For Banana Factory Arts Center resident artist Stephanie Smith, Bethlehem ties run deep. Both sides of Smith’s family are from South Bethlehem, and steel workers dot her family tree. Arriving in the US in 1890, her paternal great grandfather was one of the South Bethlehem’s earliest Slovak immigrants and worked at Bethlehem Steel. He also helped establish the Saints Cyril and Methodius Roman Catholic Church, which was recently absorbed into the Incarnation of Our Lord with four other churches. Unfortunately, he was killed at the No. 1 open hearth plant at Bethlehem Steel in 1930; he’s now memorialized in the statue located on the south end of Fahy bridge.
Smith’s great aunt Evelyn worked at Theresa’s Restaurant, which is now Leon’s, on the corner of Fillmore and East Fifth. According to Ken Raniere, this restaurant was a cornerstone of the community, serving “Bethlehem Steel blue-collar workers to white shirt-and-tie office staffers.”
Smith was born in South Bethlehem as well, but her family moved to West Bethlehem when she was just one year old. After the move, her parents frequently shuttled her across the river to see their family that still resided on the south side. She explained, “I distinctly remember being a young girl sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car being driven back-and-forth across the Fahy bridge to visit relatives.” She recalled that she “had a big family, but didn’t know anyone outside a small group.” As an only child, she connected deeply with creative activities on her own terms. She relayed a moving memory of entering a craft store on West Broad as a 10 or 11-year-old. The owner of the store would “let [her] just fiddle with stuff. Kids need to be around people like that,” Smith said. Creativity always factored into her life; Smith has worked with jewelry as well as facilitated drumming circles.
These creative impulses eventually led to her discovery of the mandala. The term mandala loosely translates to “circle” from Sanskrit, and it is a sacred tool and form of art that begins in the center and works outwards in balanced patterns. It symbolizes wholeness and the cyclical nature of existence, the meeting of both beginning and end. It’s a contemplative process for the creator as he or she navigates a relationship with the infinite. Smith explained, “I believe to this day that [the mandalas] came out of the drumming because of the repetitive, circular nature of the rhythms.” But she didn’t know this right away and she didn’t consider herself an artist then. The mandalas simply “felt like a ritual of creation for [her].” This process was a concentrated effort, and she was the sole authority that decided when the mandala was finished. Mandalas developed into a meditative practice for Smith, where she was able to explore new ideas, colors, and patterns alongside herself.
The Fahy bridge and the Bethlehem Steel Workers’ Memorial both sit close to Smith’s studio window at the Banana Factory Arts Center. She’s been at the Banana Factory for nearly six years, and this space has been an integral part of Smith’s journey. For Smith, the Banana Factory provides “a resource of people who think differently” and encourages artists to connect through their learning, which also influences how they inhabit the world. “This place became my art school because I didn’t get to go to art school,” Smith explained. By the same token, Smith “learned so much by showing people what [she does] and interacting.” The environment is an opportunity to be around like-minded people, which is, as Smith noted, very reassuring for someone who grew up creating art on her own. She contributes to this feeling of community by always keeping her studio door open, an invitation for all passersby to visit.
After moving into her studio (#250) in November 2011, she started “immers[ing] herself in the [culture of] the south side,” exploring the neighborhood by foot. Though Smith was always interested in her family’s history, she began spending more time discovering more of her South Bethlehem roots. She explained, “When you can understand where you came from, that can be helpful” with discovering who you are and situating that alongside who you want to become. The Banana Factory Arts Center has held a pivotal role in Smith’s journey. She recalled, “It was deeply moving to me when I had the opportunity to exhibit my art in the loft at the ArtsQuest Center [Alvin H. Butz Gallery] because it faced the blast furnaces [at Bethlehem Steel]—sort of a personal tribute.” This particular moment brought together Smith’s south side roots with her art perfectly. Smith also indicated that had she not applied for a studio there, then she likely would not have accomplished all of the things she’s so proud of, such as teaching workshops and lectures and her recent TEDxLehighRiver talk. Smith explained, “All of the crazy things I’ve done in my life have built to this moment [in her life].”
Smith has found that so much in life is about permission, especially when it comes to art. She meets herself with consistent honesty, knowing that doubts will creep in and potentially hinder or entirely halt the artistic process. “If I can’t get there [with reducing self-doubt], then I can help someone else get there. I’m never going to teach people to paint, etc., but I’m going to give them permission to be creative. If I can offer anyone something that will help them get there sooner, that means something to me.” Smith explained that she simply offers people what they need in the moment; it’s important to meet them where they are rather than cater to your own needs. It’s compassion.
There’s something to be said for approaching art on your own terms; Smith called it “art without compromise.” The discovery of self is an ongoing process, and for Smith, art is a spiritual practice that serves this end. South Bethlehem, the Banana Factory Arts Center, and all of the people she’s met also factor into her journey in significant ways. “I want to make connections with people. I want people to be impacted,” Smith stressed, and wearing an OM pendant around her neck she carries this sentiment close to her heart and displays it to the world: “We are all connected.”