Alum, professor bringing conversation about art and mental health to 137th Charter Day

Posted Feb 13 2024
Double Dutchin painting by erin m. smith of central state university

Get ready to be inspired at Central State University's 137th Charter Day Convocation, where the keynote speaker will be Professor Erin M. Smith.

Erin M. Smith professor of Studio Art at Central State University
Erin M. Smith, 2024 Charter Day Convocation keynote speaker and professor of Studio Art, Central State University

Smith, a 2007 CSU graduate and current professor of Studio Art in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences' Department of Fine and Performing Arts, represents the best of what CSU has to offer. As a student, she found a safe space at Central State, a Historically Black University. She later earned the highest degree in her academic discipline, a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art.

As she shares her experience with the attendees on March 5, they can learn the value of finding a safe space to grow and achieve their dreams. HBCUs offer students the opportunity to discover what they did not get to learn in public schools or predominantly white institutions (PWIs), Smith said. 

"At public schools, there is not a special understanding of the mechanics of the Black community," Smith said. "At an HBCU, you can have a more targeted interest in things that concern what's relevant to you. Because what's relevant to society is not always what's relevant to Black people. We've built things, but then things were built around us. Everything isn't always built with us in mind. 

"HBCUs were the only things that were truly built with Black people in mind. Even so, there were still some drawbacks because slavery interfered with a lot of the mindset of even Black people. There's still a lot of brainwashing and stereotypes in the Black community. This climate (of HBCUs) gives you more of a platform to address those things that concern the Black community, specifically."  

During her Charter Day address, Smith will discuss the intersection of art and mental health as she speaks with her advocacy voice. She will use examples of her personal experiences as a single mother of three and a Black female professor. Her time on stage will be a conversation about what she calls a "silent killer" — the mental health epidemic that is public but still so private and stigmatized.  

As each class begins, Smith turns down the lights and asks students to join her in practicing mindfulness or meditation. She said it is a necessary step in the creative process and in being mentally and emotionally healthy.

"I get a lot of my creativity by simply being still," Smith said. "It's all about relieving the anxiety — those clouds of anxiety are crowding out the creativity."

Mindfulness in the classroom can be practiced in many ways, such as reading or journaling. Unless someone is exhibiting signs of noticeable disturbance or crisis, "people find it difficult to take (mental health) seriously," she said. "They are looking at you and saying, 'You put on makeup. Your clothes are matching. Your hair is fine, and you're not yelling at me.' Of course, we're not showing that part because life is layered — you learn how to turn switches on and off to get the job done."

Smith offers mindfulness to her students as it's something she needed but did not get as a young person. 

"As an artist who wants to be renowned as a Black woman artist, I want to encourage other Black women artists to take themselves seriously enough to take a risk on yourself," she said. "Black women often don't get the freedom to go explore and discover. We're always on high alert. And sometimes, we're not taken seriously enough. We raise our voices, trying to be heard and seen like everyone else is. But once we raise our voice an octave, and now we have people's attention, then it's, 'Be cool.' But we just want them to listen and know that I'm not a threat." 

Facing misogynoir head on

Black women face a unique set of challenges due to harmful double standards that exist in society, experts have long noted. Misogynoir is defined as ingrained prejudice against Black women as an intersection of their identities as women and African Americans.

These double standards are rooted in systemic racism and gender bias, which often result in Black women being unfairly judged and held to a higher standard. They are frequently expected to work harder, be more resilient, and have a more positive attitude than their white counterparts to achieve the same level of success. Additionally, Black women are often subjected to stereotypes and microaggressions that can impact their self-esteem and mental health. Black women remain strong and resilient despite these challenges, inspiring others with courage and perseverance.

"These double standards were established way before our existence or our parents' existence. It was established before our ancestors touched this soil," Smith said. "And then freedom came. Even though the order has changed, now we're seen as disorderly." 

Smith compared "a deeply rooted trauma" in the Black community to an oak tree.

"It's not just a little dandelion that you can pluck because so much time has passed." 

She said offering the keynote speech is an opportunity to address an audience with an extensive reach, and she wants her message to stick.

"It's not going to be anything beyond anyone's grasp," she said. "I want it to be relatable because it deals with the silent killer. The mental health epidemic is so real right now. This is the realist one of all. I want people to stop thinking they are just a little stressed, get evaluated, take time off, and give themselves time for self-reflection. I think back to everything I missed when the cloud was hanging over my head. You miss out on a fulfilling, holistic experience."

Hear more of Smith's journey and insights at the annual celebration of Central State's founding, set for 10 a.m. March 5 in the auditorium at the Paul Robeson Cultural and Performing Arts Center at Central State University.

Meet Erin M. Smith

Erin M. Smith Glenn is an associate professor of art and the advisor of the Visual Arts Club. She is a former board vice president for the Dayton Society of Artists and a proud alum of Central State University, one of only 16 HBCUs nationwide with a fully accredited Fine Arts program. Smith holds a terminal degree, a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art from the University of Cincinnati. She has a concentration in 2D studio art and works in various media and mixed media. Since 2009, when her daughter was born and she earned her M.F.A. in the same year, Smith has exhibited works in Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Vermont, Texas, Louisiana, and Illinois, including an internationally renowned exhibit in Norfolk, Virginia, and numerous solo exhibitions. 

In 2022, Smith received the Best in Show award for her 4x8-foot painting of her daughter in the “New Woman” art exhibit. The Pendleton Arts Center and the Clifton Cultural Arts Center hosted the exhibit collaboratively in Cincinnati, Ohio. Upon completing the new Clifton Cultural Arts Center building in early 2024, Smith's art will be housed within the new CCAC. The gallery is dedicated to Elizabeth Nourse, a Cincinnati native and the first woman to gain international fame through her artwork (1859-1938). 

As part of the Best in Show prize package, Smith has been invited to spend three months creating new work in Cincinnati's only home, established by America's most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The Elizabeth Nourse Gallery will be dedicated primarily to female artists, which is profound considering less than 10% of art by women is established in galleries and museums nationwide. As the inaugural artist of the new CCAC, the public is formally invited to attend the opening reception on March 9. 

Smith's works and interviews are featured in various notable publications and websites, including Create! Magazine, The Layered Onion (a social benefit organization intersecting art and mental health), and publicly installed works in downtown Dayton, Dayton Public Schools, and CSU's Foundation Hall II. Erin's ambassadorship with Royal Talens, a leading international art supplier, allows her to expand as an artist and professor and bring world-class creative materials to her students. 

Smith is excited to lead a trip to Paris, France, in December 2024. The trip aims to study Black art history and influences that have shaped modern-day Paris, as Black people have done worldwide. This trip follows her first successful faculty-led trip to Rome and Florence, Italy, in 2022. Unlike her initial experience in 2008 during her graduate studies as the only person of color in attendance, all participants of the CSU-led group to Italy in 2022 were women of color. 

Smith is committed to lifelong learning and continually practicing her artwork. She strives to instill the same concept in her students and her three children, Zion, Zachary, and Zavier Glenn. The New Woman award she received has already begun to provide students with opportunities to immerse themselves in the art scene. Smith's primary goal is to significantly improve the involvement and status of people of color, especially Black women, throughout the art world, both now and in the future. Smith proudly stands on the shoulders of many while striving to be the same catalyst for others like herself.

Artwork courtesy of Erin M. Smith