Jody Hemphill Smith
Co-Owner, Castle Gallery
For some young people, selling parents on the study of art in college can be a tough row to hoe. Jody Hemphill Smith had an entirely different experience.
“My grandparents were both art professors,” Smith said. “I was the youngest of four, and my mother was hellbent to make an artist out of one of the kids to carry on the tradition. My siblings weren’t interested so when I came home from the hospital, my room was already set up with an easel and art supplies.”
Some kids might see fit to rebel against such a strong influence. Smith was not one of those kids.
“I enjoyed it from Day 1,” Smith said. “I was glad I was in a home where it was not considered frivolous.”
Studying and teaching art
When it came time to choose a college, Smith headed to Ball State where she was very impressed with the art department. They also had a home economics department which allowed her to study interior design. Both of those have come in handy in the 25-plus years she and her husband Mark have owned the Castle Gallery, one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in the city.
The couple had met 25 years before they bought the gallery, and their years together have taken them to such notable places as New Orleans and Valparaiso. Yeah, the latter took some convincing at first, but once they made the move, things began to evolve for the couple.
“I had been teaching in New Orleans, painting on Jackson Square, then suddenly we were off to Valparaiso,” Smith said. “Mark said I could teach there, but I knew those kinds of jobs don’t just grow on trees. But I got lucky and landed an interview. While I was in the interview, Mark was sitting in the car outside, and when I returned, he asked how it went. ‘Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is they wanted to hire me but they said they couldn’t afford me. But the good news is that if I agree to teach for what they can pay, you can go to law school for free.’ That’s what sold us, although I probably would have accepted the pay they were offering anyway.”
Landing back in the fort
The couple later moved back to Fort Wayne where Mark Smith began practicing law, and Jody continued a teaching career that has included local schools like New Haven High School and Sunnymead Elementary School.
At that time, what is now the Castle Gallery was the site of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, and when the museum moved to its current location, the building was purchased and turned into condos. In 1995, it was back on the market.
“I told Mark that it was for sale, and he said, ‘Don’t get any ideas! We’ll buy that place when pigs fly.’ So I bought him a flying pig weathervane as a gift on the day we closed.”
Since that time, the Smiths have taken their collective skills in art, education, business, law, and interior design and put them to use in a way that has made the Castle Gallery “The Gem of the Midwest.”
It has also given artists from all over the country a place to not just display their work, but put it in a setting which encourages the purchase of their pieces. Smith encourages visitors of the gallery to move the paintings from room to room, consider how it might look in their own homes. She treasures the opportunity to help artists get more exposure and to encourage area residents to make art a priority in their lives.
Sticking with Castle Gallery
Despite the joy that the Castle Gallery has provided as their home and their place of work, the Smiths had decided earlier this year to sell the building and put it on the market. But that plan has changed in wake of the pandemic and demonstrates her continued commitment to Fort Wayne and the arts.
“I feel like there’s a need right now,” she said. “So it may say that the building is for sale, but it’s not. With people doing work on their homes this year, it’s important to provide a place where people can get art for their walls. Art is the cherry on top of the cake, and it’s important. So we’re staying here and providing a place for people to come. There’s plenty of room, we’re all wearing masks. We welcome people to come in on Saturdays or by appointment.
“I could have spent the last 25 years teaching, and I loved doing that and would have been happy. But I think what we’re doing here is important. We bring people in to see the art and to think about it, and I think we’ve been successful in doing that.”
Doug Driscoll, founder and retired publisher/editor of Whatzup and previous recipient of the Liddell Award, presented this year’s award to Smith.
“Boundless energy and creativity,” Driscoll said. “Combine that with artistic talent and incredible drive and determination, and you have someone capable of making a meaningful and lasting impact on a community and its culture. Thus, it’s an honor for me to recognize Jody Hemphill Smith as a recipient of this year’s as a recipient of this year’s H. Stanley Liddell award.”