By Jan Worth-Nelson
David Smallidge was a stone mason who helped lay bricks for the downtown campus of UM – Flint and constructed the stone frame for the original Flint Farmers’ Market mosaic. He also created exquisitely detailed black and white porcelain plates and vases and other works of art that found their way into New York galleries. A key member of Buckham Gallery from its beginnings in the ’80s and an ardent supporter, with his wife Bernice, of peace movements and community arts efforts, Smallidge died Feb. 27 at age 83 of Alzheimer’s disease.
“The paradox in Dave’s work is he has huge hands that handled brick and cinder block all day and carrying around 125 pounds of hod,” said his longtime friend Richard Mach of Flint. Pointing to one of Smallidge’s vases, Mach added, “And then those same hands painted this exquisite, seamless pattern on this equally seamlessly apportioned vase made with those same hands.
“Those who knew David well know he was not afraid to fully express his deeply held convictions about the ever changing state of democracy here in America,” Mach said. “And he lived out-loud those beliefs. With others of similar bent, he spent many days, summer and winter, on various street corner protests of American government policies.”
His classic pickup truck, emblazoned with political bumper stickers, was readily recognizable around town for years.
His yearly October birthday parties at his property in Burton were legendary, bringing many of the arts and music crowd to his back yard for roaring bonfires and barbecue.
“David was built like the materials he worked with; rock solid, a bit weathered, seemingly eternal,” downtown denizen Joel Rash, manager of Flint Local 432, commented. “His strong hands could lay brick from sunup to sunset, but were delicate enough to create intricate sculpture.
“He was kind and insightful, and had a sharp wit but a giant heart. He was a blue collar guy with a tremendous work ethic, and a lot of what he did was unassuming and utilitarian, kind of like he was. He will be missed, but reminders of his time on earth will be with us for a long, long time,” Rash said.
One reminder of his work is the familiar stone entryway to the College Cultural neighborhood at the corner of Court Street and Woodlawn Park Drive. Sherry Hayden, College Cultural Neighborhood Association vice president, noted Smallidge advised using Indiana limestone to match the nearby Gilkey Street bridge. The marker was funded by matching grants from the Community Foundation of Greater Flint and the Mary Elizabeth Adams Manley Beautification Fund.
“He worked with sketches Mike Keeler [Hayden’s husband and president of the CCNA] and I provided and he improved the design not only from an engineering standpoint, but with the eye of a fine artist,” Hayden said.
“Our cast-aluminum sign posed some issues, but it was just another design element to David. David was tenacious and upbeat, which came in handy, because working with the city on the project proved to be a serious challenge that dragged on for several years. In the process of working with David, it transformed from a utilitarian placemaker project to a community art installation.”
Mach said Smallidge showed early signs of Alzheimers 22 years ago, surviving through a very slow progression. He was on clinical trials for a promising experimental drug which was pulled mid-stream for a lack of efficacy. Smallidge’s wife Bernice died suddenly without warning four years ago, leading to Smallidge’s eventual departure from their home of many decades into assisted living. He granted his brain to the University of Michigan for Alzheimer’s research, Mach said.
A Genesee County native, Smallidge was a scoring member of the state championship track and field team at Otisville High School in 1953. He loved organ music, especially classical and jazz. He also was a pilot.
Smallidge is survived by four children: Air Force Lt. Col.(Ret.) Dave Smallidge of Colorado Springs, CO; Wendy Littleton-Kozma of Boston, MA., a specialist in childhood wellness; Ben of Burton, a patented inventor and insurance agent; and Joey of Atlanta, GA., a minister and businessman. He also leaves behind ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.