Enchanted by creation

A minister's second career - making art that reflects the beauty of nature - is a spiritual mission as well.

It took an hour to get this photograph of a mother wood thrush feeding insects to her baby. (Andy Smith)

The Rev. J. Andy Smith 3d of Devon has had a long career of activism revolving around campus ministry, social justice, corporate responsibility, war and peace, the environment, and just about every other major political movement of the modern era.

So it's interesting to learn that, while ever the activist, Smith now views the world from a slightly different perch: through the lens of a camera, out in the woods.

Smith, 67, an ordained Baptist minister who goes by Andy, has been a shutterbug and a birder from the time he was a kid, right through all those years he was stirring things up. But those pursuits were always sidelines to the serious stuff.

Then, a few years ago, between jobs, he consulted a career-assessment center. Based on the results of personality and preference tests, his counselor suggested an entirely new career: photography.

"It was a shock," says Smith, who nonetheless warmed to the idea and soon concluded that it was time to shift his professional identity to artist/musician. He'd continue the activism, but this next life chapter would focus primarily on making art through images and music.

"This lets me look at the world through a different set of eyes," says Smith, who, besides being an accomplished photographer, is a talented trombonist and fiddler.

But make no mistake. While Smith's "instrument" may have changed, his mission has not.

"I want to create beautiful objects that people can appreciate and love, but I'm specifically interested in getting people in touch with the Earth we're part of," he says.

Smith is fond of quoting Prince Myshkin, the protagonist in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 19th-century novel The Idiot, who believes that "beauty saves the world."

"If you appreciate that something is beautiful," Smith says, "you're much more likely not to destroy it, to have respect for it," principles that underscored his decades of work for human rights and the environment.

Now, he promotes those same principles - bound by the notion that the universe's complex web connects us all - through simple but singular images.

Smith captures snow-white bloodroot blossoms on a woodland floor and pink rhododendrons in morning mist. He startles a weeks-old red-fox kit emerging from his den and, after observing a wood thrush nest for several days, snaps a picture of the dad feeding a large moth to a fledgling in the nest.

The "fledge" had just taken his first flight. He was hungry!

Although Smith took cameras to India, Africa, and elsewhere around the world, most of his nature photographs are rooted locally. Favorite spots include Jenkins Arboretum, which is one mile from his house; John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Tinicum; Valley Forge National Historical Park, and the Jersey Shore.

"There's real beauty here. That's the kind of thing I want to convey through my photography," Smith says. "You don't have to travel far away to find beauty."

But you may have to get up early.

Smith's favorite time to shoot is about two hours before sunrise. (Two hours before sunset is OK, too.) At other times of day, unless you're looking for these conditions, the light can be bright and harsh, and infused with shadows.

He advises novices to get to know their cameras, to look for unusual angles, and to be fully aware. Notice the big pink moon hanging over Wildwood. Appreciate the sun flickering off the Delaware River.

And one more thing: "Always be open to whatever's there. Often you can be totally surprised."

There was the time Smith was walking to the parking lot at Heinz, when he discovered a pair of snapping turtles mating in the water. "That's not the kind of image most people want to have hanging on the wall," he says with a laugh, "but when I discover things like that, it's very exciting."

Another time, same place, Smith set up his tripod around 7 a.m. in hopes of seeing some action in a great horned owl's nest, which had two owlets in it. He looked off to the right about 100 feet, and there was the mother perched on a branch, a dead rabbit dangling from her powerful talons: breakfast time!

"You have to be in the right place, but there is some chance involved," says Smith, who favors Canon Digital SLR cameras and enjoys shooting in every season.

In early spring, he seeks out the first wildflowers, such as his favorite, the native bloodroot. He lay on the ground, on his back, to shoot the underside of a rare, double-flowered form at Jenkins. Its bloom is pure white, like a tiny water lily.

In summer, he's delighted by pitcher plants and young birds in the nest. In fall, there are richly colored leaves and migrating birds. And in winter - snow is the best, the heavier and wetter the better.

"This past winter was one of the best we ever had," Smith says, as serious as you please.

Through it all, Smith - who grew up in a military family in Virginia, Georgia, and Germany, and went to divinity school at Harvard University - is mindful of two things.

One, that the natural world is a wondrous thing, with "an energy flowing through it that you can call God or a force or whatever you want."

And two, that the creation of a beautiful photograph "starts inside of you. Everything I do expresses who I am," he says. "The camera is simply a tool."

Smith sells and exhibits his photographs at venues within a three-hour drive. He does photography and birding workshops, teaches ethics at Pennsylvania State University's Great Valley campus, plays in the Rose Tree Pops Orchestra and other musical organizations, and is involved in a host of efforts revolving around sustainability.

Smith is also active at his church, Central Baptist in Wayne, where he heads up the ecology mission group. That, you might say, is the story of his life.


A Walk With Andy Smith

Andy Smith will lead a bird and plant walk at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Jenkins Arboretum, 631 Berwyn Baptist Rd., Devon. Free. Information: 610-647-8870 or www.jenkinsarboretum.org.

See his nature photographs at www.andysmithphotography.com.

Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Kiss the Earth," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/ gardening.