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Flowers In Winter

[whitespace] June Smith photo Life as Art: The late Santa Cruz artist June Smith found an artistic niche in her still-life photograph postcards, like this untitled work, which will be shown at UCSC's Sesnon Gallery on Sunday.

June Smith

The late still-life photographer June Smith found success in the lives of the people her art touched

By Kelly Luker

THEY LOOK too succulent to be trapped in two-dimensional photos. Juicy tomatoes begging to be squeezed; plump cherries offered up in a chipped Depression-era bowl; brilliant sunflowers bending from the weight of ripe seeds.

It is this glistening verité that has made Santa Cruz photographer June Smith's handmade cards so popular, both here and abroad. Their signature look features still lifes of nature's bounty--wild fields of flowers, cut bouquets, ocean scenes and especially those incredible edibles.

On the day we meet to talk, wild winds and rain are whipping the oak branches outside, creating a warm oasis in Smith's airy hilltop home that she shares with her husband, Harold Smith. The house that they built themselves is cocooned by nature's raw beauty, no doubt inspiring this photographer who has managed so successfully to capture it on film. Enlargements of Smith's works button down the rough-hewn walls throughout her home.

Creative blood flows through Smith's family. Her aunt, Suzanne Scheuer, is one of the celebrated Coit Tower muralists. Smith's father wove intricate designs into his woodworking, creating beautiful cabinets and boxes. Smith's daughter is a needlepoint artist.

"Art has always been stressed in my life," Smith says. "It was always, 'What mosaic are you working on?' I'd make designs for my father, but I could never develop my art in a way that I thought I could do anything."

Fortunately, Smith's friend Gwen Marcum saw it differently. Marcum urged her to make a few cards out of the photographs Smith had taken, and Marcum would carry them at Capitola Book Cafe, the bookstore she co-owns.

"They were weird," Smith laughs about those first few cards. "They were warped from the glue."

But they sold quickly. Smith next took a bunch to San Lorenzo Lumber's Garden Center and promptly got an order for $250. That was about eight years ago, and since then her cards have found their way to shops in London, Paris, Tokyo, Rome and throughout the western United States. Last year, her company sold more than a quarter-million cards--each one handmade.

Smith, who started her photography career in her 50s, never received any formal training for her craft and pays little attention to equipment. Virtually everything is shot by natural light, creating a dazzling interplay of shadow with substance.

"When I know the light is right, I start snapping," she says simply.

Smith died last Thursday from lung cancer. In her honor, friends have organized a retrospective of her work. About 50 poster-sized images of her favorite pieces will be on display at UCSC's Porter College this Sunday, with many available for purchase.

Although Smith's business will continue, that is not her most important legacy. She talks of letters she's received from grateful customers who have been moved by her interpretation of the beauty that surrounds us.

"It meant so much that I could touch people with my art," Smith smiles.

June Smith's photographs will be on display on Dec. 13 (10am-4pm) at the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery at UCSC. Admission is free. For more info, call Gwen Marcum at 462-4415.

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From the December 9-16, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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