Gary Smalls, artist, architect, filmmaker and theater designer, dies at 72

Gary Smalls, 72, an artist, architect, community worker and film producer, died of pancreatic cancer on Tuesday (January 4) at his home in Philadelphia.

Mr Smalls was diagnosed with cancer last July, said his sister, Richardean Smalls, about a year after he began seeing doctors repeatedly in search of answers to his pain.

Despite the pain, Mr. Smalls worked last fall to complete work for a November exhibit at the Philadelphia Cathedral Episcopal Church in West Philadelphia.

Described as a humble and dedicated friend, Mr. Smalls was also “a great connector”, said local filmmaker Nadine Patterson, as he helped creators come together “across different art forms and regions”.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Mr. Smalls worked on numerous film projects at the Scribe Video Center and co-produced documentaries for his community history project Precious Places. He has also produced a film about famous black architect Julian Abele, which will be screened on Mr Small’s next birthday, April 27, said Louis Massiah, executive director and founder of Scribe.

“He was central to the cultural community of Philadelphia, whether in film, music and fine art,” Massiah said. “He was very involved and had a passion for design and fashion.”

Friends and relatives have described him as someone who helps easily.

As well as sitting all night with his now deceased mother when she was hospitalized a few years ago, Mr Smalls also helped look after the elderly parents and young children of several friends.

“He was just a carer,” his sister said. “If he saw the need, he would step in and help.”

Ursula Rucker, the poet and spoken word artist, said she was among those who called Mr Smalls their “Earth Angel”.

“He was my guide, my friend, my advocate,” Rucker said. “I have four sons, and at different intervals when I was going on tour, or going with their dad, and no one else could do it, he would come and help me. He took care of my sons.

It was with Rucker that Mr Smalls met poet Sonia Sanchez when they traveled together to a Pennsylvania State University speaking engagement. Rucker’s youngest son was a baby and Mr. Smalls was helping to care for him. Later, Rucker said that Sanchez remembered Mr. Smalls as “such a nice brother

A long-time resident of the Powelton neighborhood, Mr. Smalls has been active in the West Powelton/Saunders Park registered community organization and previously worked for the Mantua Community Planners.

For 15 years, he volunteered to design and create costumes for the nativity scene at the Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Philadelphia’s Annual Children’s Christmas Party for Non-Violence Inc.

He also volunteered with the security detail for the annual awards and charity luncheon held during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday each January. And in 2018, the association presented Mr. Smalls with the C. Delores Tucker Volunteer Award.

Gary Smalls was born on April 27, 1949 in Charleston, South Carolina to Oscar Lewis Smalls and Lizzie Mae Sumpter Smalls. He was the eldest of a family of six brothers and one sister.

At age 4, he moved to Philadelphia with his parents and grew up at Strawberry Mansion. A graduate of Overbrook High in 1966, Mr. Smalls earned a degree in architecture from Penn State in 1972.

He studied at the University of Pennsylvania with architect Louis Kahn for a year and received a master’s degree in art design, planning and theater from the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts) in 1975.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Smalls was co-founder of Solar/Evolution and helped design one of the first solar townhouses in Philadelphia.

His true love was creating art. After starting filmmaking at Scribe Video in the early 80s, he also worked as a set designer at the Painted Bride Art Center in the 90s.

By 1975, Mr. Smalls had become a Buddhist and leader of Soka Gakkai International USA, a movement for the practice of Nichiren Buddhism. He received a Distinguished Pioneer of American World Peace Award.

In addition to his sister and father, Mr. Smalls is survived by five brothers, Oswald, Jonathan, Isaac and Ronald Smalls and Kennard Bruton; six nephews; two nieces; and other relatives and friends.

There will be a public visitation from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and a family visitation from 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., followed by a celebration of life service at 11 a.m., Saturday, January 29, at Wood Funeral Home, 5537- 39 W. Girard Ave. , Philadelphia. The burial is private.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to: Scribe Video Center, PO Box 13267, Philadelphia, PA 19101, for the Gary Smalls Fund to Support Youth Media; The Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence at, or Soka University of America, Linda Kennedy, Director of Philanthropy, 1 University Dr., Aliso Viejo, CA 92656.

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