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Gordon Smith, "Castro Verde," 1977, lithograph on paper.
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Gordon Smith, "Espinko," 1977, lithograph on paper, 17" x 23".
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Gordon Smith, "Castro Verde," 1977, lithograph on paper.
By Brian Brennan
Gordon Smith has often described himself as being "one hundred artists deep" - meaning that he has always been open to the influence of others - and that's about as close as this reticent, self-critical Vancouver artist ever gets to talking about himself. Although widely regarded as one of Canada's most prominent and influential artists, Smith would rather sing the praises of others than discuss his own artistic achievements, which he has characterized as "indulgent." Numerous writers have arrived at his door hoping for a few words of insight or inspiration from the great man only to go away disappointed. At best Smith offers a cautious sentence or two before turning the discussion away from himself toward what he regards as safer ground.
Curator Andrew Hunter, who has written perceptively about Smith's life and work, explains his reticence this way in the book, Gordon Smith: The Act of Painting: "Smith chose long ago to be a painter, not a writer or a storyteller. He has no desire to explain or justify his decision in words, a language he does not feel allows him to probe the depths of his experience. He deciphers his world and lived experience through the language of painting."
So what are we able to glean then from the paintings of this English shopkeeper's son who turns 84 in June and has been putting brushes to canvas for more than 65 years? One fact that emerges clearly is that his long career has been defined by a certain restlessness, by a constant quest to experiment with new styles. As Vancouver Sun art critic Michael Scott has observed, Smith is a "quiet chameleon, an artist who has reinvented himself not once, not twice, but many times in his career."
In his earliest incarnation, as a schoolboy growing up in the suburbs of London in the 1920s, Smith was an illustrator, strongly influenced by his father, an amateur painter, and by his older brother Donald, who had dreams of becoming a commercial artist. By the time Smith moved to Canada with his mother and brother in 1933 (his parents had separated by then) he wanted to become a commercial artist as well. He trained at the Winnipeg School of Art and worked at a graphic arts firm, Brigden's, producing merchandise illustrations for mail-order catalogues. In his spare time he dabbled in watercolour landscapes.
In 1939, when he was 20, Smith visited the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, and that opened his eyes to new artistic possibilities. In the modernist work of Canadian artists such as Emily Carr and the Group of Seven he saw there could be more to painting than conventional landscapes. When he settled in Vancouver after the Second World War, after marrying social worker Marion Fleming and serving overseas as an army intelligence officer, Smith decided to "unlearn" everything that he had learned about art in Winnipeg and to learn as much as he could from such Vancouver-based modernists as Jack Shadbolt, B.C. Binning and Fred Amess. "It was a revelation knowing and respecting this group," said Smith.
After completing a year of studies with Shadbolt and Binning, Smith landed a job at the Vancouver School of Art, teaching graphics, design and commercial art. In 1947 he had a one-man show of oils and watercolours at the Vancouver Art Gallery that drew mixed reviews. One critic dismissed his landscapes as "views rather than compositions, with no organization of interest." Another sympathetically characterized Smith's work as "creditable."
During the 1950s Smith exhibited regularly, in solo and group shows, and sold several of his paintings to private and institutional collectors. But, as he said, "selling was not the important issue - it was trying to exhibit on a national level and do better work." His quest for self-improvement brought him back to San Francisco, where he took classes at the California School of Fine Art and learned, as he put it, "how to loosen up my painting." While the landscape still remained his principal subject matter, his primary focus now became the paint itself rather than the subject he was rendering. A viewer might draw an emotional connection from the skies and rocks and trees depicted in his paintings, but for Smith the art was all about the way the paint was applied and the way it built on the canvas. The message of the work, he said, could be contained wholly within the pigment on the surface of the canvas.
As his painting evolved, so did his work as an educator. In 1956 Smith joined the University of British Columbia as an art teacher, beginning an association that would last until his retirement from the university in 1982. At the same time he became part of Vancouver's Art in Living Group, which stressed the significance of good design in everyday life. "You became aware of the chair you sat in, the teapot you poured from and, of course, your house." His house was designed by the architects Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey, and his kitchen drawers were made by Jack Shadbolt. "They weren't built very well but they did get built."
As his work matured during the 1950s, Smith exhibited from Victoria to New York, won first prize in the First Biennial of Canadian Painting show at the National Gallery of Canada for his abstract painting Structure with Red Sun, and was praised by Lawren Harris as a "consummate artist of very considerable power." But Smith was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his painting, which he began to view as slick and contrived. He briefly switched from painting to sculpture, took a sabbatical from UBC and spent several months in Europe, experimenting with different painting techniques and styles. In 1965 he astonished critics with Red Wizard, Red, an abstract work of remarkable bravura and boldness that achieved immediate acclaim when reproduced in Time magazine. But Smith remained ceaselessly self-critical, saying that his work lacked daring and exuberance.
His self-doubts continued through the 1970s and into the 1980s even as he continued to win acclaim and exhibit widely. It wasn't until he turned 70, in 1989, that he began to produce what he regarded as his best work. Curator Ian Thom countered in the book Gordon Smith: The Act of Painting that there had been a record of "consistent excellence" in Smith's work since the early 1950s. However, Thom added, "there is little doubt that his recent work has displayed a greater freedom and vigour than at any time in the past."
Perhaps the crowning achievement of Smith's career was a major 60-year retrospective exhibition held at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1997. Sun critic Michael Scott wrote that Smith's paintings of the late 1980s were "as compelling as Emily Carr's at her greatest" and added that perhaps his greatest legacy is the work Smith has done with young artists, supporting and inspiring and encouraging them to pursue their goals.
Since that retrospective was held Smith has continued to paint, producing what Vancouver curator Andy Sylvester describes as "some very significant work." A show of Smith's latest paintings is planned for early fall at Vancouver's Equinox Gallery.
Among Smith's many well-deserved awards and decorations are two honorary doctorates, the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. "His creativity enriches all," said the B.C. citation, echoing what Smith's students and fellow artists have been saying for years. "Not only through his artistic contributions, but also through his mentoring and generosity to others."
Brian Brennan's newest book, Scoundrels and Scallywags: Characters from Alberta's Past, is published by Fifth House Ltd.