Owen Smith, a University of Maine art professor who spearheaded the creation of UMaine’s Innovative Media Research and Commercialization Center and its Intermedia Master of Fine Arts program, died on Oct. 14 due to complications from a brain tumor. He was 63.
Over the course of a 30-year career with UMaine, Smith brought an innovative, unconventional, multidisciplinary approach to the creative process to the classroom and studio, changing the lives of countless young artists and creative people at UMaine.
A native of Seattle who received his Ph.D. in art history at the University of Washington, Smith was an internationally respected scholar of Fluxus, an experimental international art movement in the 1960s and ‘70s that emphasized performance art and the artistic process over the finished product and came as a reaction to what Fluxus adherents viewed as the art world’s elitism. Some of its best-known figures include Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys. In 1998, Smith authored a seminal text on the movement, “Fluxus: The History of An Attitude,” and continued to create art in the Fluxus tradition throughout his career.
The interdisciplinary nature of Fluxus was one of the things that led to Smith spearheading the launch of an experimental interdisciplinary program at UMaine in 2003. Six years later, the intermedia program began granting degrees. In addition to a master of fine arts degree, the program now also offers a master of arts degree, an interdisciplinary Ph.D., and a graduate certificate in arts and humanities in medicine, supported by a fellowship program by Northern Light Health.
In 2013, the Innovative Media Research and Commercialization Center, or IMRC, opened in Stewart Commons, offering faculty, students and community members access to audio and video production facilities, 3D printing and laser technology, and a state-of-the-art multimedia performance space. Smith was the director of the center until September 2020.
Students and colleagues remembered Smith as an inspiring and generous mentor, who went out of his way to encourage them to think deeply and differently about their artistic process, and who brought warmth, good humor and a devoted work ethic to everything he did.
“He always figured out a way to make things happen. He never gave up or took the easy way out. He had so many obstacles in creating the IMRC, but he pursued it through thick and thin,” said Susan Smith, who became director of the IMRC in 2020 and is unrelated to Owen Smith. “He really was a visionary. I can’t imagine continuing without him, but he started the movement, and we’ll keep it rolling.”
Laurie Hicks, professor emerita of art at UMaine, hired Smith in 1991. She said one of the big reasons she and her colleagues wanted him to come to Orono was not just the academic and artistic rigor he brought, but his passion for being an educator. Among his many awards, Smith received UMaine’s Presidential Outstanding Teaching Award in 2000 and the Presidential Research and Creative Achievement Award in 2009.
“If you asked Owen what he did, he said he was a teacher,” Hicks said. “He was so much more than that, but that’s always what he said. He just had that intellect and creativity, coupled with a big heart, and a true dedication to the people around him.”
Smith, who was a longtime Bangor resident, is survived by his wife, Krista, daughter, Mary, and three grandchildren. Current and former members of the UMaine Intermedia community will hold a Fluxus-inspired event in memory of Smith at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 23, in front of the IMRC Center.