Gary Smalls, 72, an artist, architect, community worker, and film producer, died Tuesday, Jan. 4, of pancreatic cancer at his Philadelphia home.
Mr. Smalls was diagnosed with cancer in July, said his sister, Richardean Smalls, about a year after he had begun repeatedly visiting doctors seeking answers for his pain.
Despite the pain, Mr. Smalls worked last fall to complete work for a November exhibit at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral Church in West Philadelphia.
Described as a humble and devoted friend, Mr. Smalls was also “a great connector,” said local filmmaker Nadine Patterson, because he helped creative people come together “across different art forms and regions.”
Starting in the early 1980s, Mr. Smalls worked on numerous film projects at Scribe Video Center and coproduced documentaries for its Precious Places Community History Project. He also produced a film on noted Black architect Julian Abele, which will be screened on Mr. Smalls’ next birthday, April 27, said Louis Massiah, Scribe executive director and founder.
“He was central to the cultural community in Philadelphia, whether in film, in music and the fine arts,” Massiah said. “He was very involved and had a passion about design and fashion.”
Friends and relatives described him as someone who gave help readily.
In addition to sitting all night with his now-late mother when she was hospitalized a few years ago, Mr. Smalls also helped tend to the elderly parents and the young children of several friends.
“He was just a caregiver,” 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 counsel,” Rucker said. “I have four sons, and at different intervals when I would go on tour, or away with their father, and no one else could do it, he came and helped me. He took care of my sons.”
It was with Rucker that Mr. Smalls met the poet Sonia Sanchez when they traveled together to a Pennsylvania State University speaking engagement. Rucker’s youngest son was an infant, and Mr. Smalls was helping to care for him. Later, Rucker said Sanchez recalled Mr. Smalls as “such a gentle brother.”
A longtime resident of the Powelton neighborhood, Mr. Smalls was active with the West Powelton/Saunders Park Registered Community Organization and once worked for Mantua Community Planners.
For 15 years, he volunteered to design and create costumes for the nativity scene at the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence Inc.’s annual children’s Christmas party.
He also volunteered with the security detail for the Annual Awards and Benefit Luncheon held on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday every January. And in 2018, the association presented Mr. Smalls with the C. Delores Tucker Volunteer Award.
Gary Smalls was born April 27, 1949, in Charleston, S.C., to Oscar Lewis Smalls and Lizzie Mae Sumpter Smalls. He was the eldest in a family of six brothers and one sister.
At age 4, he moved to Philadelphia with his parents and grew up in Strawberry Mansion. A 1966 graduate of Overbrook High, Mr. Smalls earned a degree in architecture from Penn State in 1972.
He studied at the University of Pennsylvania with the architect Louis Kahn for a year and earned a master’s 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 a cofounder of Solar/Evolution and helped design an early solar rowhouse in Philadelphia.
His true love was creating art. After starting film work at Scribe Video in the early1980s, he also worked as a set designer at the Painted Bride Art Center in the 1990s.
In 1975, Mr. Smalls had become a Buddhist and a leader in 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 viewing from 9 to 10:30 a.m., and a family viewing from 10:30 to 11 a.m., followed by a celebration of life service at 11 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 29, at Wood Funeral Home, 5537-39 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia. Burial is private.
Donations in his memory may be made to Scribe Video Center, Box 13267, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, for the Gary Smalls Fund to Support Youth Media; the Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence at https://philadelphiamlk.org/; or to Soka University of America, Linda Kennedy, director of Philanthropy, 1 University Dr., Aliso Viejo, Calif. 92656.