Mayans and Monkey Gods

By Jay Boyar

The Maitland Art Center is seeking designation as a National Historic Landmark. But no one needs to tell Central Floridians that this other-worldly outpost is an irreplaceable cultural treasure.


What’s your favorite local landmark? The Daily Planet-style sign atop the Plaza Live Theatre? That retro-spaceship hunk of pastel plastic in the middle of Lake Eola? Or maybe something from one of the theme parks — the Cinderella Castle, perhaps?

Christine Madrid French has something very different in mind when she talks about landmarks in Central Florida. For the past year or so, French has been focused on obtaining National Historic Landmark status for the Maitland Art Center, where she is curator of history. The center, she says, is just on the verge of realizing that dream.

“It’s a very high bar,” notes French, who’ll make the formal case for landmark status this November in Washington, D.C. “But if we’ve gone this far with the process, there’s a 99 percent chance that everything will be fine.”

Situated near Lake Sybelia, the art center is one of five museums known collectively as the Art & History Museums–Maitland. Currently, the center is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which includes about 80,000 sites throughout America. A nice designation, but hardly an exclusive one.

Places with official landmark status are members of a more select circle — one with only about 2,000 members nationwide. If the center makes it into that elite group, its prestige, if not also its resources, will increase.

“That prestige shows how important it is to continually invest in the preservation,” says Andrea Bailey Cox, executive director of the museums. “It also raises our awareness nationally, as well as locally. So many people don’t realize we’re here in their backyard.”

The Maitland Art Center was founded in 1937 by artist/architect André Smith, who also designed the center and lived there (see page 27). Smith created the place as an artists’ colony and Cox hopes to continue that legacy.

“About three years ago we really started working on the rebirth of the Maitland Art Center,” she explains. “Our ultimate goal is to be able to bring it back to its artists’ colony days during its classic period of 1937 to ‘59.”

Securing landmark status is part of the overall plan. So are the preservation efforts that have already begun.

The center has also been emphasizing programs that amplify the artists’ colony concept. Artists in Action, for example, has for years allowed the public to observe artists working in the center’s studios. Now a new program, Artists in Residence, allows onlookers similar access.

“Every once in a while we make a joke about it being kind of like an art zoo: Look in and see what they’re doing behind the scenes,” says Cox, laughing.

Turning serious, she adds, “It’s a really great opportunity for exposure to the visual arts in a way that the public rarely has. To be able to go in and understand motivation, skills, all of those pieces.”

André Smith’s sketch captured his vision of a sprawling Research Studio where artists could live and work. Although the center houses several significant art collections, the facility itself, with its conjoined courtyards, gardens and studios, may be the region’s most significant work of art.

To fully understand why the center is worth caring about, you have to go there and look around. The grounds — which are much larger than they seem from where the compound sits on Packwood Avenue — cover two acres and, by the official reckoning, contain a dozen buildings.

Structures are made of concrete, which Smith used as a medium of artistic expression. While the center is billed as one of the few surviving examples of Mayan Revival in the Southeast, its imagery is drawn from many sources. European, Chinese, Christian, African, Persian and, of course, Mayan signs and symbols mingle in an oddly harmonious way.

As she shows me around the grounds, French points out that the chapel is Christian-themed, featuring images of saints and a Christ figure. She seems intrigued that just on the other side of a chapel wall is an image of the Monkey King from Chinese mythology. Elsewhere are Mayan figures — but they’re playing European instruments.

“André was into every kind of culture,” says French, “and he just found it all fascinating.”

Almost everywhere we look we see images of flowers, especially sunflowers. French explains that they were symbols of rebirth for Smith, a northerner who found a new life in Maitland. As the Maitland Art Center seeks to blossom as a national landmark, it’s finding a new life, too.

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André Smith traveled the world, and captured much of what he saw on canvas. But he also found plenty of inspiration in Eatonville, located just minutes from his Research Studio (now the Maitland Art Center). In Images of Eatonville: Then & Now, which just closed at the center, Smith’s lively impressions of what is thought to be the nation’s first incorporated African-American community were on display alongside present-day photographs by Rollins College students. Smith befriended celebrated writer Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance folklorist who lived in Eatonville as a child and immortalized it in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Below are some of Smith’s Eatonville paintings, which were completed in the 1930s and 1940s.


André  Smith’s Spirit Hovers Over the Center He Created


“Is this going in print?” asks Andrea Bailey Cox, executive director of the Art & History Museums-Maitland, when I ask if she’s ever seen a ghost. “I’ll sound like a bit of a kook!”

Specifically, I’m asking about the ghost of André Smith, who founded one of those museums, the Maitland Art Center, which is where Cox and I happen to be at the time. After a slightly awkward pause, she decides to answer my question.

“I saw a gentleman with gray hair, with his back turned to me,” she recalls, thinking back to one morning, several years ago, at the center. “To this day, everyone swears that nobody was on campus that early and that I saw André working in the studio.”

Over the years, many staffers and visitors have said they’ve encountered Smith’s ghost. Even if they’re right, that may not be the most intriguing thing about him.

Not only did artist/architect Smith found the Maitland Art Center (originally calling it the Research Studio) in 1937, he designed it and incorporated his concrete sculptures into it. He lived there and brought in others to join him by establishing it as an artists’ colony, which it remained until his death in 1959.

A child of American parents, Smith was born in Hong Kong in 1880, raised in New York and Connecticut, attended Cornell University and served in World War I. In basic training, he severely injured his leg on barbed wire and later the leg was amputated.

Always a dark personality, Smith, who never married, was even darker after that. But in middle age he experienced a rebirth of sorts when he found his way to Maitland.

Smith championed modern art (especially abstraction and Surrealism), was socially progressive (as his close friendship with Zora Neale Hurston attested) and drew inspiration from many cultures, including European, Chinese, Christian, African, Persian and especially Mayan.

“One of the reasons that Smith is significant is that he was constantly pushing the envelope with experimentation, and helping other artists to do so with the artists’ colony,” says Cox.

And nowadays at the Maitland Art Center, his spirit — so to speak — lives on.

— Jay Boyar

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