West Vancouver artist Gordon Smith receives top Governor General nod

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One of B.C.’s foremost living painters has been named a laureate of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts.

Ninety-year-old West Vancouver painter Gordon Smith joined eight other honourees from across the country in this morning’s announcement at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Governor General Michaelle Jean will hand out the awards, which carry a $25,000 prize, tomorrow (March 25) at Rideau Hall.

Smith has already scooped an Order of Canada (in 1996) and an Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts (in 2007), and has his work in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Smith, who was born in England and spent his early art years in Winnipeg, came to Vancouver after serving in the Canadian infantry in World War II. Here, he studied at the Vancouver School of Art and became a major figure in the West Coast art world, where he continues to play a role. Smith’s subjects have usually been the landscapes here, but often richly abstracted through his vivid brushwork.

Daina Augaitis, chief curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, said the award is an important recognition of Smith’s national significance. "He was a leader in the development of modern art in Vancouver in the postwar period," she told the Straight. Augaitis added Smith was a leader among other big names of the period, such as Jack Shadbolt, Takao Tanabe, and B.C. Binning, but what set him apart was that, although he was conscious of the international style of the time, he applied it to and embraced this place and its wilderness. "If you think of the success and international recognition Vancouver receives now, there has to be a beginning somehwere, and Gordon Smith play an important role in establishing that at a time when it [this city] was not a very cultural place."

It’s a big year for Smith. A full spectrum of his work is currently on view at the VAG, in the Western Landscapes show that runs till May 10. In it, his paintings hang alongside those of Emily Carr, E.J. Hughes, and Ann Kipling. Proving that Smith continues to be an active painter, it includes a new 2009 work.

"At 90, he’s still exploring new directions and really the work is as strong as it every was," Augaitis said. "This one looks at the undergrowth of the forest and the brush and the brambles, not at these majestic trees in their height and glory, and yet he brings such expression and light to this tangle of branches."

On April 16, he sees the opening of exhibition of works on paper at North Van’s Artists for Kids Gallery, of which he became a founding patron, along with colleagues Jack Shadbolt and Bill Reid, in 1989. Two of his new serigraph prints will also be released with the exhibition to support Artists for Kids’s work in schools and the community.

That contribution to art education was another reason cited for his Governor General’s award. "Having been an educator at the department of education at UBC, he’s influenced so many teachers in their pedagogy—he has just the hugest following of teachers across the province," Augaitis said. "He’s really been able to work with teachers at getting at the essence of art-making," she said, adding Smith is renowned for his generosity.

Other winners include Vancouver-born Toronto performer-musician-sculptor Nobuo Kubota; Nova Scotian sculptor John Greer; Calgary interdisciplinary artist Rita McKeough; Montreal filmmaker Robert Morin; and Toronto architect Raymond Moriyama.

In two special prizes, Ontario’s Tony Urquhart and Kim Ondaatje received an outstanding-contribution award recognizing their work to establish CARFAC (the Canadian Artists’ Representation), while Ontario glass artist received the Saidye Bronfman Award for excellence in fine crafts.

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