A Letter from Dolph Smith

Dolph Smith
Artist Dolph Smith
Dolph Smith
Artist Dolph Smith

A plea to fund the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment of the Humanities being excerpts from a letter Dolph Smith (artist and Professor Emeritus, Memphis College of Art) sent to TN Governor Bill Haslam, US Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, US Representatives Steve Cohen and David Kustoff and TN State Senator Mark Norris.

“I will attempt to modestly represent the large body of individual practicing artists in the Memphis area community. Please don’t look at my effort as a form letter. Imagine, if you will, that we are gathered around a table in a comfortable atmosphere to speak to the need to support the richly creative gifts in and to our Arts community. I beg you each to hear me out. I am trying not to reach out with my ego but with my heart.


It begins with three incidents during my Army days back in the 50’s.

I was sent to complete intense training at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. Six months and I graduated as a Morse Code Intercept Operator with a top-secret clearance and was sent immediately to spend over two years in Germany. We tracked Russian movements and copied their code.


Where am I going with this?


#1: I came to realize that I had learned a hand skill and could communicate with others creating words and images with sound.


#2: We were encouraged by our superiors to travel on our leaves. Thus I was able to see and experience many things that I had no history of. I had never been to a museum or a symphony. All I knew about the historical sites I was now seeing came out of a history book in high school.

On a trip to Paris I found myself at the Louvre Museum. I went in and began to explore the vast halls… I turned down one section lined on both sides with huge paintings. Looking towards the end of the hall I saw a person sitting on a stool looking at one of the works. Curious, I approached him… I realized he was somehow copying, in a small way, the large painting in front of him…He was not experiencing history out of a book but in real time.


#3:… I was transferred to Berlin to be Site Chief at the unit there. A city divided in a world divided. This was 1956 into 1957.


But… something happened that, connected with my hand skill and the remembrance of the guy in the Louvre, opened the door to my future life and career… the First Sergeant… offered me two tickets to the Berlin Symphony… So I got a pal even more unworldly than I was and we donned our dress uniforms and found our way to the event. We entered and were shown our seats. Front row! Right under the stage!.. Then the stage began to fill with dozens of men and women with all sorts of horns and violins and other instruments I did not recognize… We waited. Then, an eruption of applause. We looked up and crossing the stage in front of us was this presence. This tall elegant man was being hailed…He made his way to a raised stand in the middle of the stage and turned to bow to the audience. Turning he faced the orchestra and reached for a short stick. I didn’t know what a baton was! Then he raised it.. All the gathered musicians burst into music. The conductor [Herbert Von Karajan] weaving and pointing. It was as if he were drawing… drawing music out of these special people.


I burst into sobs. Not choking up, not getting teary. But sobs. Tears running down my face. I had been moved as never before in my life. I collected myself. Wiped away the tears and before I went to bed I wrote to my Mother. Just a few words, “Mother, find me an art school”… So, when I was in the bottom of a troop ship coming home from Germany, my mother was walking up the steps to what was then the Memphis Academy of Arts.. I got off the boat and hardly over a week later I was in my first class.


I hope you have waded through my tangle of words and your ears are not too bent out of shape because there is a reason for this letter. I represent one of thousands of voices pleading for you to preserve the help for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment of the Humanities. I offer that moment in Berlin when that body of dedicated musicians offered me their skills, their knowledge about their craft and their hearts. A gift beyond any measure. Yes, they had been given help to rise to their excellence, BUT they were giving back. You see, artists give back.


And let me offer just one of many examples:

Virginia Stallworth, executive director of the Memphis Child Advocacy Center had this to say about our arts community:

“Every year, over 120 leading regional artists create a thoughtful, heart-themed work of art specifically for our annual Works of Heart auction. They don’t do it for the percentage of the funds raised. One hundred percent of the net-proceeds go directly to our services. They do this to help the most vulnerable children in our community; kids victimized by sexual and severe abuse. That’s not only good for our children, it is an investment in our community’s future. This year we celebrated 25 years of artful generosity by our dedicated artists – and we raised nearly $100,000.


So if you ask me if supporting our artists is worth it, my answer is a resounding YES!”


Editors note: if this letter moves you please weigh in on this issue with your local state officials to support funding for the NEA and NEH.