Stop 13 (Chapel and Recreation Area)

Chapel and Courtyard
Entrance pillars, ca. 1945

In 1937, Smith wrote that “We Must Believe that Beauty is Eternal.” These words introduce the reader to his book “Art and the Subconscious.” Released in the same year that plans for the Research Studio were in full swing, the book contains thirty-eight watercolors that provided a window into Smith’s visions and eclectic interests. Each painting is filled with an array of surrealist images, whose creative fantasies manifested themselves into the concrete décor and design of the Research Studio and are especially evident in the Chapel and Recreation area. 

This site began as a recreation space for the artists, with a badminton court, ping-pong table, and shuffleboard court. Smith started construction here in 1939, but quickly changed the original plan into something entirely different. The first ping-pong room and badminton court became the vestibule and nave for a Christian chapel. Smith built a second loggia for ping-pong next to a small studio at the rear, highly decorated with Mayan icons.

The complex is entirely surrounded by high walls, just like the Research Studio across the street, which served as a ready canvas for Mayan-inspired reliefs and sculptural works. But, whereas the Research Studio is covered in bright white stucco, this area is left bare, with the concrete blocks and mortar exposed and weathered. Smith easily blended cultural references from around the world into this structural work, incorporating Christian, Mayan, Pagan, Polynesian, and African motifs throughout, and sometimes on opposite sides of the same piece of concrete. The largest sculptural piece on the campus is on the western exterior side of this complex. A ten-foot-high Mayan warrior was created by stacking seven individual two-foot-square concrete panels, surrounded by a border of forty one-foot-square panels depicting faces and patterns.

If you step a few steps inside the gate, you will see an inscribed sculptural relief beneath two angels with hands in prayer to your right. The inscription reads: “I stood at the gate of life and said, ‘Give me a light that I may go safely into the unknown,’ and a voice replied ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That will be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.’” This excerpt is from a poem entitled “God Knows,” written in 1908 by Minnie Louise Haskins as part of a larger collection called “The Desert.” The text is also referred to as “The Gate of the Year,” and was a popular mid-twentieth century work, expressively read by King George VI to close his 1939 Christmas radio broadcast issued in the early months of World War II.

On your left side upon entering the gate, Smith created the open air Chapel to honor of his mother. Since 1941, many couples have chosen to be married in the spiritual setting. Can you identify some of the religious iconography depicted?

Chapel and Courtyard
Entry gate looking towards Gallery entrance, ca. 1945