It was the way that both Donna Moodie (see January archive) and Trish Dziko (see March archive) offered her name and hers only when I asked them whom I should interview next. “Have you met Stephanie Ellis-Smith?” they both asked. No, was my answer, but clearly I was meant to.
Not long after having found Stephanie at our café rendezvous (are you Stephanie?) I wondered how it was that I had lived in this town so long and known as many people as I did and not yet met her. I suspect Stephanie has this affect on everybody.
Stephanie Ellis-Smith by her own admission is a preparer. Like the scientist she was trained to be, there is a clarity and organization about how she expresses herself, and how she approaches life and work. And yet within that context, there is boundless creativity and impulse and passion, like the artist and cultural thinker she has come to be.
“I am inconsistent and I take some pride in that. To think bigger you do need to be inconsistent. I change my mind a lot. I like that about myself.”
After she had “literally wrung every nickel out of my education at UCLA“, taking classes wherever her curiosity led her, she finished with a double major in biochemistry and English literature. Which, she admits, should have tipped her off to what would come later.
She set out on a biochemistry career and then moved to Seattle with her new husband, Russian historian and author Doug Smith. In the world of science, she had developed a name for herself. Accomplishments aside, being noticed was never a problem.
“Being Black and being female – well, there weren’t very many women at all in the field, and no Black people period. Everybody knew who I was. There are plusses and minuses to that. When I was hot I was a superstar, and perhaps unnecessarily so. I think expectations were low, so when I would hit the mark, she is a genius! And I would think, no, I’m just doing my job. But the flip side – if I would make a mistake… well, we told you about those people. They’re not very committed, they’re not very focused.”
In Seattle Stephanie almost lived in the lab, working grueling 80-hour weeks while earning a meager paycheck. “I never saw my new husband – he would bring dinner to me at the lab. And I finally just said, you know, I don’t want to do this any more. But my whole identity had been wrapped up in science. That was a very, very difficult transition, not knowing what was coming next.”
Released into daylight, she set out to discover the city she had been living in but “I had never seen an inch of because I was always in the lab.” One day she stumbled into the Francine Seders Art Gallery. (See related story on Gail Grinnell, December archives). Stephanie had heard that African American artist Jacob Lawrence lived in Seattle and on a lark asked the gallery staff if they happened to have any of his works.
“They were so kind they pulled down everything they had even though they knew I wasn’t going to buy anything.” After many hours of this they suggested Stephanie seek out “this little non-profit that had prints (of Lawrence) they were selling, for much less money to raise money for their work.”
It took Stephanie a few weeks, batting away a creeping depression that came with her lack of life direction, before she tracked down the organization. “It was a non-profit technically, but essentially it was just two art historians who were cataloging, researching and re-photographing for publication all of the extant works of Jacob Lawrence.”
On the white board in this little office was written in bold letters: FIND A RESEARCHER. “So I asked, what do you need a researcher for? And they told me they needed someone to call every single gallery in the country to ask if they had any works of Jacob Lawrence. So I said, well, I’m a researcher. I had zero marketable skills, much to my father’s chagrin after spending all that money on my education. I mean, I couldn’t even send a fax. But they said they just needed someone who could handle a lot of information, and I said, I can do that.”
Stephanie began volunteering 10 hours a week making scores of phone calls. After about six months, her volunteer post transitioned into a fulltime job which she held for five years. “The project we were doing is called a catalogue raisonné. It’s very, very prestigious. Only the most highly esteemed artists have a catalogue raisonné done in their honor. And this was the first one ever done for an artist of African descent. So it was a big deal. All of this I learned in the process.”
Stephanie Ellis-Smith is an evangelist for volunteering, and understandably so. Volunteering changed her life.
“Volunteering gives you the opportunity to just feed your soul, open your mind to doing something else. A job is not going to do that – that’s not the function of employment. With volunteering, you explore worlds and ideas that you can’t when you’re only working and coming home to turn on the TV. I just find it to be incredibly, incredibly rewarding. I mean, how would I have ever met art historians, or Jacob Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn?
“I loved them so much – just thinking about them gives me chills. I’m very close to my family. I grew up with both sets of my grandparents. Leaving home, one thing I missed was being around old folks, so they were in a way my surrogate grandparents. And it was such a lovely way to learn about art history and museums and art book publishing, design -- the whole nine yards.”
