Still Life

June 1, 2009

The painter Gordon Smith is missing a masterpiece—that is what makes him great. His studio is a site of constant struggle, revision, and head-shaking deferral. He has a hopeful way of walking there, though, with his cane, like a mechanical toy. And he paints there four hours every day. Ninety years old this month, he only now thinks he’s getting somewhere.

As a side effect of this struggle, Smith—like Jack Shadbolt or Takao Tanabe—has taught a generation of Canadians how to look at their landscape. There’s the Order of Canada, too, and murals in embassies, and paintings in the National Gallery. But Smith remains unsatisfied. His voice, rattled with age, is marked by the questioning lilt of the autodidact. (A determined self-educator since his youth, he’s always felt the people surrounding him were better schooled.) He’s constantly derailing conversations that focus on him, turning the talk toward others.

All that outward searching (his whole career, really) begins in a rented house just south of London. There’s Donald, the older brother, at 16. There’s young Gordon, just 14. And there’s their mother, Daisy, saying, “You mustn’t tell your father, but we’re going away.” The father, William, was a financial failure. But perhaps that’s unfair: it was 1933—the world was a financial failure. He could barely provide for the family; they took in boarders to make ends meet. When not working—as a shopkeeper up in London—William liked to paint landscapes. He was a great admirer of Turner and showed the master’s paintings to his boys on trips to the metropolis. Behind their house there stood a rickety shed, the sort you might keep firewood in; this was William’s studio.

Painting didn’t feed hungry mouths, though. Daisy packed the boys up one day and, at 4 o’clock, took them to Mrs. Butler’s place down the street. The boys were wearing their grammar school blazers and toted small bags. William returned from his shift in London on the 6 o’clock train, as usual, to find himself abandoned. He would never see his wife again. Nor would he ever see Donald.

The next morning, the runaway trio left Mrs. Butler’s and walked down to the railway station. Daisy said, “Don’t look back, boys.” So they didn’t. The train took them to Bay Street, where they caught a bus to Waterloo. There a small ship was waiting, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the remaining years of the Great Depression.

Though William had been poor at providing, his children carried another sort of inheritance across the Atlantic. “I got a lot from him,” says Smith today. “He took us to the galleries, showed us all the painters. He walked us through the landscape and showed us how to look at things. And he bought us boxes of paints at Christmas.” All this stayed with Smith as he was shuttled into a new landscape.

From Halifax, the Smiths took a train to Winnipeg, their new home. (Daisy had sisters there.) The visual memories from that time and place are like a rougher twist on Cornelius Krieghoff and Norman Rockwell: the –30 º snowscapes were traversed by Eaton’s horse-drawn delivery sleighs; policemen peered out of buffalo coats; the streetcars were rigged with coke stoves. Here, the young Gordon first put his artistic eye to practical use: he was given a job helping to illustrate the Eaton’s catalogue. He gave up a paper route, and his youth, to help support his family from 1936 to 1939, while simultaneously taking classes at the Winnipeg School of Art, where he learned figure drawing (a handy skill—he worked on the men’s long-underwear pages).

In the slack season one year, Smith rode a bus 2,400 kilometres to the World’s Fair in San Francisco. He saw Cézanne, Picasso, Duchamp. “It threw me. All I knew was the old English style before.” When he headed home to staid Winnipeg, the big, gangly, and experimental works he’d memorized were knocking things over in his head. But his education and artistic prospects were put on hold again. On the radio, between episodes of The Happy Gang and One Man’s Family, Hitler’s speeches were broadcast. When war was declared, Smith joined the Winnipeg Rifles. Overseas service did not beckon until 1942; in the meantime, he discovered a new person to say goodbye to: he met his wife of 68 years, Marion, while on vacation in Vancouver.

Service was inevitable, and nine years after leaving England, Smith was sent back. While waiting there for a continental assignment, he decided to trace his father. William Smith had worked at a grocery on Marylebone High Street, so he went to ask after him. The man there said, “No, he left here five years ago,” so he went to their old house. The new resident said, “He was here once, but his clothes were all worn. Now he lives in Finchley, above some shoemaker’s shop.”

