By Don Granese
His office is decorated with life-sized dolls, posters, paintings, baskets, a fake lamb, nude portraits, and costumes. It’s immediately obvious to anyone who visits Jack Smith on the second floor of the Performing Arts Center at Elon University that he’s a designer.
“I would have never in a million years looked at all of the pieces (of my life) and said that these were all going to come together and I’m going to be a costume designer,” he explains. When he first started college as an undergrad at Eastern Illinois University, he was studying journalism with a second emphasis in graphic design. He loved the design courses but never completely fell in love with journalism.
“I was in a journalism class my first semester of my sophomore year,” said Smith. In this class his professor wanted them to be willing to do anything for a story no matter what their moral compasses were telling them; even if that meant chasing ambulances. Smith just couldn’t commit to this. “You’ve got to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say I’m a human being,” he said. “My professor said ‘look around you. There are 29 other people in this class that are willing to do what you wont.” Smith quickly decided that journalism just wasn’t going to be his profession.
At the same time he was taking the journalism class Smith was also in an Intro To Theatre class. Theatre was always something he had done, but he’d never seen it as a possible career. As part of this class he was required to work in one of the design shops. When the teacher asked the students if they could sew, Smith was the only student in the class who raised his hand. He was sent to the costume shop.
“My mom had taught me how to sew when I was five” said Smith “My mom and dad didn’t believe that there was men’s work or women’s work, just work that needed to get done.”
The first time he went to the costume shop changed his life. “To this day I can tell you the song that was playing on the radio, the smell of the shop, the lights that were burned out, what people were working on, the layout. I walked into the shop for the first time and thought ‘this is where I belong!’”
The next step for Smith was convincing his parents that being a costume designer could actually be a career. In his own mind he knew that design was the only thing he wanted to pursue, so he set out for graduate school to get his MFA (Master’s Degree of Fine Arts) at Southern Illinois University studying costume design and construction and paid his own way so that his parents couldn’t have the control over him.
“Right out of grad school I started teaching,” said Smith “I taught because it seemed like the sensible thing to do.” He thought that by teaching he might be able to still hone his craft in an academic environment. But at this point, so early in his career, he felt as though he didn’t quite have the professional experience to share with his students. So he took a chance. He calls this part of his life “stepping into the abyss”.
When he left this first job his employer asked him what he was going to do. He explained, “I don’t really know, but as long as I don’t end up designing for Shakespeare in the Deep South I think I’ll be happy.” Two days later Smith got a call from a friend who was looking to hire someone to design for a Shakespeare festival in Orlando, Florida. He took the job. He didn’t care if it was a job designing for Shakespeare in the south. He was stepping out into the unknown and he was excited.
“I really count that as my first real world experience,” he said “Suddenly your career and how it runs is your responsibility… your credibility, your ability to deliver becomes really important. It also became really important to be able to work efficiently.”
Smith decided he would work professionally in this way for five years of his life and then at that point he would make the decision as to whether he wanted to continue down that career path or return to academia.
When he reached the five year point in September of 2001 he had six corporate “gigs” lined up. “The corporate stuff was a lot more fun,” Smith said. “You made more money and it was a lot less work.” On September 12th, the day after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 all six of the corporate jobs disappeared. “They dried up, they were just gone,” he explained. “One of the places I was going to do some corporate work for…their head office was located in Tower One.” Smith found that time to be difficult to get work while so many companies took their time to rebuild themselves.
Smith was getting by with the jobs that he was still able to hold down, but he missed teaching. He started applying for academic jobs at various universities including one at Elon. When he got a call for an interview at Elon he was already interested in working at another school, but he thought that he could use the Elon job offer as a bargaining tool.
At that time Elon didn’t have a costume shop in place. Smith had seen how much work it was to create a shop from nothing when he was at other jobs. He wasn’t interested in having to do that kind of building from the foundation up. But when he visited campus he didn’t know what to expect and he admits he was extremely surprised at how quickly he came to love the Elon students and faculty. “I had no intention of taking this job at all. But I absolutely fell in love with this University and their mission statement and the fact that from the president down everyone’s first concern is ‘what is right for the students.’ and that is amazing to me” Smith said. “It shouldn’t be shocking that in academia the students needs are the first priority, but it is rare that a University really does put the student first.”
Smith has found a good home here at Elon for most of the past decade. He describes his career path and his life path as one intermingled journey. Considering himself a man of many successes, he tries to make decisions at every turning point of life based on what is best for him and his happiness. “Life is a very short game. Don’t waste your time on people and things that are not worth your time. Find the things that are important to you, find the people that are important to you and pursue life in the largest way you can.”