York artist battles multiple sclerosis to follow his dream
Every day at 6:30 p.m., Bradley "Smitty" Smith follows the same routine.
He wheels himself to the coffee table, picks up his sketchpad and pencil, turns on some smooth jazz music and draws.
Sometimes he sketches little statues and knick knacks that he finds around his small York City apartment. Other times, he draws self-portraits.
Smith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in September of 2006. And by late 2007 or early 2008, he was wheelchair bound, meaning life as he knew it would never be the same.
The symptoms of MS are different for everyone, Smith said. But for him, it means pain, numbness and tingling in his limbs; intolerance to heat, light and loud noises; vertigo; cognitive problems; depression; and double vision.
These symptoms, especially double vision, are not ideal for someone who wants to be an artist. But after signing up for three art classes at Harrisburg Area Community College this fall, Smith is now determined to make sure his disease won't hold him back from his dream.
Smith's drawing days date all the way back to when he was a preschooler at Lincoln Charter School in York. He still remembers the day his finger painting of a purple school bus was featured in the school's pamphlet, "Spotlight," he said.
By the time he was a senior at William Penn High School, he was still drawing constantly. Mostly pictures of superheroes, he said.
"All my stuff had muscles on it," he added, laughing.
Smith still has an old newspaper photo of himself painting Halloween window murals in downtown York storefronts in the early 1980s. And in 1983, he sketched the artwork used in William Penn High's Class of '83 yearbook. His drawing of the William Penn bearcat was still being used by the school as recently as 2008.
"When I graduated, my whole dream was to be an artist," Smith said.
But for personal reasons, he missed the opportunity to pursue his craft at his dream school in Philadelphia, and his goal of doing art full-time slowly faded away.
Instead, he served for nine years in the Army, six as a welder and three as military police.
Once, while in the Army, he drew posters that helped his company raise the most money for a famine relief program in Africa, and he got to personally hand a check to the Red Cross representatives there.
But after that, family life and work took over, and art became a forgotten pastime. Until now.
"I thought I lost my touch, and now here I am 50 years old, and I decided to go back to school for it," he said.
Smith started thinking about taking art classes about a year ago to combat his depression caused by MS, but said he always put it out of his mind because he couldn't pay for it. When he became eligible for disability benefits, his financial situation changed.
Smith is now taking Drawing I, Fundamentals of Two-Dimensional Drawing and College Success, with the goal of obtaining an associate degree in art.
Flipping through his sketchbook on a recent Wednesday, Smith realized how much progress he's made in just half a semester. But he said it hasn't been easy.
He has already had to take a zero on a project because it aggravated his double vision too much. But that hasn't stopped him.
"I'm determined because I like to draw," he said. "I pick one (of the images I see) and go with it."
Finding a place to do his artwork has also been a challenge. Because hunching over a coffee table in his wheelchair is too painful, Smith sometimes has to come up with inventive ways to complete his larger projects. Once, he made himself an easel by propping a table on top of a chair, he said.
"I was nervous thinking I might not be able to endure (the classes and homework) because my condition isn't going to get better," he said. "It's only going to get worse. It's a challenge for me, and I kind of like that aspect of it."
After he completes his associate degree, Smith said he hopes to continue his education and one day own his own portrait drawing business.
"When I see other people who have disabilities going above and beyond, when I see people who have disabilities doing things, that inspires me," he said.
"Even though I have MS and it's very debilitating, I don't want it to beat me," he added. "I want to maintain my independence as much as possible."