It was raining the day Smith arrived at the London suburb and tracked down the road they’d mentioned: “A bloody long road, with a string of joined-together houses.” He went up to a man shovelling coal in the downpour who said, “God, there’s lots of Smiths on this street. But is he an artist?”

“Yes.”

Smith’s father had been eking out a living selling paintings door to door, as Christmas cards. The coal man pointed down the street. Smith asked one more person, a woman talking to the bread man, and she went to call for “Willie.”

When the shabbily dressed man finally appeared, Smith did not recognize his father. And his father did not recognize him.

Not long after that reunion, Smith was at the battle of Leonforte, having his gut and head blasted by shrapnel. “I woke up covered in blood, but I wasn’t in any pain at all.” Bits of metal still, 65 years later, work their way to the surface of his skin.

Sent home early, Smith brought back to Vancouver a series of drawings he had made—“They were terrible! Just awful!”—as well as some watercolor landscapes his father had given him. His disdain for his own early works is part of a pattern that repeats itself throughout his life. Picasso famously quipped “I do not seek, I find.” But those are the words of a precocious genius for whom inspiration was ever at hand. For painters like Smith, each installment of the career sits beneath a briefer motto: “I seek.”

If you bind together the six decades of exhibition reviews that track his postwar career as a serious painter, they read like a trailing letter from a child—enthusiastic but aimless.

The first Smith exhibition, held in the spring of 1944 at the original Vancouver Art Gallery (a few blocks west of the current location), was composed of those pencil sketches he made on the Italian front. The show, written up in the Province, had the stretched distinction of being “the first display in Vancouver of studies by an artist-soldier who had been in the Italian combat zone.” In fact, the realistic depictions of comrades and battlegrounds—each executed in about half an hour—show no sign of things to come.

A decade later, Smith had digested the modernist vocabulary then being broadcast from on high by Jackson Pollock and his ilk. He produced semi-abstract landscapes, gridded by tar-coloured, obstructing lines. The writer Tony Emery (later director of the VAG) discussed the work in Canadian Art in 1956, and tried to tag Smith’s style by throwing up the ungainly term “abstract-figurative-expressionist.” It did not stick.

By the 1960s, Smith had shown “representation” the door and was experimenting with hard-edge paintings. These are the geometric paint-by-numbers canvases that most of us glide by at museums if we’re alone. A pendulum swing away from subject matter. The 1970s brought him back to a halfway point between abstraction and representation. Some of his landscapes from this period recall the minimalist linear work that Takao Tanabe became famous for (bars of sea, land, sky). Smith also pushed himself onto larger canvases, using house-painting brushes to roughen his strokes. The Globe and Mail (1975) spoke of the artist’s “doubts and second-guessing.” Yesterday’s work, never as interesting as today’s, can only be “the point of departure.”

In 1980, Smith showed a series depicting the Bay of Fundy and told a writer from Arts West “This is it. These new ones are the way I want to paint.” He soon abandoned that style, like all the rest. In the fall of 1997, he exhibited a series of large oil paintings that directly quote Monet’s water lilies. Michael Scott, writing in the Sun, called Smith “a quiet chameleon.” It had begun to dawn on the critics that there is simply no way to bind all these decades of change. Smith, so like a guileless schoolboy in his manners, turns out to be the ultimate student, refusing to crystallize into an icon. He told the critic Max Wyman, “You work all day, and you think ‘That’s okay,’ and you get up the next morning and you think ‘That’s terrible.’ And you start all over again.”

In all this whirling of styles, there is a picture or two that Smith would save from the bonfire of history. “Most of what I’ve done, though, is pretty bloody ordinary.” He hands over work to visitors the way some people pass out Ziploc-divvied leftovers.

