The daughter of the American actress and opera singer Jane Lawrence and the American architect and sculptor Tony Smith, she was born in Germany, where her mother had launched a career in opera. The family returned to the United States in 1955, and Smith was raised in South Orange, New Jersey. After briefly attending the Hartford Art School, she moved to New York in 1976. Her work as a sculptor bore little resemblance to that of her father. Where he was abstract and nonfigurative, she was engaged in the study of human anatomy and the natural world. Her work in the 1980s often examined particular parts of the body—hands, the digestive system, the pelvis, the liver—using materials such as cloth, paper, and ceramics to depict the mystery and vulnerability of the body. In 1985 she briefly studied to be an emergency medical technician. By 1990 she had begun to create fully realized human figures, and she often employed beeswax to heighten the suggestion of flesh, as in Untitled (1990). Smith used the body as a metaphor for the passions and tribulations of existence, and her work reinvigorated the tradition of expressionist and emotive figural sculpture.
Among the many awards, Smith has received are the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture (2000), awarded annually by the Skowhegan (Maine) School of Painting and Sculpture, the Athena Award from the Rhode Island School of Design (2005) in recognition of her printmaking, the Edward MacDowell Medal (2009) from the MacDowell Colony artists’ residency in Peterborough, New Hampshire, for her outstanding contribution to the field of sculpture, and the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts (2012).