March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

STROLLING BY A BOOKSTORE with his wife and friends just before Christmas two years ago, Vin Celentano came face to face with himself. Well, almost. Staring from a display window was a 3½-foot-tall version of Vin, decked in replicas of Vin’s favorite slacks, sportshirt and sweater, a phone in his right hand and a credit-card-size calculator in his left—just like the real Vin. “When he’s away,” says his wife, Mary, who commissioned the figure as a surprise and now keeps it in their oceanfront mansion, “there he is.”

Chalk up another very satisfied customer for Kris Smith, a pixieish Hillsboro Beach, Fla., artist whose intricately detailed marionettes—modeled after real people—are both delightful and, sometimes, a little unnerving. The I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing quality of her work landed her prime space in last year’s Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, guest spots on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Good Morning America and more orders than she could quickly fill. “Someday our great-great-grandchildren will look at this and say, ‘That’s what they looked like!’ ” says retired entrepreneur Chuck Sussman, 65, who, with his wife, Greta, 64, was depicted by Smith riding, leather-clad, on their Harley-Davidson. “Outrageous!”

Before creating a doppelgänger, Smith, 55, likes to meet the subject. If the gift is a surprise, such meetings may involve subterfuge. “I’m getting very good at lying,” jokes Smith, who has passed herself off as, among other things, a reporter for a fictitious magazine and a party planner. In the latter guise, at the request of executives from Commercial Financial Services, she infiltrated a company gala and observed chairman Bill Bartmann while he was dressed as Julius Caesar. The resulting sculpture is spot-on, with one minor alteration: Very close observers will discover that, beneath his leather armor, little Caesar wears underwear from the Chicago Bulls, Bartmann’s favorite team.

At $8,000, Smith’s works aren’t cheap, but demand is such that she probably could charge more, which she refuses to do. “I feel if it costs [customers] any more than it costs me, I’m ripping them off,” she says.

Although her current level of recognition is new for Smith, making art is anything but. “From day one, I would pick up crayons and draw things,” says Smith. Her father, the late Forest Stump, was chairman of a property management firm in Dayton; her mother, Ardelle (also deceased), was a poet and schoolteacher. By third grade, Smith began attending after-school classes at the Dayton Art Institute. Later, after earning a degree in art and English from DePauw University in Indiana, she began selling caricatures. In her 20s she married IBM salesman Tom Smith and had three children: Lauren, now 33, Fritz, 29, and Samantha, 27. Divorced after 10 years, she turned to art for a living.

It was daunting at first. “Female artists don’t have much credibility,” says Smith. “When you’re a male artist, people assume you’re doing it for a living. When you’re a female, they assume you’re doing it as a hobby.” But she persevered and eventually built up a varied portfolio that included murals, portraits of Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Hamill and Helen Gurley Brown and a sculpted bust of Thomas Hoving, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Smith spends much of her week making her puppets or scouring flea markets for appropriate props (“everything of the right scale comes home—you never know when you are going to need it”), but doesn’t give her life over entirely to the little people. Her three-bedroom condo, which she shares with her companion of 24 years, consultant Frank Williams, 55, is filled with finished pieces and works-in-progress: kinetic sculptures, a 5-by-10-foot painting of a nude, a mirror with a vinelike sculpted frame. It is the home of a woman happily having too much fun. “My greatest fear,” says Smith, “is that I won’t be able to live to do everything I want to do!”


DON SIDER in Hillsboro Beach

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