Beneath the grime on the 8-by-10-foot canvas, artist Helen Smith, 91, could barely make out the portrait that she had painted 61 years earlier of a broad-shouldered woman with flowing robes and laurel-wreathed hair.
The huge painting, symbolizing "Justice," had been found in the attic of Frederick's Civil War-era courthouse. It was a mess of scrapes and blemishes, "and, boy, was it thick with dirt," Smith said. "The city asked me if I knew of anyone who could restore it, and I thought, 'Well, if it's the last thing I do, I'm going to do it myself.' "
Then a college art instructor, Smith was commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution to paint the picture in 1924.
She used various models for a composite portrait and did most of the work in her living room. She hauled the finished painting to the courthouse in a horse-drawn wagon.
For 29 years, "Justice" was displayed prominently in the main courtroom. It was taken down in 1953 during a remodeling project and stashed in the attic. There the painting stayed, gathering dust, until Frederick city officials discovered it this year.
The city bought the courthouse from Frederick County last year and is renovating it for use as the city hall.
Officials want to hang Smith's painting in the building's main stairwell, said Carolyn Greiner, executive assistant to Frederick Mayor Ronald Young.
"We're taking great pains to preserve certain historical aspects of the building," she said. "The painting is just one of the special touches we hope to keep."
Restoring the painting took just over a month. Smith began by cleaning the canvas with a brush and a vacuum cleaner.
She stripped its protective coat of varnish and mixed and matched oil colors to bring the faded brush strokes back to life. "I can't kneel because of my arthritis, so I had to bend down from the waist or just sit down on it to work," she said. "That was a major concern, but I was determined."
The painting has been rolled up again and stored until the courthouse renovation is finished. The project is expected to take 10 months, Greiner said.
Smith, a Frederick native, grew up on a farm not far from the historic Braddock Heights house where she has lived for 45 years.
Next to the house, once owned by Revolutionary War patriot Barbara Fritchie, is a huge flower garden that she tends faithfully each summer.
The house is filled with a lifetime's art work, from intricately detailed china that she has decorated to hand-painted furniture, lampshades and delicate hand-cut silhouettes, which were the rage in the 1920s.
Smith opens a scrapbook of silhouettes and can still recall the names of the fashionably rich lawyers, businessmen and politicians who had them made a lifetime ago. Most of the subjects are dead and long forgotten, she said.
On one yellowed page is the outline of a child. It is Charles McC. Mathias, who is Maryland's senior U.S. senator. "Back then everyone called him "Mackey," she said.
Smith studied at the Maryland Institute for Art in Baltimore for four years and returned to Frederick in 1917 to teach at Hood College.
In 1925, a year after completing the courthouse painting, she stopped teaching and opened her own art shop on Market Street in downtown Frederick. It closed in 1940.
"We struck on a lucky thing, painting little china broaches," she recalled. "The Hood girls, and then, all of Frederick, loved those paintings. Every other week we made 100."
Smith also specialized in oil portraits. Her paintings hang at the universities of Virginia and Maryland, and at other institutions.
A sprightly woman with blue eyes and a quick smile, she works almost daily in her studio, a converted summer kitchen. At her age, she said, it is important to fill life with variety.
Smith rotates her time between painting intricate coats-of-arms and watercolors of local landmarks and landscapes. She often paints flowers from her garden and occasionally will restore an oil painting.
Most of her work is still done on commission, she said, showing off a recently finished painting of canvas backed ducks.
Although she still drives a car, gone are the leisurely rides in the country she enjoyed in her youth. "Now you go from here to there and hope you can park," she said.
"It seems to me people are in too much of a hurry today. They don't take time to appreciate things; they don't stop to smell the roses." CAPTION: Picture, Frederick artist Helen Smith touches up her 61-year-old painting 'Justice.' Copyright (c) By Harriet Wise