Art Advocates Jo-an and Greg Smith | Local Artists | Local Art |
blue, green, purple, painting by Greg Smith

“I would like to believe I am a part of a larger group of Las Cruces artists who sincerely love what they do,” said Jo-an Smith. “And, of course, it is a great joy of my life to have Greg nearby and advocating so passionately for the arts for our area.”

Jo-an was the jewelry designer and resident artist for Sally and Glenn Cutter at the Cutter Gallery in Las Cruces for more than 40 years. Her art and jewelry were featured in the gallery’s first show in 1975 and its last show before the gallery closed in 2019. Jo-an continues to paint at her own studio in Mesilla Park and exhibit in her gallery in downtown Las Cruces.

Jo-an and Greg Smith standing next to eachother.Greg Smith is Jo-an’s son, a former Las Cruces city councilor and mayor pro tempore who is now the executive director of the Doña Ana Arts Council (DAAC) and immediate past chair of the Las Cruces Arts and Cultural District (ACD). Greg is also a lover of and advocate for all the visual and performing arts that thrive in Las Cruces, Mesilla, and surrounding communities.

Jo-an, now 88, grew up in Oregon and met and married her husband, Donald Smith, in Seattle. Greg, 68, was born in El Paso and attended 12 different schools from kindergarten through high school graduation because of his father Donald’s career as an artillery officer in the U.S. Army.

After Donald retired in 1972, the family settled in Las Cruces. Greg was already enrolled in the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University and Las Cruces was his home during vacations from school. After graduation, he worked in the design field and as a teacher before moving back to Las Cruces in 2005. Greg was elected to the Las Cruces City Council in 2011 and re-elected in 2015. He became DAAC executive director in early 2020 and has guided the nonprofit through the pandemic and the 50th anniversary of its signature event, the Renaissance ArtsFaire. He is now leading DAAC’s search for a new permanent home in Las Cruces.

Jo-an earned a bachelor’s in art from University of Texas at El Paso and a master’s degree in studio art specializing in metalwork from New Mexico State University. She is a distinguished member of the Society of North American Goldsmiths and a signature member of the New Mexico Watercolor Society. Jo-an’s paintings and jewelry are collected both nationally and internationally. She is listed in Who’s Who in American Art and Who’s Who in American Women.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest during the latter part of the Great Depression, “there were not a lot of art opportunities,” Jo-an said, although she did take art classes at a YWCA. It was while she was taking a jewelry-design workshop that Jo-an connected with her inner artist. “All of a sudden, it clicked for me,” she said.

Jo-an started her art career as a goldsmith, and that has influenced her work as a painter, with thin lines of silver and gold often showing up within the vibrant colors and bold designs she creates with oils, watercolors, and alcohol ink. Her artwork continues to reflect a love of organic shapes and textures she discovered in childhood.

Jo-an started painting at age 57, and her advice to other potential artists of any age is, “Don’t shut doors for yourself. We can surprise ourselves.”

During husband Donald’s deployments — in Alaska, Argentina, El Salvador, and Panama — “We were always doing something with art” in the Smith household, Jo-an said.

Greg remembers his mother designing Christmas cards and illustrating books while he and brother Jeff were growing up.
“It stuck with me through the years,” Greg said, and influenced his decision to become an architect with “a huge emphasis on design. The way I approach architecture is, it’s two- and three-dimensional art.”

When he moved back to Las Cruces, Greg said he was struck immediately by “the impact the arts had here.” There were displays of public art, arts programs for children and adults, and many artists and galleries.

jewelry made by Jo-am Smith

“The arts are really integrated into the success of this community,” said Greg, who was a tireless arts supporter throughout his tenure on the Las Cruces City Council. A former president of the Downtown Las Cruces Partnership, he supported and voted for the creation of the Arts & Cultural District in 2018 — the first city-designated arts and cultural district in New Mexico — while serving on the city council. Greg’s commitment to the arts and the success of local artists has been his focus at DAAC.

While other industries become increasingly automated, the arts will “remain human centered,” he said, and they will continue to help make the local economy “viable for the future of our community.” The arts also define the unique character of Doña Ana County, instilling community pride and encouraging us to become “authentically ourselves,” Greg said.

Greg, who was a classroom teacher in Austin, Texas, for 20 years, also believes in putting the “A” — for arts — into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to create a STEAM focus for public schools. Summer programming for students is an integral part of DAAC’s mission, including Opera Storytellers Camp, Career Art Path, Missoula Children’s Theatre, and Kennedy Center Partners in Education.

Bringing all these pieces together “makes for a complete experience” for people who live here and for visitors, according to Greg.
And who better to reflect what the arts and their economic viability mean to Greg than his own mother, especially considering her successful combination of art and business now continuing into its fifth decade.

She represents in a very real and present way for me an important segment of our population,” Greg said. Jo-an and Sally and Glenn Cutter “were practicing the creative economy,” he said. “It’s part of that brighter future that carries us forward.”

“I love having art be a part of my life,” Jo-an said. “It’s like having a best friend. The world would be a better place with more art — people doing it, people enjoying it. It’s as simple as that.”


Written by Mike Cook

Courtesy photos

Originally published in Neighbors magazine.

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