William “Skinny” Elijah Smith was an African American artist who was recognized for exploring Black experiences in his art. Friend and poet Langston Hughes once described Smith’s work as the “humor and pathos of Negro life captured in line and color.”
William E. Smith was born in 1913 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Shortly after the death of his mother, Smith moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1927 along with his two younger siblings, to join his father. As a result of his father’s opposition to his artistic aspirations, Smith left home in 1932, where he learned about the hardships and struggles of everyday life in Cleveland. Surviving on only twenty cents a day and living in the basement of Central Avenue’s Grand Central Theatre, Smith was discovered by two Oberlin graduates, Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, founders of what is now considered to be Karamu House. After earning the five year Gilpin Players’ Scholarship, Smith attended the John Huntington Polytechnic Institute in Cleveland from 1935 to 1940. It was during the time of Smith’s studies at the institute that he began showing in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show, where his work was exhibited on and off between 1936 and 1949. Smith also went on to further studies at the Cleveland School of Art (today known as the Cleveland Institute of Art) and the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.
In the early 1930s, Smith began his studies at Karamu House under the leadership of Karamu House Studio director Richard R. Beatty. A lithographer trained at the Carnegie Institute of Art and The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, Beatty served as Smith’s mentor affording him the opportunity to explore the various techniques and styles of printmaking. With Beatty’s influence in 1932, Smith became an instructor of the arts of Karamu House Studios. Continuing his apprenticeship, Smith attended Saturday morning classes at the Cleveland Museum under the teachings of artist Paul Travis.