Stephanie finished the catalogue raisonné, coming to appreciate how “Jacob’s work was unequivocally about the African American experience, but it spoke to so many people from all these different backgrounds – white, black, rich, poor – they each found nougats and kernels of importance in his work. I learned from that how the African American culture is so unique but so universal – it represents monumental triumph paired with struggle.”
One of Stephanie’s favorite works of Jacob Lawrence: “The Lovers” Taken from the site: The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence virtual resource center
Working on that project along with her reading of Quintard Taylor’s The Forging of a Black Community – the History of Seattle’s Central District “opened my eyes to the unique and inspiring history of African-Americans in the Pacific Northwest.”
So, with a how-to book on starting non-profits and a founding Board who shared the vision: To inspire new thoughts and challenge assumptions about African American culture, Stephanie Ellis-Smith created the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas.
“I wanted to get people thinking about African American arts and culture from a broader perspective -- more contemporary; what people are thinking about now.”
Initially, she gave the effort three short years, but a track record of successful programs kept it strong enough for Stephanie to retire from the organization ten years later. Along the way, she and the CD Forum collected commendations, including the 2004 Mayor’s Art Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Community, and the 2008 Seattle Weekly recognition for Best Expander of Cultural Boundaries.
Their program, Black to the Future – Blacks in Sci Fi, “was amazing. Hundreds of people came, 60% of them from outside Washington. It was avant garde, intellectual and slick.” Under her leadership, CD Forum examined LGBT issues in the Black culture, (“there’s a big strain of conservatism in the African American community”), identity issues, such as who is African American, and the impact of gentrification in the CD. Dance, theatre, and Food as Art were also part of the dynamic year-round programming that continues with Stephanie no longer serving as director.
“I loved the CD Forum, but it was my job. My first duty to this community is to unleash two well adjusted kids.” At ages 10 and 6, raising her kids is now Stephanie’s job. “I cannot outsource the existential growing pains of a 10 year-old girl – that is MY job, no one else’s. I’m just fortunate enough to be able to do this.
“I miss having an identity entirely around my job. But it’s actually more important to me to spend these next 10 years at home and get my kids out of the house to the best of my ability, and then I can get back to that. Right now, this is my priority.”
Setting priorities is a big theme in Stephanie’s life. “For the things that are really important -- you’ll find time for it. If people want to shake things up, get into a new way of thinking, we all have two hours a week we can spend on that – we just do. Whether it’s volunteering or whether it’s rollerblading. It comes down to priorities. We all have the same 24 hours a day.”
In her 24 hours, Stephanie continues to find time for volunteer pursuits, or “community writ large.” She was recently appointed to the Seattle Arts Commission and continues on the board of KUOW public radio, (to which she hopes you will pledge if you didn’t get around to it during the recent drive). She’s got more time to volunteer at her kids’ school, and most importantly, time for family and friends – “community writ small.”
Stephanie’s physical community is about to change for a while. She and the family are moving to London for a year while her husband is writing and researching his next book.
“My 20’s were about science, my 30’s were about art. I turn 40 in June – I think my 40’s will be about family. I can’t wait till my 50’s – I’m not sure what that will be.”
Now that I’ve met Stephanie Ellis-Smith, I can’t wait to know either.
- Janet Pelz
Stephanie’s not-so secrets for How She Does It:
- With a lot of support and sacrifice from my parents and family. I was raised essentially by 6 adults. They poured every ounce of everything that either they earned or mental energy into my sister and me. They gave me my education, which I think gave me the tools to manage my life currently.
- I ask for help, from friends, I hire help. I have no shame. I don’t believe in running myself into the ground. Self-preservation is a big driving force.
- I play squash to get out my energies and anxieties; I do Pilates to keep me relaxed.
- I take a lot of time with my husband who is my best friend, and other friends, socializing, going out to parties. I don’t think people do that enough, but it’s so important – it feeds your soul.
What books has Stephanie read recently?
- The Unwritten Rules of Friendship, by Natalie Madorsky Elman and Eileen Kennedy-Moore
- Wench, by her friend Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Stephanie just did a book launch party for her)
- The Pearl, by Stephanie’s husband Douglas Smith
(to find these books, click the Amazon ad on the right side of this page)
Whom does Stephanie want me to interview next?
- Sarah DeRuyck – a mom, a volunteer, a runner, and a PhD candidate. “She’ll be mortified I gave you her name but she deserves it.”