The above is a fraudulent history, of course. No career can be parcelled so neatly by decades. But here’s the point: this is an artist universally accepted as one of the great Canadian painters, but whose work has constantly been seen as derivative of some larger, ever-changing fashion. It’s not so much distinctive that Smith has run through numerous styles: many artists do that, searching for their voice. What makes Smith’s career extraordinary is the fact that he never settled later on, not even when fame and large commissions came his way—he never hardened.

The line Smith uses is “I’m one hundred artists deep.”

He also has one hundred artists trailing behind him. After the war, he taught at the Vancouver School of Art (alongside B.C. Binning and Jack Shadbolt) and, from 1956 until 1982, he taught at the University of British Columbia. With typical self-deprecation, Smith considers teaching to be his greatest contribution. “None of my students became great artists, I don’t think. But many of them became great people.”

He hasn’t taught for 27 years now; financial security and retirement have let him focus on his own painting. Lately, he’s been making large tangled abstractions of driftwood and snowy forests; they are wild and sublime and seem fantastically free. Eve Sedgwick describes, in her book Touching Feeling, how an artist’s late work can emerge, at last, from “the obscuring puppy fat of personableness, timeliness, or sometimes even of coherent sense.” The artist Gathie Falk is in love with these latest Smith paintings and makes a tutting sound when she hears that he thinks of his teaching as a legacy greater than his art. “Every year I go to his show and it is better than the last time. His new abstractions are like the music of Bach, very complex and clean and structured but with surprises. And every bit of the terrain is newly invented. No one has done it before. And no one will ever do again what he is doing right now.”

Right now, in West Vancouver, in the Arthur Erickson masterpiece he’s lived in since 1966, he is, ostensibly, a world away from his childhood London suburb. But when he talks about his father, he reveals an extraordinary ability to recall numbers, names, dates, even as his wife grows ill and is often confused. She used to be his major critic and manager, but now only Gordon answers the phone. “Marion forgets,” he says. “It’s a bad time, right now.”

She’s usually resting in the glass and wood house, surrounded by the work of Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham, Douglas Coupland, and the chic furnishings she selected decades ago. Smith scurries back and forth from the house to his detached studio, where he gives only one other artist wall space; there are two little landscapes by his father. These are tiny watercolours that, if you squint, look a little like Turners. The proximity of those paintings to his works in progress might be the closest Smith has come to placing a person on a canvas. There are, conspicuously, no people in his paintings. Just recently, though, he’s started to take photographs of Marion asleep in her favourite chair.

In the fall of 1966, a writer from Time magazine asked Smith about his famous dissatisfaction with his own work. Smith was, by then, a renowned artist and a professor at UBC, and was working on a massive installation for Arthur Erickson’s pavilion at Expo 67. “I’d like to paint just one good painting,” he told the man from Time. So, one morning, I blindly ask, “Have you made a good painting yet?”

“No,” comes the answer. His eyes register surprise—that his work has taken him down so long a road and yet has never, never reached a destination.

Convenient as it would be to have one’s life work ratified by external forces (critics, curators, merchants), it’s only that harshest internal judge who counts. So Smith is keeping at it. He still puts in his four-hour shift every day in his studio. He is still trying to make one good painting. “All the stuff before,” he waves a hand. “I wish I had started then with what I have now.” (When Pablo Casals, the greatest cellist of his time, was 95 years old, he still practised six hours every day. A journalist asked him why, and he replied, “I think I’m making progress.”)

Smith has made a habit of burning earlier and unworthy works. (“Lots of artists do,” he says with a shrug.) He still looks at whatever he’s working on now and says, “This is it.” But where has his trek toward the rolling horizon left him? Smith shuts the studio door behind him, returning his own paintings, and those of his father, to the dark. He soft-steps across the courtyard, back to the main house. Rain begins to disturb the pond, netted over to keep predators from the fish. “I need to check on Marion,” he says. “I must get back.”

Smith once said that paintings ought to re-create experiences rather than simply illustrate them. That sentiment might explain his struggle and dissatisfaction: despite all efforts, there are some lost things, or lost moments, or lost people, that remain irretrievable.

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