Outside influences: Nature is abundant in Seymour's Smithhouse

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Outside influences: Nature is abundant in Seymour's Smithhouse

SEYMOUR — Lynn Hawkinson Smith is way luckier than most people when it comes to her home and her career.

A graphic designer and artist, she's been told by her friends that she's "paid to play."

And as she returns to her home in the woods near Seymour she feels, "It's like a vacation every night."

Smith and her husband, Ed Smith, a retired environmental engineer, live in a house originally built in the late '50s by a landscape-architecture student.

It lies at the end of a gravel circle drive, surrounded by trees and wildlife.

With their strong interest in nature, the Smiths have brought the outdoors inside.

"People are totally appalled by the way we live or they just love it," Lynn said.

A birch-bark canoe, one of Ed's treasures, hangs from the ceiling in the living room. Gemstones and rocks, some quite large, that were collected by Ed, grace the home and Lynn's studio.

Inside a glass case that serves as a coffee table in the sun room is a giant, realistic model of a grasshopper. A faux snake curls out from under the case, and a couple of faux lizards seem to crawl around on the floor.

Also in the sun room — a 40th birthday gift for Lynn from her husband — is an insect display case of 12 butterflies.

"Because this is a sun room you can put animals in it and get away with it," Lynne said.

The entire house is like a cabinet of curiosities, with yet more things to discover, among them huge nautilus sea shells, a taxidermy pheasant and African and other baskets — Lynn was a weaver before turning to two-dimensional art.

A large basket made of bamboo was used for harvesting, she tells me, showing me its shoulder straps. A wedding basket has inside it smaller and smaller versions of itself, like a set of Russian nesting dolls.

There are jars of rocks and baskets of large emu and ostrich eggs. A large cowhide rug covers the living room floor, in front of the fireplace.

Some of the floors are paved with bricks, while Lynn's studio floor is covered with 13-inch pine planks.

A land landmark

The "Smithhouse," as the couple calls it, lies on 5 acres of land designated an Illinois Natural Heritage Landmark — mainly because the Sangamon phlox, a rare prairie plant on the state's endangered list, grows there.

Ed Smith, who grew up in oil fields in Texas, had always fantasized about living in the woods. After they had just finished building a house in Mahomet, the Smiths looked at the home in the woods near the Sangamon River, in 1984.

"We bought it that night," she said.

In turn, a doctor purchased their new home in Mahomet, telling the Smiths he loved it and would never move unless he could find a place in the woods like the Smithhouse. The physician and his family now live two doors down.

After moving into their home, the Smiths added on. Ed also built on their property two barns, using wood from old barns in the area.

The smaller barn outside Lynn's studio windows contains on one board the carved signature of the original barn builder — Rainy.

Living inside the barn are Lynn's black Arabian show horse, Hawk, and Shetland pony, Snickers.

She recently bought a harness for Snickers, for cart riding for pleasure, not parades.

"Let's face it, they're my muses," Lynn said of Hawk and Snickers. "They don't have any responsibilities in the world except to keep me happy."

Also sharing the land with the Smiths, Hawk and Snickers are two short-haired domestic cats, Puma and Steely; a St. Bernard dog named Cowboy; and a standard poodle called Cheyenne. And who knows what other animals like deer, raccoons and coyotes.

Nature art

Considering where the Smiths live and their interests, it's no wonder Lynn creates nature-related art and photographs. Her studio, a former screened-in porch, is full of her original art and prints, framed and posted high on the walls.

On wooden tables — most of the cabinets, tables and chairs in the studio and home seem vintage or antique — are neatly labeled boxes of her printed note cards. Many of them depict birds. She makes the prints herself, using a Canon Giclee printer.

The Smiths moved to Illinois in 1976, thinking they would stay for only two years. Lynn started out working as a graphic designer for an archery supplies manufacturer and then making illustrations at Chanute Air Force Base.

In 1982, she started working at the University of Illinois, most recently for the Illinois Archaeological Survey. All of her work there was related to nature.

Though she retired in 2010, Lynn continues to work part time for the UI, doing graphic design and designing books. She also recently created a website for the National Great Rivers Research & Education Center and is working on other websites for that organization based in Wood River.

While working full time at the UI, she became in 1995 the designer for The Illinois Steward, a magazine about the environment. It quit publication in 2010. Though she draws a lot of birds now, Lynn had never drawn one until she read an Illinois Steward article about wrens in Illinois.

"We could not get photographs so I drew them," she said. "I was so fascinated with the differences in the wrens I began drawing other birds. Each new drawing is a new discovery and a new friend. I always start with the eye so we can have a dialogue as I'm drawing. By the time I'm done with one bird a new bird is calling me."

Lynn, who grew up in Wisconsin and Texas, doesn't know why she's so interested in nature. Her two sisters and brother are not.

"My love of nature comes naturally. I have always had a need to be outside," she said. "As a child my teachers would write on my report card, 'Lynn spends too much time looking out the window.' "

Now 65, she realizes she's been fortunate to be paid to do work that fascinates her. And now that she's retired, she's able to continue making nature-related art. And to enjoy the world outside her windows.

"Being part of nature, living out here, you're so insignificant," she said. "It helps you understand how little you are compared to the trees that have been here hundreds of years. The animals don't care about you. They just exist."

The Lynn Hawkinson Smith file

— In April, Smith welcomed visitors to her Smithhouse studio as part of the Boneyard Arts Festival.

— Recently, she showed at Clark-Lindsey Village in Urbana her original drawings and prints of birds, flowers and horses as well as her landscape photography.

— One of her drawings of a Carolina wren will be part of "Around the Block II," Monday through Aug. 9 at the Giertz Gallery at Parkland College.

— Six of her original ornithological drawings will be part of "Comrades in Art," a group exhibition from Monday through Aug. 6 at the Springer Cultural Center in downtown Champaign.

— Smith is represented by the Vault Arts Collective in Tuscola; Cinema Gallery, Urbana; and Broken Oak Gallery, White Heath.

— Her Smithhouse studio is open by appointment. Email smithlynnhawkinson@gmail.com.

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