Gordon Smith: modest master

September 24, 1997: Midway through a new painting, Gordon Smith will often buzz his wife Marion from his studio and ask her to step across the courtyard of their West Vancouver home to give her opinion of the work in progress. “And she comes and she doesn’t say anything, then she says, ‘Oh, I haven’t got  my right glasses,’ and I think oh, God, and I say, ‘Get your right glasses,’ and she says well, and I know then—well—that it’s not right. It’s terrible.”

Isn’t that just because she wants the best for him? “No, she wants the best for art, not for me. It’s not easy: I don’t get angry, but I get so down, frustrated. It’s awful. I think I’m on the right track, and then she looks at it and says well. And half an hour later I think, she’s right on. She doesn’t say that’s wrong, or anything: but I know darned well …” His response? “I might destroy the whole thing or ruin the whole thing, but I start painting again right away.”

Behind every successful man, they say, is a woman with a vision. Marion and Gordon Smith have been married 56 years. As the three of us sit talking in the living room of the home that Arthur Erickson designed for them on a wooded rise above the ocean, all glass and light and bleached space, she admits she has always felt “a terrible responsibility” in what she says to Gordon about his work. “It’s usually only about one part, or one thing,” she says, “and I don’t say it lightly, and I always think I might be 100 per cent wrong …” “She always says that,” Gordon interrupts, “and then I know damn well that she’s right.”

He is, at 78, a man who’d rather sing the praises of other artists than talk about himself (though Marion, who knows him best, thinks his modesty is a form of self-protection). Invite him to pontificate on the function of art, or the value of abstraction, or any of the Great Questions that you’d expect a grand old man of art to be eager to address, and you repeatedly draw a virtual blank. He smiles and offers a tentative sentence or two, then gracefully slides off the topic and onto safer ground. You have to piece his position together from the fragments; in life, as in his work, he doesn’t believe in making things easy.

The work, constantly changing, always challenging, is where the answer is clearest. He believes it’s important that we incorporate art into our daily lives. In the 1950s he was 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.” He and his artist colleagues all helped build each other’s houses, Mennonite style: “Jack [Shadbolt] made all the drawers for his kitchen; Doris [Shadbolt] and Inge [Woodcock, wife of writer George] poured the concrete. They weren’t built very well but they did get built.”

At 78 he still has a child’s openness to new experience. When I mention his self-description—“one hundred artists deep”—he chuckles and amends the figure to 150. He’s referring, modestly again, to the way he has always been open to the influence of others. “What I do is, quite honestly, I borrow from the artist and try to make it my own.”

He and Marion just returned home, for instance, from one of their periodic European art immersions that had them scouring Paris and London for everything from Géricault (in whose giant narrative works he found parallels with the photo-montages of Vancouver’s Jeff Wall) to London’s current shock-horror fave, Damien Hirst (“a real rebel”). He comes back from those trips fully refreshed “and I want to paint right away. I get stimulated and want to start all over again.”

He is often associated in the public mind with outdoors imagery, and he readily agrees that “my feelings and themes are largely derived from nature, the sea, rocks, trees, the things I live with.” But he tries to steer himself away from the narrative, the “pretty.” The series of pond paintings that he did last year after a visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny was his most commercially successful show, but, typically, he was perturbed at the paintings’ success: “they became a little bit too easy for the public to respond to them—they responded to them because they recognized them.” So he moved away from the seemingly realistic renderings of water and lilies and grasses, bleached out all the rich colour and produced a series of abstracted black-and-white paintings in which the pond references were far less easy to discern.

He believes that he has done his best work in the past five years or so—“If I was evaluating my work for the Canada Council I wouldn’t give grants for those early works … I feel that what I’m doing today and what I’m doing tomorrow is going to be the best. I don’t play golf but I imagine that if you play golf you just want to go on getting better and better. You just keep hoping that something will really come off. I’ve never had anything really that’s come off, never, really, never. Never. I always look at it and think it’s not right yet, it’s not right yet. And you just wonder …”

 

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