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Jak Smyrl Collection comes to USC Libraries

May 14, 2013 12:19 PM

USC Libraries is now home to a collection of more than 5,000 images, plus correspondence, sketchbooks, and even early elementary-school artwork by The State newspaper’s first staff artist, Oscar Jackson “Jak” Smyrl (1923-2007).

In 1949, while he was still a student at the University of South Carolina, Smyrl was hired by The State newspaper to perform a variety of duties, including writing and illustrating articles. He was named staff artist in 1955, a position he held until he retired in 1986. He is perhaps best known for his satirical maps of various places in South Carolina, his design of the USC “Fighting Gamecock,” and cartoons dealing with the Carolina-Clemson rivalry. A dog with a broken tail was his trademark image.

“Jak was the first artist who worked with The State newspaper, and he met every deadline at The State for 37 years,” said Betty Smyrl, his wife. “At first, he did everything: he wrote articles, illustrated all the reporters’ articles, touched up photos for the photography department. When he became the staff artist, his focus was on illustrating articles about the people and events in his beloved home state. People of all walks of life loved his work and it appealed to so many people. I still have people approach me and tell me how much they miss Jak’s work.”

Smyrl truly was an artist of the people.

“For many South Carolinians, including the countless thousands who saw the vibrant creativity of his work on a near daily basis, Jak Smyrl truly was their state’s everyman artist,” said Henry Fulmer, Director of South Caroliniana Library, where the materials will reside. “The South Caroliniana Library is proud to celebrate through Jak’s collected papers, drawings, notes, sketches, and doodles the creative genius of the man and the legacy which lives on today, more than a quarter of a century after his retirement.”

The Smyrl Collection, purchased for USC by the South Caroliniana Society, is being processed now and will be available to students and scholars alike.

“Jak had done a good job of arranging his work; he had already laid a lot of the groundwork,” said USC Archivist Edward Blessing, who is processing the collection. “We are arranging it by subject. Many of the items are undated, and from a research standpoint it makes sense to arrange them by subject instead of chronologically. For example, one of the categories is maps, and his most famous is ‘A Caricature Map of South Carolina.’ He spent months working on it, and there is no white space left on the page. He filled a sheet of paper with this map. His other maps included Pawley’s Island and Hilton Head. The collection includes all the originals map sketches and all of his color separation work.

“Another category is music,” Blessing said. “Jak played the trumpet, and we have recordings and photos of him playing jazz. He designed and illustrated album covers for a jazz band, and we have those covers, too.

“There is also his correspondence. He kept so much of the correspondence he received, and his family members kept what he sent them. Being able to see both sides of his life is valuable to a researcher. I’ve come to know him through his items, and now I feel like I’m able to help carry out his vision and make the items available to future generations.”

Mrs. Smyrl is pleased that her husband’s life’s work is now at USC.

“I’m so glad I made the decision to let USC acquire the collection because I know it will also be preserved and taken care of,” she said. “This will be Jak’s legacy. He had such a zest for life and wanted to experience everything. He was a marine during World War II, he learned to fly a plane, he went scuba diving, he took a trip around the world. All of his adventures and thoughts and feelings went into his work. Now more people will see it.”

Several items from the collection are currently on display in the South Caroliniana Library’s Olin D. Johnston Room, with plans for a larger exhibit in the near future. A private celebratory event will take place Tuesday, May 14. The collection is expected to be open to the public by the end of May. In 2014, USC Press will publish a biography and coffee table book about Smyrl’s life and work.

Above, Smyrl's depiction of the Big Thursday showdown as it appeared on the cover of The State Magazine on October 15, 1950.