Carl Smith’s world fell apart on April 3, 2013, and he knew nothing would ever be the same. It was on that day that Smith’s wife of 59 years, Sylvia, passed away.
“It would be very hard to find two people who loved one another more or were closer in everything they did,” said Karen Gifford, one of Smith’s six children. “In all their years together, they didn’t spend more than a few nights apart.
“After my mother passed, Dad went into a deep depression, and we were really worried about him. My sister and I thought it best for him to go back to things he used to love long ago; something to keep his mind occupied. I know he used to like art, but he seemed always too busy to get involved with that. But we knew he couldn’t stay in that deep depression he was in.”
Just when it seemed the bottom had completely fallen out of Carl Smith’s life, the tall, 85-year-old former laborer picked up a piece of wood and a carving tool and brought the two together into a quicksilver learning experience. In a flash, Carl Smith’s wood chiseling and sanding turned into a mania of sorts.
“Before I knew it, I was carving signs for LSU, Tulane, Mount Carmel High School, Chapelle High School, the names and faces of each of the seven dwarfs … and Snow White, of course,” Smith said. “Nothing was off limits. If I thought about it or I overheard something somebody said, it would become a project. Somebody would ask me, ‘Carl, can you …?’ Before they finished asking I was saying ‘Sure’ and within a few hours I’d hand them a beautiful sign … all polyurethaned, polished, colored … The eyes of the person who asked would pop out. They couldn’t believe I could make that sign that quickly.”
“Since my mom died, he’s done about 500 pieces,” Karen Gifford said. “They’re all over the house. There’s not a room you can go into that doesn’t have some of his work. It seems he’s at his carving constantly.”
“It’s my wife,” Smith said. “I think of her all the time. She’s my inspiration. Sometimes I’ll be working on a piece of wood and I’ll get stuck on a pattern or I’ll get held up for a moment — should I cut this way or that way — and I think of Sylvia, and it turns out just as I had pictured it in my mind before I began.”
One of the pictures Smith held in his mind was that of growing up near City Park and of his fascination with the movies at the long gone Imperial Theater on Hagan Avenue.
“We never had a lot of money,” Smith said. “We really couldn’t afford my going to the movies. Well, the Brunet family owned the theater, and they’d let me in for free. No charge. I never forgot that.”
With that 75-year-old memory in mind, Smith fashioned a colorful wooden memento commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Prytania Theater, the only single-screen movie theater left in Louisiana and owned by none other than 94-year-old Rene Brunet.
Learning that Brunet still offers (and attends) black and white “classic” movies on Sunday and Wednesday mornings, Smith, with wooden commemorative plaque in hand, dropped in on his long-ago benefactor and made the presentation to him right there next to the concession stand.
Brunet, in a wheelchair and tethered by an oxygen line, appreciated the present, but wasn’t quite sure who the presenter was.
“I brought it to him as a birthday gift,” Smith said. “I told him who I was, and that I knew his mother and father, and his brother, Malcolm, and sister, Mercedes. I told him I remembered the projectionist at the Imperial. His name was Lawrence. And the floor walker was Oliver. He said, ‘How do you remember all of that?’”
The room went silent, and Smith pushed his hulking frame down a long hallway in his home, past walls covered with photos of his beloved Sylvia. The walls were dotted here and there with photos of other family members, including Alec Gifford, the late New Orleans television news anchor who was the father of Smith’s son-in-law, Russell.
He walked past mountains of carvings, with faces and clever sayings and school names.
“I’m never without inspiration,” Smith said. “My wife is my inspiration. She’s with me all the time. I never stop thinking of her. Those thoughts of her and this work. They’re what keep me going.”
“They were so very close,” Karen Gifford said. “Their song was ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’”
Smith looked up at his daughter and smiled, and it was clear there was a piece of wood somewhere with the lyrics to that song about to appear on it.