Kennebec Tales

January 15

Winthrop’s Ezra Smith retired into being an artist

After a career in retail, the 90-year-old now is a prolific painter and carver, with works on display this month at Mount Vernon’s Post Office Cafe.

Ezra Smith spent the first half of his life not knowing he was an artist.

click image to enlarge

A natural: Ezra Smith poses with some of art at the Post Office Cafe in Mount Vernon Wednesday. Smith, 90, retired from a career in retail at 55, to discover that he had a talent for art. Most of his subjects are things “he’s seen, caught or shot,” his son George says.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Smith, 90, worked his way up the ladder at Wilson’s Dollar Stores, never touching paint or any other implements of art, unless it was to put them on a shelf.

But when he retired at 55, he needed something to do.

“My father died when he was 64, so I thought I’d have 10 years,” Smith said recently on a cold sunny morning at the Post Office Cafe in Mount Vernon.

He stopped working and started carving.

The Winthrop resident joined the Maine Wildlife Woodcarvers Association, and things just kind of took off from there.

This month his work is on display at the Post Office Cafe, hanging on the walls and filling the empty floor space. Owner Bob Wallack, who died Tuesday, made it a point to feature an artist every month.

While carved loons are Ezra Smith’s specialty — “I gave him (or her) a loon,” is a frequent interjection in any conversation — his art goes way beyond them.

Painting, sculpture, two-dimensional woodworks — so much art that the 40 or so pieces at the restaurant are just a sample.

Another one of his specialties is carved fish on a wood background, a rustic take on the stuffed bass trophy. Colorful and simple at the same time, they are beautiful.

Wallack had discussed the show with Smith for the past six months, said George Smith, Smith’s son, Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Wallack, though he was ill, visited the cafe with his wife, Vicki, to check the show out.

“Both Vicki and I were blown away with your dad’s work,” Wallack said in an email to George. “It is a great show, well curated, with tremendous appeal and really captures what appears to be decades of work and changing style. We love every piece and are proud to showcase Ezra’s talent. It is a wonderful example of highly crafted folk art at its best.”

George Smith said he plans to frame the message and add it to the collection.

Despite the accolades, Ezra doesn’t consider himself an artist and is reluctant to take money for his work, giving most of it away or donating it to fundraisers. Copies of a painting of the mill in Mount Vernon are sold to raise money for a food pantry, for instance.

After George remarked that almost all the art on display in the cafe is for sale, Ezra disagreed.

“Yes it is,” George said.

“I wouldn’t pay for it,” Ezra retorted.

But many would, including admirers from as far away as Texas and Arizona, who have already laid claim to some of the art on display at the restaurant.

A small brochure printed to accompany the exhibit points out that “he does occasionally sell an item, but feels money detracts from the value and satisfaction of his work.”

Humble as he is, his family is proud and sees how special Ezra’s art is.

“I tell him how good he is, but he thinks I’m prejudiced,” said his lady friend, Irma Rice, also of Winthrop. “But if he was anyone else, I’d still think it was good.”

George thinks so, too. “Isn’t this stuff great?” he said, walking around the restaurant, pointing out pieces and talking about the history or inspiration behind them.

George, a well-known outdoorsman and columnist for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, can identify the fish and birds in the paintings and carvings, but also sees the unique detail, down to the tied fly in the mouth of the mounted carved fish.

(Continued on page 2)

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