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DisArt

DisArt mourns the loss and celebrates the legacy of our cofounder, Christopher Smit, (48), who passed away on January 4, 2022. Our friend and colleague spent his life, and his career, crossing the intersections of art, culture, and disability. Previously an associate professor of communication arts and science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Smit co-founded DisArt with co-director Jill Vyn in 2014.

Born with spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy, Smit’s experience as a disabled person informed his world view and his chosen career. “As a person living with a body that didn’t quite fit into the cultural categories of normality, I have always had a keen interest in the way that difference is experienced and communicated,” Smit once said. He felt art was a natural vehicle for discussions about being different, and that embracing what others have been conditioned to reject offered him and others “a rich terrain to investigate, critique, and celebrate the experience of … disability.”

With DisArt, Chris and Jill sought to share and expand this celebration. To provide others with a safe, shared space to challenge their own ideas and experiences. And to connect with others who are excited and inclined to do the same.

Chris’ life was all about investigating, critiquing and celebrating connections that foster positive changes in people, and by extension, in society. In death, as in life, he led by example. Since entering hospice last Fall, Chris approached his passing in similar ways. Rather than retreat, or isolate, he made reconnecting with friends and family a priority. In his final weeks of life, Chris was surrounded by those he loved, and those who loved him.

Chris looking off into the distance on a partly cloudy day
Image Description: Chris sits in his chair, staring contemplatively into the distance with a peaceful expression.  Sunlight reflects on his glasses, and he is wearing a green knitted scarf and green fedora. Behind him is a vibrant green hedge, and stretched above him is a deep blue sky dotted with clouds. 

We invite friends, colleagues, and loved ones to commune, connect and share their memories of Chris, his life, and his legacy, by adding their own “Letters To Chris”.

Stories shared here will be public. If you would prefer for your message to stay private, please mail it to P.O. Box 3467 Grand Rapids, MI 49501, or email Jill@DisArtNow.org.


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Erin OConnor Chris was first my professor, then my mentor, and finally my friend. In my first class at my new college way back in 2002, there he was first thing in the morning cracking jokes and leading us with his voice. Now, I cannot think of the word hospitality without thinking of him and Lisa. The acceptance, love, and humor I received from them in the midst of my anxiety, immaturity, and clumsiness is something I never knew could happen in a friendship. On the day of my wedding, Chris left a voice message for Daniel that we had saved and listened to so many times it still rings in my head 17 years later. In his silliest voice, he sang/yelled "GAAAAAAAAAHHHHH It's the wedding day!!!!" So dumb. So perfect. The things this man did for me - gave me shelter, wrote letters of recommendation for grad schools, talked me through my first semester's anxieties in my PhD program, so many bummed cigarrettes and so many albums, shows, movies, songs. What a life, man. All my love goes on.
Leroy Moore Keep Rocking!
Tony Josephson Chris was a friend of mine, and the world is a bit dimmer without his presence, but my life is much brighter for it.
Dudley Andrew I must say Chris Smit intimidated me at first. I was wary of that rolling chair that could become a tank if he wanted to plunge forward; and he looked at you straight in the eye but from the unusual low angle that somehow gave him the upper hand. And then there was the voice we’ve all heard, and the often saucy, irreverent phrases he didn’t hesitate to spew when he had an opinion about something….which was quite often. I had to respect him and I tried to learn from him. There was much to learn and I’m afraid I’m a bad student. Popular culture, especially the music he cared about, went by me. But we came together on many films where I could look back at him knowing we had both looked out onto the same screen and been affected. Those were wonderful moments of syncrhony. I was ready for them because I could see he shared them constantly with Lisa. She didn’t try to soften him or translate for me; she was just there near him in their life together and it seemed a life everyone should envy. He didn’t need to ask for special treatment and his accomplishments after Iowa should surprise no one. Chris Smit really knew how to live.
Lindsey Stinton I met Chris, Moses, and Lisa at Church of the Servant many years ago, back when Moses used to ride around on the back of Chris\' chair. In 2017, I began babysitting Moses and being around their house during the summers many hours a week. I met the cycled through caregivers and got very good at playing Minecraft, but I also got very close with the whole family, so much so that they became somewhat part of my own. Lisa and Chris have always been there for me whether that be their support of my studies or just listening to what\'s been happening in my life. Having the opportunity to get to know Chris was such a blessing. As someone who has always been interested in disability rights and is studying speech pathology in hopes of working with people with disabilities, learning from him was such a gift. I even was able to write a biographical paper on his life for a project in highschool. The following is a message that I sent Lisa after learning of his passing that she asked me to share here:

Lisa, just seeing Jill\'s touching fb post and the tears are falling. I can\'t imagine what a difficult day it was for you, Moses, and loved ones. Chris was such an incredible guy. I will always remember his wit, his incredible legacy and lighting my first ever cigarettes for him. I will cherish that paper I wrote on him and continue to talk about his incredible success to people throughout my life. Not only this but your incredible love story is such an inspiration to me. Seeing you care for him but him reciprocally caring for you was a reminder to me of how beautiful love is. Sending you the biggest hugs and all my love as you journey through the next tough couple days and weeks and will continue to keep you in my thoughts and prayers. Chris will forever be here through the incredible mark he has left on this earth but I\'m sure heaven has graciously taken his incredible soul. Love you all!!!

