Toni Smith transforms Fourth Street home into work of art

Published 10:50 pm Saturday, April 23, 2005

By By RANDI K. PICKLEY / Niles Daily Star
NILES - There is a house on North Fourth Street in Niles that might be called "all things purple" in the spring.
From the front porch with its distinctive purple swing to the front yard filled with purple iris, grape hyacinths, and purple crocus, the home is a combined artwork of nature and man … or in this case, woman.
The home, which is believed to have been built sometime before 1931, is now owned by artist, Toni Smith, who bought the home in 1985 and placed her own artwork throughout the home. Toni's mom, Laura Lawson, also lives in the house and adds her artistic talents to the mix as well.
Smith has changed the structure of the home very little while adding her personal touch to it. "This place has never been a rental. I'm the fifth owner and didn't replace anything," she said.
She expressed concern that the original kitchen sink would have to be resurfaced due to wear and tear, but she thinks she has found a company that can mimic the original surface without destroying the integrity of the antique fixture.
Aside from the structure itself, though, the transformation from the original decor of the home is amazing. Between stained glass windows, hand-made tiles on the floor, machine-stitched curtains and sofa covers which have all been made by the artist and her mom, the place comes alive with color and uniqueness.
Red seems to permeate both floors of the house. "I like red," Smith said. "I don't think you can ever have enough red."
Yet the decor is so well coordinated with the other artworks in the home, the red is never overpowering and each individual piece of art is allowed to attract the eye. Walking through the home is like visiting a private art museum.
The original woodwork, which had been painted white before Smith bought the house, has been repainted to look like bird's eye maple. And the walls in sections of the home now look as if they are made of exquisite marble.
Painted "prayer squares" adorn the walls of the dining room in bright colors, honoring the Indian tradition.
The prayer squares are visual pictures that represent thoughts. One of the largest on her wall refers to her daughter, Dani, and granddaughter, Rowan, whose names are written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, along with a rendition of her daughter's Volkswagen bug, a flower, and an image of her granddaughter.
A whimsical, hand-sculpted sphinx greets you on the front porch as you come up the steps. Smith made it from stoneware which was then high-fired. "I just wanted something fun for the front porch," she said. "The sphinx acts like a guard. You're supposed to know the secret password to get in."
As for the secret password, "It's a secret," she said with a grin.
From the dining room, you can see the kitchen's most dominant feature which is a huge silver tea pot that hangs above the kitchen table. Smith said, "The tea pot used to hang outside a Chinese restaurant. It's hard to find large items that make a statement like this." Actually, the teapot not only makes a statement, it acts as a giant lamp which sheds light on the table as well.
Next to the table is a colorfully painted wooden chair. Next to the chair is a refrigerator that is covered entirely in bottle caps. Not an inch of of refrigerator's surface shows except for the door handles.
The bottle caps were discards retrieved from the bar at Notre Dame. "The old frig was dark brown," Smith said. "When I it comes time to replace a bottle cap, it might come from Zeke's (in Dowagiac) this time."
What used to be a dark and dingy basement when Smith moved in has been transformed into a cheery, well lit work area for the stained glass and other projects that Smith and her mom create. The entire floor of the basement has been re-surfaced with a network of mosaic tiles in random shapes that somehow all seem to fit together. They give the area a clean, vibrant atmosphere. And if you look closely, you'll find two special tiles hidden in the maze of odd shaped tiles that look like caricatures of ethnic masks. The entire floor is a labor of love between mother and daughter who worked together to complete the massive project.
The second story of the home has a room for sewing, an interest which both mother and daughter share. The bedrooms have paintings on the walls, sculptures at every turn, and stained glass designs in the windows. Most were created by Smith, but a good share of the pieces are from friends and family members who are fellow artists.
And when you enter the upstairs bathroom, you encounter a large mosaic angel – red, of course – whose feathered wings spread across most of the wall. According to Smith, the angel is done in Byzantine style. She said, "I didn't want a shallow angel. I wanted one that was more somber, bigger than life. Her wings are peacock feathers."
There is a unique garden outside in the back yard which mixes fences and arbors with sculptures, flowers, and a topiary.
The topiary is about ten feet high and, when fleshed out with greenery, resembles Mickey Mouse. Smith said of the giant mouse which is still in its winter growth, however, "He looks a little anorexic right now."
Next to the house is a screened-in cottage and a garage.
According to Smith, it is rumored that the Dodge Brothers of automobile fame built their first prototype in that garage. "The story goes that they put a tarp over it, pushed it to the train station, and sent it to Detroit – at least, that is the story," she said. According to the history books, however, the Dodge boys probably grew up on Fifth Street, one street over, but who's to say.
When Smith first bought the property, there were no flowers planted. She really enjoys flowers. To her, "A garden is a sacred place." So she decided to paint, instead of plant, flowers that first year. They still bloom on the doors of the garage. Since then, though, her "green thumb" has taken over and the landscape abounds with all kinds of colorful plants.
By trade, Smith creates stained glass windows for churches, chapels, retirement homes, and wherever else the craft takes her. She said, "I do mostly church windows and sacred artwork, though."
Originally from Indiana, Smith said, "I was born in Ft. Wayne, grew up in California, and graduated from White Pigeon High School." Her sister, Gina Lawson-Egan, still lives in California, and like Smith, is an artist holding a masters degree in Fine Arts with a specialty in ceramic sculpture.
Smith's mother, Laura, grew up Amish, married a Catholic, and worked as a waitress and seamstress after her husband died in order to support the family. She obviously enjoys both the home and the time she shares with her daughter.
Smith has a strong sense of community. "I used to volunteer at the Center for the Homeless in South Bend, Indiana," she said. "It was an after-school program that was a safe place for former drug addicts." She currently volunteers her time to help organize art projects for the Niles community, such as the "Painted Garden" Art Auction which is coming up on May 1 at the Riverfront Cafe, and to help decorate the city at Christmas time.
On the subject of volunteering, Smith said, "I think it starts at home. I try to give more than I take. If I have more than I need, I give it to someone who needs it more than I do," she said.
And according to Smith, the words she tries to live by are, "It's better to pitch in than complain."