Artist Dressler Smith says her work is not only a reflection of her own journey but of the lives of other African American women who came before her. Through her exhibit at the Idea Performing Arts Center, Smith hopes to honor these early-20th-century women who created art with the few materials at their disposal.

Starting March 1, Smith's artwork is scheduled to be featured as part of the Camden County Cultural Commission's Women's History Month Celebration and will be on display for the entire month. Smith, 56, plans to kick off the exhibit's March 1 opening with gospel singing by her and a book signing of her recently released autobiography at the Idea Performing Arts Center on the Camden waterfront.

Her most recent work features depictions of late 1800s and early 1900s quilts and gardens, which Smith explains were artistic outlets for African American women who didn't have many resources. The exhibit will feature approximately 20 of Smith's paintings.

"I really, really am passionate about honoring these women and I believe that's how the work comes out like it does," Smith said of having her work selected for display.

Frequent childhood visits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art fostered Smith's love of art, but when she moved to suburban South Jersey, Smith found the inspiration for her own work in the nature surrounding her house in Pennsauken. Smith's mother was a church pianist, and so, she was also raised singing gospel hymns.

Smith, whose chosen mediums are oil paint and stained glass, studied at Moore College of Art. She has taught art classes at Camden County College as an adjunct professor for more than 20 years.

Smith's work has been acquired by Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities and her paintings have been exhibited at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Franklin Institute Science Museum, among other venues.

Smith's autobiography, Celebrating Life Through the Arts: The Inspirational Journey of Dressler Smith, was released Dec. 8, and she said she was excited to have her first signing.

Marcia Cornish met Smith when the artist was commissioned to create a stained-glass window at Jacob's Chapel in Mount Laurel, where Cornish was working as an administrative assistant at the time.

Cornish, who had helped a friend publish a book, took an interest in Smith's book and helped with its design. Cornish said she believes Smith's exhibit will expand the artist's exposure, calling Smith's lifework "captivating."

"How she expresses herself is on her canvas," Cornish said.

Smith's work will be featured at the Idea Center Performing Arts Center until March 31. Admission to the exhibit costs $10. At the March 1 opening, Smith will perform a variety of gospel hymns and spirituals before signing books. For more information, contact 856-227-7200 ext. 4063 or visit www.dresslersmith. com.
- Kelly Flynn