Legendary West Vancouver artist and philanthropist Gordon Smith has passed away at the age of 100.
Smith’s subjects have often been the landscapes here, richly abstracted through his brushwork.
Born in East Brighton, England, in 1919, Smith moved to Winnipeg in 1933 before enrolling at the Winnipeg School of Art and had his first professional exhibition in 1938.
After serving in the Canadian infantry in World War II, he studied at the Vancouver School of Art and became a major figure in the West Coast art world.
"Gordon Smith, an exceptional artist and uniquely generous human being, will be greatly missed by all who had the privilege to know him," the Equinox Gallery said in a statement today. "Smith lived his life with a generosity and grace that was a gift to the world."
The artist was best known for his paintings, but he was as adept and almost as prolific with his prints. Reviewing a show of the latter at the Burnaby Art Gallery a decade ago, Straight visual arts writer Robin Laurence spoke of the spell such works cast: "Where multiple lines coincide, starry forms emerge, as if from a brilliant night sky. This all-over abstraction compels the eye, mind, and spirit in a way that is almost transcendent."
Among other famous works, he designed two murals for architect Arthur Erickson's new Simon Fraser University campus building in Burnaby, and his massive wall sculpture Beach Tangle was installed in the lobby of the West Vancouver Community Centre when it opened in 2009 in time for the Winter Olympics. His career included two major retrospectives at the Vancouver Art Gallery, more than 25 solo exhibitions at Equinox Gallery, participation in biennial exhibitions in Canada and Brazil, as well as significant commissions including the design of the Canadian Pavilion for Expo '70 in Osaka (also with Erickson), plus major works for public buildings in Washington, DC, and London, U.K.
Smith received an Order of Canada in 1996 and an Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts in 2007. His work sits in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Smith was married to Marion Fleming for a remarkable 70 years. They founded the Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation for Young Artists; it was launched in 2002 to establish an endowment fund, the interest to fund ongoing visual arts enrichment opportunities for the children of B.C. He also became a founding patron, along with Jack Shadbolt and Bill Reid, of North Van’s Artists for Kids Gallery in 1989. The Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation for Young Artists and Artists for Kids work collaboratively to program the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art on Lonsdale, which opened in 2012.
Erickson designed the Smith's West Coast-modernist house, famed for its open plan, wood beams, and flow of indoors and outdoors. In 2007 the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada gave it the Prix du XXe siècle.
When Smith was named a laureate of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts in 2009, Daina Augaitis, then chief curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, said the award was 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 part of a movement that included other big names of the period, such as Jack Shadbolt, Takao Tanabe, and B.C. Binning, but what set him apart was how much he embraced this place and its wilderness. “If you think of the success and international recognition Vancouver receives now, there has to be a beginning somewhere, and Gordon Smith played an important role.”
Art education was one of Smith's passions. One of his more famous quotes, as prominently displayed on his Foundation's website, was, "Current major forces, both in education and in our society, tend to ignore the value and contribution of art. We must, more than ever, support and encourage the arts in everyday life."
The beloved artist taught with contemporaries Binning, Shadbolt, and Bruno Bobak at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art and Design) for 10 years, then for 26 years at the University of British Columbia before retiring in 1982 to paint full-time.
A memorial for the artist is to be announced at a later date.