Still waters run deep with Vicki Smith

(TS said) Poetry 48x60 oil on canvas

(TS said) Poetry (2016)

For Vicki Smith, it was never a question of if she should become an artist;  it was simply a question of when.

Art was always a natural part of my lifeI was praised and encouraged as a child, and the art room was where I was most comfortable in school.  I didn’t really understand what an artist was, but I never doubted that art was my path.”

From 1977 to 1981 Vicki studied Fine Art at the Ontario Collage of Art in Toronto, Canada, spending her final year studying abroad in Florence, Italy.

“Being in art school allowed me to live and breathe art.  It was a very indulgent time with unlimited potential.  Having the luxury of time to experiment was the best part.  In the late 70’s OCA was a less structured learning environment than it is today.  There were organized classes but the philosophy was very open and free, and practical theory wasn’t a priority.  I had to work independently to take advantage of the incredible resources that were available at the college.  I found my greatest passion in the drawing and printmaking departments.”

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Just under the surface (2009)

The one thing the college wasn’t able to prepare Vicki for was how to make a career as an artist.  There were no seminars on how to create a business plan or market your work; no advice on how to set up your own studio or approach a gallery.  And so after graduating from OCA Vicki went onto work for a textile company in Toronto, and stayed working for the business for 12 years whilst producing her own art at night.

I always assumed that an artist got a job to support their family and made art to support their soul.  It took me a long time to understand the business of fine art.”

With the help of her husband, a generous supporter of the arts, Vicki has been able to focus on her paintings full time for the last twenty years.  Her work has been exhibited in galleries across Canada and she is currently represented by the Bau-xi Gallery in Toronto, Vancouver and Seattle Washington.

“It’s enlightening for me to see how a body of work hangs together, and how the paintings relate to each other.  A deadline for an exhibition is always challenging, and an opening is overwhelming because it is such a frenzied social event, but it’s great to get feedback and see the work through other eyes.  Over the past year, since my last show, I have produced some remarkable pieces that will never see the public light because they have gone into private collections as soon as they were finished.  I’m grateful that the work sells whether I have an exhibition or not.”


Barely A Ripple (2009)

In 2009 Vicki had an epiphany.  She was watching her daughter swimming in a lake in Northern Ontario when she observed the exquisite fluid movement of her limbs slipping in and out of the water, unconstrained by gravity or boundaries, just “pure poetry”.

“The water became the solution for where to place my figures.  Also, because water and swimming are universal, it allows the viewer to bring their own story to the painting.  I’d been searching for this solution for a long time.”

Over the following two years Vicki produced a series of paintings entitled Surface.  There is a darkness to the water in this series and a seemingly ominous relationship with the figures; their faces blurred by ripples or hidden from sight.  Perhaps an unconscious act by Vicki, as she has never learnt to swim.

I’ve never put my head under the water.  I’ve tried, but I just can’t do it.  To me the paintings aren’t actually about swimming.  The water is an excuse to paint the figure suspended, without gravity or boundaries.”

Gathering Calm 2014 oil on canvas 30x36

Gathering Calm (2014)

In 2013 Vicki began to experiment with a brighter, more vibrant colour palette, and produced her most recent Pools series.  This second series of paintings depicts a far more harmonious relationship between the figure and the water.  My personal favourites are Blowing Kisses and Radiant Heart; these paintings captured my imagination, propelled me into a warm pool of nostalgia, and prompted me to look into more of Vicki’s amazing work.  Even in the paintings of figures swimming in natural pools such as Quietude and Gathering Calm there is a lightness to the rippling water, which was absent in the previous Surface series, and the figures are painted in gloriously colourful bathing hats and costumes.

“My work is very autobiographical.  Not consciously so, as I rarely set out to expose myself, but when I look back at the trail of paintings I’m shocked to realized how telling it all is.  The subconscious manifests itself in the paintings without me even knowing.  Life is very open and light right now.”

The figures in her work are a combination of both self portraits and models; the models being close friends and members of her family.

“I’m very particular about using models.  I could never hire a stranger.  It’s important that I can recognize myself in the other person.  The figures in the lake paintings have been a close friend or my daughter, both willing to jump in cold water for me.  The majority of the pool images have been selfies.  I set the self-timer on my underwater camera, prop it up on a step, and then try to get back and appear weightless.   As you can imagine this is a very random process.  Even if I’m photographing someone else swimming, the best I can do is hold the camera below the surface of the water and point in the right direction.  There are a lot of photos of the sky, and odd limbs.  Out of 100 shots I might get one or two with potential.  By that time, I’m a prune.”

Quietude 48x54 oil on canvas 2016

Quietude (2016)

The next stage of Vicki’s process is very intriguing; she scatters prints of the photographs with the most potential across her studio floor and “lives” with them for days or even weeks until eventually a few begin to resonate with her.

“I start the painting with a pencil drawing, which is a real joy for me.  I love drawing the figure.  I usually work on 3 paintings at a time that relate to each other in palette and emotion.  Oil paint takes a long time to dry, and I can easily make mud if I don’t move along, so a series of three seems to be the most efficient, as one painting will inform the next in the push and pull.  I use the photo for initial colour and detail reference, but eventually I put it aside, try to get out of my own way, and just let the paintings develop.  A lot of the work is sheer chance.  I try to clear my mind and just let it happen.”

The artists that have influenced Vicki the most in her life produce what she describes as “slow art”.  Reinhardt, Rothko, Agnes Martin… Their work doesn’t tangibly tell a story; they are quiet, introspective pieces and their waters run deep, much like Vicki herself.

“You can only appreciate a Reinhardt if you give yourself permission to stop and wait for your eyes to adjust to the black, and when they do there is so much beauty to see in the darkness.  Agnes Martin’s grids are the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to visual meditation.  A Rothko is so powerful that the noise and energy of a crowded gallery slips away and leaves me suspended and timeless.  These are artists that need to be experienced in person, reproductions are mere reference. I’m also influenced by writers.  When I can paint as an Anne Carson verse reads, I will have reached the end of my journey.”

BlowingKisses 30x40 oil on linen

Blowing Kisses (2015)

Vicki’s Pools series can be found at the Bau-xi Gallery in Toronto where her art is readily available both in the gallery and on their website.


3 replies on “Still waters run deep with Vicki Smith”

I haven’t see Vicki since our days at the Ontario College of Art but we’ve caught up recently through Instagram. Thanks for this very well-written and thoughtful interview. By the way, the Like button wouldn’t work for me.

Liked by 1 person

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