You will be missed, but certainly not forgotten Chris.
Tom Clinton I met Chris when SiTE:LAB began collaborating with DisArt. Like many people, since his passing, I have found myself thinking about how incredibly effective he was as an advocate, and what an outsized impact he has had on our community.

What strikes me most is that he had an incredible understanding of how to build allies. I have to admit that in the early days of our work together, I somewhat dreaded having Chris come to SiTE:LAB’s projects. Because we were doing temporary events in abandoned structures, with a limited budget, accessibility was always a big issue, and one where we frequently fell short. I always feared that Chris would observe out shortfalls, and be critical or disappointed. But that was never (or rarely) the case. Chris focused on the ways in which we had succeeded, and strategies for how we could do better next time. And so like so many other people, I grew to love working with him. He didn’t demand perfection. Instead, he embraced progress, and helped make it happen. And in the process, he caused everyone he worked with to become an advocate for that progress. There are few arts organizations in town that he has not influenced.

Farewell Chris. I hope you can consider me one of your success stories.
Judy Heumann I had the honor and privilege to meet Chris and his family while I was working at the State Department. Chris was a soft spoken, powerful man with a vision for how the arts can influence the inclusion of all disabled people into our society. His co-founding of DisArt is the legacy he is leaving that will benefit us ALL.
Rev. Doug Van Doren I loved Chris, his passion and compassion, wit and well-targeted irreverence. We seemed to run into each other fairly often at events around town. I first met him when he was part of the leadership for a series of workshops we did on people with disabilities and the church. It was life changing for many and maybe even had an impact on the church! You will be sorely missed, my friend, but only because you were fully present.
Carl Plantinga Chris was my colleague for several years, teaching film and media at Calvin College. And what a fine colleague. I remember him primarily for his great humor and creative approach to life. What a joy to have around. I have laughed so many times with Chris.

With regard to disability, all I can say is that I enjoyed seeing him zooming around the department in his chair. I\'m sure that he enjoyed that too! And of course, my respect for his accomplishments is deep.
kenneth Heffner I first met Chris in 1993 when he was a student and I was the new director of student activities at Calvin College. I heard about this talented musician who often played at a venue on campus called Cave Cafe. He was a bit intimidating even then but we clicked. I then reconnected with when he and Lisa returned to Calvin as professors. Chris was one of the few people who understood what I was trying to do at Calvin and I was fascinated by his raw ,rule breaking personality. Chris later joined the committee that organized the Festival of Faith and Music. One year in particular because of his willingness to take risks we had Cornel West, Lupe Fiasco, Baby Dee, The Hold Steady, Makoto Fujimura and others. Chris was right in the middle of all of it. One of my best memories with him was a road trip to Wrigley Field in Chicago to see Bruce Springsteen. It was a great concert and we talked all the way down and back. Chris was a great scholar, teacher, activist, musician, husband, father and friend. He is missed. Rest in Peace.
Justin Stover Chris was an absolute treasure of a person. I met him while working at Schuler Books in the music section. We’d often chat about music and even did a few shows together. During this time (2007 to 2011ish) I did some freelance music journalism, and Chris very graciously gave me an opportunity to co lead a seminar at a music festival at Calvin, and then there more in the years after. It was real life changing experience that also helped me make valuable connections. But aside from this, I just really liked the guy. I’d run into him a few times a year and shoot the shit with him about music, movies, songwriting, and whatever came up. I have one especially fond memory where I helped him with his cigarette outside of Schuler, and him saying something I don’t remember in full detail but it was some incredibly funny about Britney Spears. We both had a good belly laugh over it. What a great guy.
Kevin Buist Chris Smit was someone who changed how I saw the world multiple times, as a professor, a collaborator, and a friend. I have two stories to add to the chorus of praises about Chris and what he meant to us all. I know writing these stories is probably more about allowing myself the opportunity to think through them and reflect, but hopefully they resonate with others as well.

