Interview With Blu Smith

Article Michelle Heslop. Photos by Jody Beck.

Bold colours, powerful brushstrokes, strong contrast, and an unparalleled luminosity define Blu Smith‘s work as an abstract expressionist. Set in lush North Saanich, his studio is an unexpected, self-described ‘cave’ in a basement with no natural light. Ironic for a painter known for his stunning use of light. But for this dad of two small children, a distraction-free workspace has afforded Smith the quiet and focus necessary to evolve into a career artist. Surrounded solely by his own paintings, mounds of large house painting brushes and dripping jars of colourful paint, Smith has created a powerful and uninhibited new collection, Physical Graffiti.

Smith grew up in Vernon and moved to Victoria in 1989 to complete his Fine Arts Degree at the University of Victoria after completing a two-year course in the Fine Arts department at Okanagan College. Smith continued to draw and paint through the variety of conventional jobs he held over the years. In his early works, he primarily focused on realism which he eventually felt was becoming “too technical a skill.” In the late 1990’s, as an exercise in loosening up, Smith attempted abstract painting. He wanted to experiment with non-representational pieces and “really just throw some paint around and see what happens.” He hasn’t looked back since. Abstract became his voice, the purpose of his life as an artist.

“Instead of wondering, what am I going to paint today, it was all laid out for me once I got into abstract. Each piece built onto the next; it just evolved. I can look back ten years ago and see how paintings from then have evolved into what you see today. People ask what the work is about, but it’s not about anything specific, it’s a continuation, an evolution. I look at my work as a whole, as a body of work. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It takes on a life of its own.”

That “evolution” of his work will soon be revealed in his art exhibition, Physical Graffiti, at The Avenue Gallery, a prominent Victoria gallery owned by Heather Wheeler.caveWhat was your inspiration for the Physical Graffiti collection? The title came to me half way through my collection; Physical Graffiti is an old Led Zeppelin album. It encapsulated the feeling of what it is that I was doing with this collection. I felt like last year I may have been tightening up a little bit with my work. I was getting away from the looseness that I was known for and what I really enjoy doing. So this collection is uninhibited, loose, powerful, and strong – throwing the paint around, getting right back into the canvas, drawing, making my marks on it. Owning the pieces and not worrying about being too tight.inprogressDescribe your creative process. Well, it’s nothing extravagant. It’s really about finding my space and closing myself off from the world. That’s why you see no windows or anything else in my workspace. It’s about coming down to my studio and working hard every day. It’s finding that time in the day where everything else is shut out – life’s daily struggles, kids, everything else. Coming to my studio, finding the focus, and hopefully the magic happens. Although, it doesn’t always happen. The days the magic doesn’t happen are difficult, you have to persist and just work through it all. It happens a lot. It’s not as simple as people may think. You go through the high points and low points; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t . Sometimes it’s nothing but mud. But you have to slug through it and keep working at it.processWhat is the key element in creating a good composition? For me it’s a number of things – inherent things I’ve learned over the years. Most often I do this without thinking anymore. I have many different thoughts going through my head when I’m creating a piece. One of the major ones is allowing your eye to be able to flow through a canvas. You can accomplish this in many different ways. If your eye hits a roadblock, stops and can’t penetrate, it’s hard for the viewer to get a grasp on the full piece. So I always try to ensure I have little pathways that run through a canvas or little areas that your eye can travel through – nice and easy, from one point to the next point, to each corner and around. For me, that is one of the most important elements for the viewer. They don’t even know that it’s happening when they are looking at it, but they might just linger if their eyes are able to travel freely around a canvas. The best piece of advice I’ve received is to ensure your viewers eye can travel through a canvas.blu_linesThe crucifix is one of the strongest compositional elements there are. The shape is inherent in us -we’ve all seen the crucifix so many times. It’s a way of breaking up the canvas into quadrants. Although, I don’t consciously think in terms quadrants, but it’s there. With my work the crucifix has skewed over time, it is bent, curved, rotated and moved. But at the heart of it, it’s very much is a crucifix symbol. I started off with a series of work called the Dragonfly series about five to six years ago. It was heavily based on that concept and what you see today is still very much evolved from that series. It all stems from that series.

What do you like most about the medium that you use? I once read that men like using acrylics the most because we’re impatient which probably has a lot of truth to it (chuckling). I like using acrylics because if I make a mistake I can paint over it in a few minutes. And really that’s what it comes down to now. I’ve always used acrylics. I’ve used oils and I like the velvety feeling of the colour with the oil but I can achieve the same feeling with acrylics. It’s the immediacy of the medium that appeals to me.paintThere is an illumination present in most, if not all, of your pieces. How do you create that effect? One of the things that I am known for in my work is the illuminating of light in my paintings. It is something I strive for, it doesn’t happen by accident. As I am working on a piece, I will know roughly where the light will be coming from. However, I usually don’t tackle the light until the end. Whereas, most people think it comes from within and emanates. Really it comes at the end for me; it’s one of the finishing touches.

Light is very important and creates the power within my work. When that luminosity comes through, it just makes it pop. There are many different techniques that I use and light is not strictly about white. Light is about many different colours combined. I know when I’m happy with a piece and it’s almost finished that it’s time to start putting in the light and making it emanate out, make it glow, and that’s when it all comes together.detailsDo you have a philosophy by which you live? Something I want to pass on to my kids is to never let go of your dreams and to be persistent. You are going to have many stumbling blocks and people are going to tell you that what you do is crap. If it’s your passion and your serious about it, then work hard at it, continue with it, be persistent. It’s a shame for people to let go of their dreams or whatever it is they are striving for. I’m a testament to this persistence. I continued to paint and paint and paint and I believed that one day I would get to where I want to be. People will be able to look back at a life and say, he was an artist and this is the body of work he created.blu_handWhere are you in the gamut of where you want to be? I’m one of those people that are never there, I’m always striving. It’s a good thing, it keeps me hungry and keeps me striving for more.inthebackground_vertFrom a commercial standpoint where are you? Can you say you’ve “made it” as an artist? I like to look at my career as a progression every year. I like to look back five years and ask myself if I have progressed. If the answer is ‘yes’, I think things are working well and I really want my work to continue to evolve. I can’t stay stagnant. I will work on a series of work where I do similar work for a period of time but there always has to be a departure from that and to have it grow and move. Just like any career, it can’t stay still, you have to keep striving further and further.