Audrey Summers Smith’s journey to ArtPrize Nine has a message for each of us, a reminder that dreams can indeed come true if we believe in our vision and our determination.

Audrey’s participation in ArtPrize Nine is an unlikely happening. She has three paintings in the show—one of the world’s largest art events—but she has never had a painting class. In fact, she has never had a college art class.

Audrey Summers Smith working on her Zebras painting, for ArtPrize Nine

Audrey Summers Smith working on her Zebras painting, for ArtPrize Nine

But Audrey had learned to face big obstacles during her life and she viewed the barriers to college training as just one more speed bump to ignore and move beyond. When Audrey was born, she was diagnosed with a serious congenital heart defect and had to have open-heart surgery at four days old. She has had two more open-heart surgeries since. The diagnosis also came with learning disabilities. Math is especially a challenge for her, and school was never easy. Her challenges developed within her a strength, a survivor’s mentality and a sense of individuality that all became visible when she set her mind to painting a few years ago. She simply decided to teach herself through books, studying images on the internet and watching YouTube videos for ideas on technique.

What Audrey’s art shows is that she is able to tap into the energy and life force we share with animals. “Many artists connect to nature through landscape, but I connect to nature through animals,” she says. And that connection feels remarkably vivid when you look at one of Audrey’s paintings. The paintings are elemental and spare, but they carry a potency, a jolt felt in the heart. Her three ArtPrize Nine paintings are African animals—elephants, a great ape, zebras.

“I want my paintings to show that animals aren’t trash, they are like human beings in their own way. They have a living force. And a lot of people forget that about animals. They have a family as well. And they have their own lives as well. They feed their babies from their breasts. We all go through this world together.” Audrey would like to start a foundation to save elephants and stop people from hunting them into extinction.

Find the paintings of Audrey Summers Smith at ArtPrize Nine venue Gita Pita, at the corner of Fulton and Jefferson, in Grand Rapids. Her vote code is 64920. First-round voting ends midnight, Saturday, September 30, 2017.

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Photo(s) by Jeff Smith