The SMS art and design department will open the "Eric Sidney Memorial Exhibition" Friday at the Student Exhibition Center.

Eric Sidney, an SMS alumnus, died unexpectedly on Jan. 15, 1998, in his studio at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he was a graduate teaching assistant for the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts. He was 24.

Sidney achieved quite a bit of fame and notoriety for his work while a student here at SMS, at one point entering and winning an award in the art department's Senior Exhibition, even though he wasn't a senior.

"This was Eric again challenging the status quo," said his mother Shirlie Sidney, in a phone interview from her home in Blue Springs, Mo. "He didn't hide anything, he just entered it and won an award. When they found out later that he wasn't a senior they took it [the cash award] away. . . .but I have the certificate."

When Sidney first came to SMS, he declared a major in business, but it was his social life that occupied most of his time.

"He really was not particularly excited about going to college," said his mother.

"He started out as business major, I believe, because he didn't know what else to choose. His dad had his own business. . . but Eric really had never expressed any desire to do that."

Lacking direction, by the end of his first year Sidney found himself in academic trouble.

"The number of credits he started out with, was more than he ended with at the end of that first year," she said. "But he had a wonderful time."

Part of the trouble seemed to stem from his boundless energy, a characteristic he would later channel into his work, but which throughout his childhood had sometimes been a source of contention.

"Eric started talking in sentences when he was about a year old," said his mother.

"His sentences were a few words long: `I want to go out.' `I want to see that.' And `I want to do that.' But it was always these action things."

After Sidney started school at age 5, he often did well but as his mother said he had a tendency to challenge his teachers, every bit as much as he would later come to challenge himself, and this sometimes got him into trouble.

"He was always talking," Sidney said.

"In grade school I think he probably got into a lot of trouble because he talked all the time, and because he wouldn't accept [a statement as a given]. But he was never rebellious or disruptive. Everything he did was always tempered with a kind of humor and a respect for people."

His mother said that with some teachers this attitude of Sidney's worked well because they could handle it. But with others, it didn't work well. Sidney would most often respond to these situations by neglecting his school work.

"I don't think Eric was really ever challenged enough in high school," Sidney said.

"He would take these advanced placement courses, but then he would challenge the teachers. That usually wouldn't go well and so he wouldn't turn in his homework. But he would still be recommended for more classes anyway."

After his first year in college, Eric would find that he could no longer neglect his course work.

In a letter to the Financial Aid office, as reported in the documentary "Celebrating a Life: Eric Sidney," he expressed this realization, as well as his determination to do better. Faced with the possible suspension of his financial aid, he asked for a second chance, and got it.

It was about this time that he also found a focus for his life.

"At some point in his first or second year he met a student who was taking art classes," Sidney said.

"Eric would go over to his dorm, and his friend had these charcoals there that he was working with. . . .

"I remember Eric telling me that he picked them up and started drawing around with them, and that he enjoyed them. When he found that it just took off.

"He really loved it."

It is about this time that Eric's outlook began to change. He took his first art classes and began to direct his energy into his work, eventually earning the respect and admiration of both his fellow students and his instructors.

"He became extremely focused," said Zhi Lin, SMS associate professor of art and design.

"In the beginning he wasn't so purposeful, but he came to know what he wanted, and he worked hard for it.

"He was a very energetic person."

Sidney graduated from SMS in August 1997.

Though Sidney came late to his life's work, his mother said the tendency towards art had always been there. His notebooks from junior and senior high, which she has been looking through, are full of doodles and drawings.

Sidney's mother has found, too, a drawing of two trees and a flower from the first grade. And although it is the drawing of a 6-year-old, there is something about it which grabs her attention, something which she said she hadn't noticed before. A tree drawn with meticulous care, alive with a thousand leaves.

"I'm going to count the leaves," she said.

"I would guess there are hundreds and hundreds of leaves on the tree. It's just full of little tiny tiny leaves one after the other, over and over and over.

"It must have taken him forever to draw that picture. And I never stopped to think about it, but when I look at it now what I think is that. . . he went way beyond what he was expected to do."