Arts & Culture

Marianna Smith on art and belonging

Marianna Smith on art and belonging

The Syracuse MFA student illustrates stories of culture and childhood nostalgia in her artwork. 

Marianna Smith in her art studio in the Shaffer Art Building with the book she illustrated titled Percy the Pesky Squirrel
Julia Carden
Marianna Smith in her art studio in the Shaffer Art Building with the book she illustrated titled Percy the Pesky Squirrel, published in January.

It had been a challenging week for Marianna Smith. Only a few weeks into a new semester, she was struggling to acclimate to taking a heavy course load while also teaching art classes part-time.

After coming home from a long day, she saw that a package arrived for her – a neatly wrapped copy of the book she illustrated, Percy The Pesky Squirrel. Author Marguerite Nicholls self-published the children’s book on Jan. 15. Still, the delivery came as a surprise. In the right-hand corner of the glossy cover, a cursive font reads “Illustrated by Marianna Smith.”

Smith leafed through the 16 pages, reliving the moments she spent meticulously crafting each illustration over eight months. The book stood not only as a motivational tale for children but as a tangible testament to her art career. 

Smith, 26, is a Brazilian-American artist, researcher and teacher. Her artwork is influenced by her cultural heritage and childhood memories. Through her work, she aims to support a sense of belonging in children. Percy The Pesky Squirrel is the second published book Smith has illustrated. In 2021, she illustrated her first book, a middle-grade novel titled The Adventures of Mole Boy self-published by J. J. Guzman

During her undergraduate studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, Smith built a foundation in commercial arts, including book illustration, story-boarding and animation. She graduated in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Balancing self-doubt and anxieties about becoming a “starving artist,” she used the years after her graduation to hone her skills, freelance and build her professional portfolio. Although the time after she graduated was challenging, the period was instrumental in learning how to establish herself as a professional artist and business owner, skills she now passes onto undergraduate art students. 

Beginning in 2021, Smith started several roles teaching art. She led art workshops and mural projects at summer camps for children at the Fredericksburg Academy. For two years, she worked as a high school art teacher. Last summer, she began teaching children’s book illustration at her Alma mater, a role she has continued asynchronously. 

Smith quickly realized she enjoyed teaching art just as much as she enjoyed creating art. Still, she felt like something was missing from her portfolio. After being denied teaching gigs and contracts, she decided to pursue a master’s degree.

She was accepted to several programs but chose Syracuse University because of the course offerings and research opportunities at the College of Visual and Performing Arts. She submitted the final illustration for Percy The Pesky Squirrel the day before she started classes. 

An illustration by Marianna Smith from the children's book, Percy the Pesky Squirrel
Marianna Smith
An illustration by Marianna Smith from her book “Percy the Pesky Squirrel” published in January.

Sally Vitsky, her former professor, says Smith’s commitment to her craft sets her apart. Vistky worked closely with Smith in the department of communication arts at VCU. “Many students put their drawing pencils down after graduating. Marianna has kept that pencil going,” Vitsky said. 

Out of all of her artwork, Smith is especially fond of  “When Gabriel Was Born.” The series of illustrations is based on the birth of her brother and her identity as an older sister. In one scene, two children are running through their front yard, splashing in rain puddles. In another, titled “Living With Mistakes,” a young girl stands in a puddle of water in the doorway of her home, being scolded by her mother.

Looking back on early sketches, Smith notes how many versions her artwork goes through. She adjusts shapes and colors repeatedly until her vision becomes clear.

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While Smith’s memories influence her work, she is moving beyond personal narrative to highlight the experiences of others. Her master’s thesis research and artwork aim to support a sense of belonging in children with a focus on multicultural audiences.

“The research is rooted in my desire to help support kids who are struggling or who feel like they don’t belong,” Smith said. She drew further inspiration for “When Gabriel Was Born” from poetry by Naomi Shihab Nye, whose children’s writing draws on her multicultural experience as a Palestinian-American, moving across several states as a child. 

It’s a feeling Smith is familiar with. After moving from North Carolina to Virginia, she struggled to form friendships and connect with other children.

“At the time, I wasn’t even aware that living in a multicultural household impacted me in subtle ways. I felt this longing to have friends that could relate to me,” Smith said. “It affected me growing up so deeply, that’s why I want to tell the stories I’m telling now.”

While the master’s program doesn’t require student research until the second year of the program, Smith has already begun. She has taken advantage of the art department’s elective flexibility by enrolling in science and cultural studies classes tailored to her research topic. 

In her research, Smith found that belonging is crucial in development, affecting children’s physical health, academic performance and overall well-being.

Smith’s research-driven approach seeks to empower children through artwork that represents marginalized experiences. To achieve this, she plans to interview others and prioritize cultural awareness in her artwork. Her illustrations feature diverse characters that represent the populations she hopes her artwork will reach and inspire. 

Illustration by Marianna Smith
Marianna Smith

Smith noted a recent shift in her artistic style and narrative themes. Since beginning the master’s program, she has started to experiment with saturated color and shape, a change from her use of naturalistic colors in Percy The Pesky Squirrel.

Previously, she worked in watercolor. Now, she’s broadening her mixed media skills by incorporating collage and digital media into her illustrations. 

“This medium approach works a lot better with the message I’m trying to tell, with increased diversity and acceptance of children no matter what their background is,” she said. She described her recent experimentation with different art forms as “freeing.” 

Ben Childers, the treasurer for the Brush Strokes Gallery in Fredericksburg, where Smith worked from 2020 to 2023, owns several pieces of her artwork.

“My wife and I hung them proudly in my home,” he said. “When we were planning on moving and gave our granddaughter free rein to take whatever paintings in our house she wanted, she chose all five pieces by Marianna. She has good taste.”

Childers highlighted his personal favorite, “Up, Up, and Away,” which depicts a young girl releasing a balloon. The illustration stuck out to him for the simple design and use of color. He further praised Smith’s ability to convey a clear story in her artwork – a skill he says some artists lack. 

Smith’s artwork serves as a reminder of the human need for connection and belonging. She hopes audiences who view her artwork will walk away with a greater sense of cultural sensitivity and empathy.

Set to graduate from SU in 2026, Smith plans to continue illustrating children’s books and teaching art.

“I couldn’t imagine a life where I didn’t have an art career,” Smith said. “I have this drive, and this deep passion to make art that I feel compelled to use to help people in some way.”

Marianna Smith's mini sketchbook
Julia Carden
Artist Marianna Smith’s miniature sketchbook she carries on her person throughout the day, documenting strangers and scenes.