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Jefferson County Historical Society in Madison tries to keep the story of a nearly forgotten jewelry designer alive

Gold sculpted mythical creature
Courtesy of the Jefferson County Historical Society

An exhibition in Southern Indiana is highlighting the life and art of a little-known jewelry designer from the area. 

Born in 1933, Bill Smith grew up in Madison, Ind. He created striking pieces often in gold and pearls. 

“His aesthetic has always been kind of in your face, big and bold,” said JoAnne Spiller, director of education at the Jefferson County Historical Society in Smith’s hometown. 

Spiller came across Smith’s work a few years ago when the museum received some donated pieces of his and a copy of an old Courier Journal article. She felt compelled to understand more about him. 

“Part of what we do here at the museum is preserving the county's history,” Spiller told WFPL News. “It's not just the places, it's not the buildings. It's also the people that we have in our community, and telling their story to the best of [our] ability.”

For more than two years, Spiller has been digging through archives, speaking with family and scouring the internet to find more of Smith’s jewelry. 

Her research led to the Jefferson County Historical Society exhibition, which is on display through the morning of Nov. 21

The show features photos of Smith, more of his biography, magazine clippings and a number of his pieces, including about two dozen that are signed. And it’s continued to evolve since opening as more people who knew or worked with Smith have come out of the woodwork, Spiller said.

Smith showed promise to become a great artist at a young age, and went on to study dance and art at Indiana University. He continued in New York City, but found few opportunities for Black dancers there. 

“So he took a job making jewelry and found out he had a real talent for it,” Spiller said. “He branched out on his own and started his own company.” 

Smith found success in New York fashion circles, both with his own studios and working for other companies. He designed for the stage and major fashion houses. Some celebrities were among his fans, including the model Naomi Sims, Spiller said. Smith’s work also caught the attention of the press. 

But Spiller was surprised to find so little documentation of his life, and learn that much of the fanfare around his jewelry had dissipated at the time of his death in 1989.

Spiller thinks racism and stigma contributed to why he’s not more known – Smith died from AIDs-related illness.

“And even though he was in New York, and even though there was no segregation anymore, he was still marginalized in his life and career,” Spiller said. “And there was a huge social stigma [around AIDS in the 80s]. He felt abandoned, apparently, in his final years.”

Spiller felt it was important to shed more light on Smith’s story “before it was 100% forgotten.”

“I don't want him to disappear,” she said. “I want his story to be known. I want him to be appreciated for being from Madison, Indiana and going out and doing wonderful things in the world.” 

As someone who has spent much of her career working with kids, she also thinks it’s particularly important for young people to know Smith’s story, as well as the stories of others from the area whose legacy might not be known.

“When I interact with students, and I talk to them about the history of where they live… to me, giving them examples of people who have been born and raised here, or even just visited here or lived here, that have gone on to do big, wonderful things, I'd like these students to have local role models. People from here they can look up to,” she said.

And Spiller has aspirations for the exhibition in Madison. She said the signed jewelry pieces will become a part of the historical society’s permanent collection, but she hopes to take the full show on tour after it closes this month.

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