Marc Andries Smit had a secure future as a businessman, working with his aviator father in steelwork. But this Cuban-born student of archaeology, art and history had other designs.
So, at 41, in 1995, Smit traded his office for a chisel and brush and found success as a sculptor for the next 21 years of his life. The only remaining vestige of his earlier profession was his impeccable manner of dress, including tie.
“I can be Bohemian at certain levels, but I also have a serious responsibility,” he told el Nuevo Herald in 1995, four months into his new artistic career. “I was given a talent to do something — and I am going to do it.”
And so he did. Smit’s local public works include a bronze bust of Cuban poet and orator José Martí at Freedom Plaza in Coral Gables, a park dedicated to Martí’s centennial, that he helped develop; the Padre Félix Varela Monument at the West Dade Regional Library on Coral Way; the Professor Richard Hausler Memorial bronze at the University of Miami School of Law; and the Diaspora bas relief at San Carlos Institute in Key West.
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Other works include international pieces like Corpus Christi, sculpted for Pope John Paul II, and Orange Blossom, for Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.
Smit died Jan. 22 at 62, of complications from a cardiac event. On Monday, Futurama 1673 Galleries in Little Havana, will pay tribute to Smit with a monthlong exhibit of his works.
Smit was born Oct. 7, 1954, in Havana, of Dutch and Cuban ancestry. “I have inherited the rigorous thinking of the Dutch, their passion for detail, but in turn, with the same force, I feel deeply Cuban,” he told el Nuevo Herald in 1997.
Born with a deformed leg and hand, Smit used prosthetic devices and became so adept in their use that his younger sister, Regina Smit-Sio, long ago forgot which side of his body was affected.
“Because of the deformity with his hand, our parents used to give him clay as a toddler so he would exercise the muscles in his hands,” Smit-Sio said. He was expected to do the same chores his siblings did. “You would never know he had deformities and the way we were raised, that wasn’t an issue.” The difference? “He had an innate ability for sculpting.”
By the time Smit was 12, in 1966, five years after leaving Cuba with his parents in 1961, his talents were recognized by the University of Miami. The school accepted Smit into its Adult Center for Cuban Arts and Culture, where he apprenticed with Cuban sculptors and artists, including Juan López Conde, former art professor at the San Alejandro Academy in Havana.
Smit studied art history and political and behavioral science at Florida Atlantic University, graduated in 1978, and became a lifelong traveler, pursuing cultural interests, such as studying Mesoamerican archaeology and European art and culture.
His 1925 home in Coral Gables, shared with his wife, Astrid Castedo Smit, a microbiologist, is overrun with artifacts, tribal masks, fossils and relics — a museum unto itself, his sister said. He settled on the old house partly because its chimney was adorned with small mosaics featuring the Cuban shield.
Marc very much wanted to beautify the community and make a historical connection of Cuba to the history of Coral Gables. He was steadfast in his beliefs and demand for excellence.
Don Slesnick, former mayor of Coral Gables.
Smit created the Martí bust as a gift to the city, along with helping develop a small park with the aid of other exiles, across from the historic Coral Gables Woman’s Club (originally the city’s first library at 1001 E. Ponce de Leon Boulevard). Freedom Plaza is at the corner of Santillane Avenue, Galiano Street and Ponce de Leon Boulevard in the north Gables.
“One of my most important projects is to make a monument to Martí in Coral Gables,” Smit said in 1997, two years into the frustrating process. He envisioned the bronze bust and park grounds — with its Masonic pyramid and six palm trees — as representing the original six provinces of Cuba, as “a union of two great cultures in a city.” He first conceived of Freedom Plaza in 1995, the centennial of Martí’s death.
Not everyone shared Smit’s enthusiasm — it took seven years for the bust and plaza to be commemorated in May 2002.
One who did champion the project was then-Mayor Don Slesnick, who was first elected in 2001.
“It’s the perfect blend of the history of Coral Gables on one side of the street, represented by the Woman’s Club building, and then across from it is the history of our Cuban-American community, who have made Coral Gables their home,” Slesnick said. “Marc was very dedicated to this community and … steadfast in his beliefs and demand for excellence. He oversaw the entire project and made sure everything was put in place and was meaningful.”
In 2001, the Kiwanis Club Coral Gables Latin awarded Smit with its Freedom Award in the category of arts and sciences for his efforts to preserve the image of Cuba through his sculptural work. Smit designed the award.
Smit is survived by his wife, Astrid Castedo Smit; sister, Regina Smit-Sio; and brother, Richard Smit. A celebration of Smit’s work will form the basis of a monthlong exhibit opening Monday at Futurama, 1637 SW Eighth St., Miami, through March. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Call 305-407-1677.