Smith’s sketchbooks and writings from the 1930s and 1940s records his growing awareness of social and political issues. He participated in union activities that supported artists and, from February 1937 to August 1939, was assigned to the sculptural division of the Roosevelt government’s Federal Art Project, a programme providing jobs for artists during the Depression.
He became increasingly concerned about events in Europe, notably the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War. Inspired by Sumerian seals and German medals from the First World War that he had seen in the British Museum, he began a series of bronzes entitled Medals for Dishonor 1938–40. In a satirical spirit Smith commemorated the avarice and destruction that accompanies war, rather than acts of valour. The medals were made largely at night, over the course of three years. Their imagery draws upon artists such as Bosch, Bruegel and Goya and Picasso’s Guernica. Smith also used material from newspapers and medical books to form his own brutal and surrealist language. Crafted using jewellery-making and dentistry tools, the Medals include spectres, ominous birds, preying insects and anthropomorphic symbols of sexual assault,demonstrating the rich iconographic sources for Smith’s work of the 1940s.
By the beginning of the 1940s Smith had absorbed many European influences into his sculptural vocabulary but his own artistic vision was also emerging as independent and self-confident. The resonance between painting and sculpture, expanding inside and outside the frame, becomes a consistent theme. His work also began to embody intense personal experiences: Widow’s Lament 1942 for example, relates to the death of his father in 1939.