Studio visit: visual artist Colin Hugh Smith
*I visited Colin two years ago, but wanted to include him in #100NBartists! Colin, you're #16)
When it comes to art, there’s room for everyone. - CHS
Colin Hugh Smith paints from his soul. The colours well up and explode onto his canvas in a spontaneous burst of creativity. Colin’s work is bright, colourful and evocative, often taking the form of bouquets of flowers or landscapes and sometimes straying into the abstract depending on his mood. He has painted full-time for over twenty years, but has always expressed his creativity in some way throughout his career journey, be it interior design, English literature or even haute cuisine (he's a Euro-trained chef). He also works in fibre arts! “I made this”, he says nonchalantly with his hint of a British accent, pointing to the grey knit sweater he was wearing. Is there anything this guy can’t do? Colin has developed a sturdy reputation as a top-notch artist and he is in for the long haul.
I visited Colin on a sunny day in January. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went into his studio, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a large, open space awash with bright light, full to the brim with beautiful things. This was a space that reflected the creativity spent in it; an inspiration in itself. The turquoise walls were adorned with pieces of art (his and friends’), art books and magazines were stacked on every surface and shelf. Colin’s studio is multipurpose and welcomes more than just art paraphernalia, with gym clothes hung up to dry next to the heater, weights on the floor and a broom in the corner. This is a space-of-all-trades and was once an apartment, which explains the kitchen and bedroom full of paintings stacked against the walls.
Colin's extensive collection of art books and magazinesColin is so friendly and was quick to invite me over for an interview. Once I arrived he was very helpful and showed me many of his pieces explaining his process and inspiration, as well as books and magazines that inspire him. (took this family reference out just because it reads more objectively without) Colin has been a part of the art community for awhile and is very knowledgeable. As we talked it dawned on me that he assumed I knew about as much about the art world as he did (which is a lot!) I had to tell him that I’m just learning about all this and could he spell that famous artist’s name for me so I can write it down and research it later? He generously lent me an armful of art books from his collection to further my education. The more artists I meet and the more I discover about our rich creative culture in NB, the more I realize how much I don’t know. It is a journey and my time with Colin opened my eyes to some of what I have yet to learn. Thank you for the visit Colin!
How did you become an artist?
Creativity has always been a part of me. I’m an interior designer, I had my own interior design firm in Fredericton. With interior design you have to have a sense of colour and putting things together. One of my completed projects was the interior design for the chamber of the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton. Several years ago they gutted the room, there were structural problems, and I designed the new interior. I have done many projects, in the US and overseas, but that was one of my biggest. In 1997 I graduated from UNB with a degree in English Literature and minor in Fine Arts, and a Master's in 1999. My thesis was about artists and poets (Ezra Pound) in pre-WW1 London and my research into this rich period reawakened my desire to make visual art. I had a lovely river-front studio in Fredericton but the Province of New Brunswick had other plans for the building (It's now the Justice Building) so when I moved to Saint John sixteen years ago and found this uptown studio space, and friendly landlord, by chance, I have painted here ever since. I’m mostly self-taught. I took art classes at the Craft College and UNB in Fredericton, but the ones that inspired me most were the week-long summer courses that Molly Bobak and Bridgette Grant led at Sunbury Shores in Saint Andrews. Molly is my hero. She was a wonderful teacher who found merit in everyone's work. She had that very spontaneous teaching style that brushes away a lot of the "rules" and focuses on loose gestural brushstrokes, risk-taking and lots of emotional colour in your composition. Drips and mistakes are okay! I've had many art-related jobs over the years; I’ve taught English Literature at UNB; I'm a published writer; I’ve written for newspapers and myself, but visual art is the most expressive and fulfilling medium for me.
What materials do you work with?
I use mostly acrylic paint. I like the buttery nature of oil paint but the fumes can be difficult to work with. There is a technique for every medium and they’re all different. Acrylics dry quickly so you have to work quickly; with oil you can build up layers and move them around, but it takes forever to dry. My style is very spontaneous and acrylic works well for that. I also sometimes do watercolour and collage.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by things both inside and outside. Flowers in the garden or the colours and lines of landscapes. Also the combination of flowers, some fruit on a table, a vase of flowers and coffee cups hold a romanticized place in my memory, connected to my British childhood.
Tell me about your studio:
Well there was no guarantee I would be able to stay here when I first moved in, but here I am sixteen years later. It looked nothing like this in the beginning, I’ve taken it on myself to redecorate, take out walls, paint, etc. This studio has been a constant in my life in Saint John. It's my sacred space, full of light, where I can be alone and free of distractions. I come here every day. I'm lucky!
Tell me about your process, how do you approach a canvas?
Well, I don’t paint from life; it’s all in my head. I paint a lot of flowers, some landscapes, and my inspiration comes mostly from something I’ve seen or imagined; something in my memory. I’m not a representative painter; what I’m going for is the mood, the atmosphere. This makes it easier in some ways, and harder in others. Some days you have ideas, and sometimes not. I get inspired from other work that I see, things in art magazines, art books and on-line. But even if you’re inspired by someone’s work, you’re putting it through your own filters so it never comes out the same.
Why have you chosen to establish yourself in Saint John?
Partly by default, I wanted to reinvent myself. I had a business in Fredericton as an interior designer and I was well-known for what I did. I finished my degrees and wanted to pursue visual art. When I used to visit uptown Saint John I was always fascinated with its architecture. Now I get to enjoy it every day! I like the easy-going vibe, mind-your-own-business energy of the city and the low studio rents at the time were a big incentive.
What is your greatest challenge?
Coming into the studio and facing a blank canvas is a challenge. There is a perception out there that painting must be fun, a hobby that you do to relax. But it’s not as fun as people may think. If you want to make a career out of it, you not only have to produce a certain volume, inspiration or not, but you must also pay attention to the business of marketing your product. Most artists are not good at the latter, including myself. For one thing you’re working alone, so you really have to keep a perspective. You have no critic other than your own eye; you have to be able to look at your work and assess it; to have a strong sense of who you are and what you're doing, because some days you're not going to like what you see. Some days if I have ideas it’s great and I just want to get them out, but other days there’s nothing there. You have to learn how to work with that. When I get in a dry space, I do something else. I leave it for awhile, organize my studio, stretch canvas... Some artists are very disciplined and will just keep working even if they aren’t inspired, but I can’t do that. One way to mix it up is to try a different style, so sometimes I do some abstract paintings.
What is your greatest joy when it comes to your work?
A finished piece that I'm pleased with would be my greatest joy. You’re investing your self-worth in this object you’re creating. Some days it doesn’t cooperate. In this respect you’re very vulnerable. A failed painting can be a real downer! It’s the same process with writing; it’s facing the blank page in the typewriter, or any creative endeavour really. Your emotions are so tied up in your work. You have to get over yourself and get inhibitions out of the way to proceed. I want someone to look at my painting and have an emotional response, and I invest that into my work. If someone wants to buy it, that’s great; that's the greatest compliment. It's very satisfying when that happens.
Find out more about Colin below: