community in South Boston, where she frequently exhibits. She has shown at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, the Cotuit Arts Center, and, of course, the Falmouth Artists Guild gallery on Gifford Street. Part of the 2013 group exhibition “Seven by Seven” at Highfield Hall, she also participated in another artist show built around the theme of seven at the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis.
Last year, she was selected by a program called Les Amie de la Grande Vigne to spend a month painting in Brittany. Upon returning from France, she received a grant from the Falmouth Cultural Council to complete some of the works she began there. This summer, they will be on view at the Falmouth Artists Guild and other venues around town.
Does her art sell?
“I do sell,” she said, “but I don’t care if I sell. My painting is in my gut. My work is offbeat. It’s not about Cape Cod and flowers. I am a storyteller, and my goal is to put the viewer in the middle of the story. My paintings are often deliberately dark, enigmatic, mysterious and haunting.”