In the Loop
Faculty News : Jan 18, 2019

Nan Smith retires after 40 years

By Carolina Watlington (BSJ '20)

After 40 years, the current longest serving faculty member in the College of the Arts has retired to focus on her research and become a full-time studio artist.

When Nan Smith arrived at the University of Florida in 1979, the ceramics program in the College of the Arts (then the College of Fine Arts) was still in development. She had turned down nine other job offers to teach here.

“I took the job because it had the greatest potential to build a program,” Smith said. “It was unusual for a 26-year-old to get the opportunity to build a program, from the facilities to the curriculum.”

Smith is now nationally known for her large-scale figurative installations. But when she first started at UF, the ceramics program did not have a large enough kiln for her or the graduate students to fire large sculpture in. After three years, she wrote a proposal and spoke with the vice president for graduate research and received funding for a state-of-the-art electric trolley kiln that the department still uses today.

After that, used kilns started rolling in from all across campus, including the Department of Animal Sciences and the Reitz Union.  These were replaced with new computerized models as money became available through the School of Art + Art History.

“All the kilns we now have in the facility, I had a hand in ordering or selecting,” Smith said. “We did everything to get the furnishings to ensure we could build a top program, and now UF is one of the best equipped programs in the nation.”

But Smith says she could not have done it alone. It was the UF ceramics community and the effort put forth by Linda Arbuckle and Smith that created the ranked program the College of the Arts now has today.

“We were here during the building years,” Smith said. “We were lucky to be together for 24 years.”

In the early 2000s, Smith’s dream became a reality when the program they had tirelessly built ranked in at both No. 14 and 15 by U.S. News & World Reports.

But her proudest moment was still to come in 2016, when her students surprised her with a nomination for the Doctoral Dissertation Advisor Mentoring Award. Smith was one of six University of Florida faculty members campus-wide to be honored with the award that year.

“It was the most meaningful, because it was a group of graduate students that talked among themselves to do this nomination,” Smith said.

She says she will miss her students most. This is why the decision to leave did not come easy to Smith. It was a decision two years in the making.

“I always dreamed that I could work full-time as a studio artist and I felt that it was time to do that and fully invest myself in this part of my career now that I’ve reached the age of 66,” said Smith. “If I don’t do it now, when will I do it? There has to be a time. There’s no right time.”

Though she is leaving UF, she won’t be far. Her studio—where she will be now be working full time—is just north of Gainesville. There she hopes to focus on her research on social issues near to her heart for her installations.

Past subjects for Smith include feminine nostalgia as well as human consciousness and spirituality. But Smith’s latest project tackles water conservation.

“I have a message that I want to share about different social issues, and I think that it’s relevant,” Smith said. “I want to go out and have the liberty to do that.”

Smith says that she is working on murals, still lives and a huge installation that will come out within the next year now that she is retiring. But the studio is only the beginning, she said.

For her water conservation research, Smith has travelled to Israel and Ireland to speak to leading water scientists on their conservation efforts.

“Each country has its own water needs and its own water problems,” Smith said. “I believe artists need to be smart in getting their information to gain understanding. That’s what gives me the visual triggers; imagery that often appears in my head.”

While abroad, Smith also showcases past projects through guest lectures. In Smith’s visit to Ireland in September, she was invited to the Ceramic Ireland International Festival where she was one of six artists to lecture and present a workshop demonstration.

Smith hopes to take her newly found time to give her work her undivided focus, whether that means travelling for research or working in her studio. 

The year 2020 promises to be exciting for Smith. She has accepted invitations to be a resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, and to teach a summer figure sculpture workshop at the Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado.

“I achieved my dream which was to create a nationally recognized program here, but now I need to begin chapter two to fulfill my other dream,” Smith said.

Nan Smith was awarded Professor Emerita status by the Office of the Provost upon retirement.

View Nan Smith’s work at her personal website:

Nan Smith’s retirement was also covered in the Alligator. Read more here.