Ted Smusz, the “voice” of the veterinary college, donates animal art to teaching hospital

Ted Smusz poses with a piece of his donated artwork that was recently installed near equine receiving in the Large Animal Hospital.

If you’ve ever called the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, there’s a good chance you’ve talked to Ted Smusz. As a communications assistant for the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Smusz works with a six-person team that answers more than 500 calls a day to the hospital switchboard.

But Smusz, who has spent more than 30 years with the college, is more than just a dedicated employee. He’s also a self-taught digital photographer and editor who recently donated some of his unique animal art to the teaching hospital’s newly renovated examination rooms.

To say that Smusz is a patient man is something of an understatement. “I can spend up to 40 hours on a photo,” Smusz said. “I’m not only sizing the photo, but also blowing it up and digitally redrawing it. I do most of it manually to save the skin texture and tone on my subjects.”

The pony-tailed, bespectacled Smusz spends evenings in a studio at his Blacksburg home that allows him to focus on his art. In addition to a high-resolution digital camera with a variety of lenses, he also has three software programs that allow him to edit photos pixel by pixel.

The two pieces pictured are among Smusz's donated artwork installed in the Small Animal Hospital examination rooms.

“I used to be heavily into cars and rebuilding cars. That led to taking photographs of cars,” said Smusz, who spent part of his childhood growing up in Bristol, Connecticut. “When I saw car photos that others had taken, I found the activity in the photo surrounding the cars to be distracting. So I started to think about using a technique I call ‘isolation.’”

Smusz taught himself how to separate a photo’s subject from its environment. Although it is not uncommon for photographers to touch up their photos by fixing the lighting or removing a stray hair, Smusz has taken his skills to the next level. The subjects of his photographs are so striking that they seem to literally jump off the canvas or page.

“The first time I took animal photographs, I was fishing off the coast of North Carolina and a teenage whale breached close to the boat,” he recalled. “I was lucky enough to get a couple of clear shots which the Duke Marine Lab asked if they could use in their promotional literature. I realized then I could use the same techniques for animal pictures that I had been using on car photos.”

Not all of his artwork uses the “isolation” technique. One of his photos of a calf (a collaboration using an original photograph by Dr. Phil Sponenberg, professor of pathology and genetics) emphasizes the contrast between the red clay on the ground and the white light on the animal, while others of a mandrill and a horse have features that appear to be glowing like a creature in a James Cameron film.

Smusz has taught himself a technique called "isolation," where he digitally removes a photograph's subject from its environment pixel by pixel. Although not all of his works of art use this technique, the ones that do are stunning.

Although he takes many of his own photographs, Smusz also applies his techniques to pictures from other photographers. He has even created abstracts by scanning everyday objects and digitally re-mastering them. One photo looks like splashes of orange, purple, blue, and teal from a distance, but upon closer inspection, takes the shape of a geisha holding a fan. Smusz used the fan shape from a fossil he collected for the abstract picture.

“Everything I do is high resolution because it allows me more opportunity to manipulate it,” said Smusz, who turned his attention to photography more than 10 years ago and appreciates the exacting process of editing photos for the creative outlet it gives him. “I couldn’t easily tell you how I do it because I taught myself and have my own technique and process for doing it. Much of what I create is more intuitive than logistical. I work on each picture until it seems ‘right’ to me.”

Smusz is something of a Renaissance man whose expertise spans many different subject areas. In addition to rebuilding cars and turning photographs into beautiful works of art, he has also collected fossils, written science fiction, and produced an electronica album from a music studio in his home. Smusz, who has produced almost 1,000 pieces of his visual art, plans to create a website with both his photographs and his music in the background to promote and possibly sell some of his art.

Before the veterinary college was even built, Smusz was answering dispatch calls for ambulatory veterinarians. He officially joined the college in 1982. In 2004, the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association recognized Smusz as a “Friend of the VVMA” for the communications support he provided between referring veterinarians across the state and clinical faculty members in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Smusz is an Air Force Vietnam War veteran, and worked for Schlumberger, an oil well testing company located in New Orleans, Louisiana. He then came back to Blacksburg which he has considered his hometown since his family moved here in the ’60s. Describing Blacksburg as “a wonderful place to live and a great place to raise a family,” Smusz and his wife, Terry, reside close to town and have two adult children, Emily and Ian.

Ted Smusz, communications assistant for the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, has been with the college for more than 30 years and currently works with a six-person team that answers more than 500 calls a day to the hospital switchboard.