Sweet Briar community mourns loss of former English professor, VCCA director William Smart

Bill Smart painting
Portrait of Bill Smart. Paul Matthews, c. 1990

The Sweet Briar community was saddened to learn of the passing of William Edward Smart Jr. of Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in The Bronx, and formerly of Amherst, who died Saturday, Feb. 9, at Montefiore Hospital. Smart was a noted professor of creative writing and English literature at Sweet Briar College, long-time director of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and a founding member of Res Artis and Res Artis America, key advocates for artists colonies on an international and national basis. His teaching collection “Eight Modern Essayists” went through eight editions and is still used in many classes.

Smart was born on Feb. 28, 1933, to William E. Smart and May Ferne Smart in Jefferson City, Mo., and was then raised by his mother, grandparents and aunts in St. Louis, Clarksville and Centralia, Mo. He briefly attended the Missouri Military Academy as a boy, graduated from Country Day School in St. Louis as a football and soccer starter, received his B.A. from Kenyon College in Ohio, and an M.A. in English literature from the University of Connecticut.

Bill Smart
A photo of Bill Smart from the Sweet Briar College archives

Smart’s teaching career took him from the University of Connecticut, New Britain, to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to Sweet Briar College in Virginia. He was a two-year Fulbright Fellow to the United Kingdom from 1964-66, where he worked on a biography of George Orwell and started “Eight Modern Essayists.”

While at Sweet Briar College from 1966 to 1985, Smart started the College’s first film series, helped organize a weeklong celebration of rock and soul music that drew numerous top critics and musicians to the College, initiated sensitivity training for the community, and nurtured several generations of lifelong writers. In the mid-1970s, after attending the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in its first incarnation outside of Charlottesville, Va., he saved the young institution by becoming its director and moving it to a vacant historic estate owned by Sweet Briar College, creating the first artist colony/college relationship.

In his 20-plus years at the VCCA, Smart grew the artists’ colony into becoming the nation’s largest, rebuilding its campus after a major fire and helping to mentor and inspire hundreds of authors, artists and composers who have gone on to win MacArthur genius grants, National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes and other major fellowships and grants. Major fundraisers were held in New York City and Washington, D.C., with William Styron, Art Buchwald and Elizabeth Taylor among the hosts. In 1991, Smart arranged the gift of the 1,000-pound cast-iron “Pasternak Bench” by the former Soviet artist colony Peredelkino under the auspices of the Literary Fund of the Russian Federation of the Soviet Writers Union.

Smart also helped found the international organization of artists’ colonies, Res Artis, and set up a number of key scholarships and artist exchanges with artist colonies in France, Germany, India and the Dominican Republic. Before its sale to current President Donald J. Trump, Smart was brought in to discuss the possibility of turning Mar-a-Lago, the former Marjorie Merriweather Post estate in Florida, into an artists’ colony.

Creatively, Smart periodically published poems, short stories and essays in many of the nation’s top literary and mainstream magazines. He made a number of short 16mm films in the late 1960s and early 1970s that won awards at major film festivals. In addition to the eight editions of his “Eight Modern Essayists,” Smart published a well-respected and groundbreaking anthology for teaching short stories, “Women & Men, Men & Women,” and edited “From Mt. San Angelo: Stories, Poems & Essays,” the first anthology published directly by an artists’ colony.

Smart spent the last 20 years working on short stories and novels, traveling, visiting his many artist friends around the world, and enjoying his shared life with his beloved wife, Aynur, of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The Smarts moved to Amalgamated in The Bronx a decade ago, to be closer to grandchildren, art galleries and the opera. Smart was an enthusiastic reader, lover of art, films and music, and grand conversationalist throughout his life, always ready to share the things he loved with those he loved.

In addition to Aynur Smart, Bill Smart is survived by Paul Smart and wife, Fawn Potash, of Albany, N.Y.; Anne Fern Smart of Lakeville, Conn.; Sarah Smart of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Jessie May Carter and husband, Chris Carter, of Faber, Va.; Harry Matthews of Catskill, N.Y.; a cousin, Larry Lewis, of Centralia, Mo.; and six grandchildren: Samuel Albert Weisman, Julian Henry Weisman, Milo David Smart, August Aaron Quinn, Josephine May Carter and Oren Charles Carter. He was predeceased by his son David Henry Smart.

Smart’s remains have been accepted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a division of Yeshiva University. Memorial services are currently being planned in New York City and Virginia.