When I first met Chris he was my professor at Calvin. I was an art major and film studies minor, this was 20 years ago. Chris taught a class called Media and the Public (I think). We talked critically about all sorts of mass media, we read Marshall McLuhan, it was great. We had to write a paper where we offered a critical analysis of some media artifact, it could be a TV show, a movie, music, a play, anything. I was writing about lots of movies and contemporary art in my other classes, so I decided to write about music. I wanted a challenge, so I picked an album that I loved but didn’t understand, one that freaked me out a little: White Light White Heat by The Velvet Underground.

In order for this story to make sense I have to briefly explain something about Calvin College at that time (this may still be true, I’m not sure). In the Communications department there was a trend where professors and students would extend a redemptive, Reformed Christian reading onto secular media that didn’t come from that intellectual or spiritual tradition at all. The thinking was that God’s grace was evident everywhere, if only you looked for it, so of course redemption would shine through in secular stories, not just in explicitly Christian ones. An example, from one of Chris’s colleagues at the time, was a reading of Pulp Fiction as a tale of Christian redemption by focusing on Jules’ (Samuel L. Jackson) monologue in the diner, where he talks about finding meaning in the Bible verse he quotes before killing people, and says, “I’m trying real hard to be a shepherd!” Depending on your background, this may seem odd. But for many Calvin students at that time who grew up in strict households being warned to avoid the evils of secular media, the idea that you could find good things in Pulp Fiction was incredibly liberating. They say the F word in that movie!

So, I went into my critical analysis of White Light White Heat with this framework in mind. I thought it was what scholars operating with a Reformed Christian perspective did, and that’s what I was there to learn, and I was ready to dive in. I set out to find the redemptive diamond in the rough of a wild and frankly violent record. But I could not find a diamond! I could not find a hidden redemptive arc. I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about how Chris lectured in the class. While the trend to retrofit redemption was pretty pervasive at Calvin, Chris always approached art with a combination of honesty and courage that refused to take refuge in easy, formulaic readings. Writing for Chris, I knew I had to be honest. I did my best to articulate why White Light White Heat was an incredible album, even though I could not find a nice redemptive pearl. The album is a gorgeous mess of distortion, drugs, and murder. Chris gave me an A. I don’t recall exactly what he told me afterward, but he let me know how much he appreciated that I didn’t resort to easy answers about difficult art. I felt like he helped me break a spell, to see art for what it really is, even when it’s terrifying and thrilling.

My second story about Chris is more recent. I was part of ArtPrize since its beginning, and by the tenth event in 2018 I was Artistic Director. After a decade of annual art competitions the format was getting a little stale, despite many amazing collaborations where Chris and DisArt made amazing things with Paul Amenta and the SiTE:LAB crew. For 2019 we decided to take a break from the competition format and instead commission a handful of international artists to create temporary projects around a theme. I curated the exhibition, titled Project 1: Crossed Lines, and invited artists to respond to the idea of the invisible lines that divide the city (implied borders, political fault lines, accessibility, discriminatory housing practices, etc.)

We commissioned Paul Amenta and Ted Lott to do a project, and they produced Critical Infrastructure, a site-specific architectural pavilion focused on accessibility and featuring programming collaborations with DisArt, SiTE:LAB, Kyd Kane, The Grand Rapids Ballet, and many others. Other Project 1 installations featured special events, but we decided that Critical Infrastructure should hold an event on the opening night. Paul and Ted invited Chris and DisArt to collaborate on the programming and DisArt invited Drag Syndrome to perform. Drag Syndrome is an internationally acclaimed drag troupe from London composed of adults with Down’s Syndrome. As the performance date approached, the event started to draw criticism. In the time since 2019, drag shows have become even more of a culture war flashpoint, but at that point we were still taken a little off guard. All of the homophobic and transphobic vitriol that normally accompanies opposition to drag shows was combined with a wilful misunderstanding of who Drag Syndrome was, the agency (and brilliance) of the performers, and a sickening condescension toward them masquerading as concern. The opposition gained national media attention, there were email and phone call campaigns, it was picked up by far-right news sources including neo-nazi web forums. The owner of the property where Critical Infrastructure was built (a certain former congressman and heir to a local supermarket fortune) decided to revoke permission for the event. Drag Syndrome still performed that night, but not on the stage/catwalk/pavilion/sculpture that Paul Amenta and Ted Lott had built for them.

It’s tempting to think of the Drag Syndrome fiasco as a failure, but I’ve come to think about it as the most successful element of the whole exhibition. Chris and DisArt managed to rise to the challenge of Project 1 with far more courage and clarity than I ever could. I set out to curate an exhibition about the invisible lines that divide communities and keep us from achieving equity. What Chris taught me was that it’s not enough to make art about those divisions, you have to make art that smashes right through them. Only then do the invisible lines become visible, and only then do we stand a chance of getting through to the other side and building something new together.

Rest in power, Chris. I’ve learned from your courage, but I could never hope to match it.

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