Remembering Gordon Smith
The first time I saw Gordon Smith, he was delivering a talk to a group of students at what was then the Banff School of Fine Arts. I was 19, enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Calgary and, in an attempt to catch up on credits after switching my major from English to fine arts, was taking a summer painting course in Banff. My instructor was Françoise André, an artist of considerable talent and, it later seemed to me, silent sorrow. As I entered that lecture hall, the one in which Gordon was talking about his career in art, I had no real idea who he was. I can’t remember, now, whether he was also teaching at Banff that summer—conducting a master class, perhaps—or was delivering his talk to the student body as a (briefly) visiting artist. I remember he spoke about the first time he attempted, as a young boy, to paint with watercolour and how horrified he was when great streams of washy pigment ran down his sheet of paper. And I also remember how handsome he was. I developed an instant and lasting crush on the man, his sweet and self-deprecating humanity and his striking good looks.
My friendship with Gordon began many years later, after I completed a graduate degree in art history and did a couple of stints at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. I had settled in Vancouver and was working as a freelance art critic, contributing reviews and feature articles to local and national magazines, including this one. Only then did I begin to appreciate Gordon’s importance as an artist, as one of the leading proponents of West Coast modernism, and to recognize the additional roles he played as an educator and benefactor of the arts. I was privileged, then, to interview him about his paintings and, later, to be folded into his circle of friends. A vast circle, I would learn, although Gordon gave each of us the feeling that we were uniquely valued by him, that we were important somehow. Whether in his home or at an exhibition opening, he always seemed so delighted to see me, was so complimentary about my contribution to the visual arts. He thanked me repeatedly for what I did, thanked so many of his friends and colleagues, grasped each of us by the hand so warmly, so enthusiastically. What I did was nothing—and I mean that sincerely: nothing—compared with what he did, but he wouldn’t hear that. As I have written before, Gordon always talked down his own paintings, always spoke of owing so much to others, of “standing on the shoulders” of artists past and present, of being “a hundred artists deep.”
But what a delight it was to know Gordon and to visit him in his home—his award-winning, Arthur Erickson-designed, West Vancouver home—filled with art and the very best of modernist furniture. About the art that hung on his walls, it was never his own. Gordon supported younger artists not only through the charities and foundations he contributed to but also in the most immediately tangible way, buying and displaying their paintings, drawings, photographs. He supported his peers, too, collecting their work and helping to fund their exhibitions and catalogues. He was unendingly giving. About the furniture, he always credited his wife Marion with acquiring it, spoke with admiration of her great eye for design, her knowledge, her bargaining skills, too. Sadly, my memories of Marion were mostly formed after she had had a stroke, in the late 1990s. When, with mutual friends, I first began visiting Gordon in his home, Marion had begun to fade and diminish, physically and mentally. I remember her sitting in a wheelchair and, over time, speaking less and less, confused, dazed, seeming to disappear beneath dark waves of dementia. With the help of professional caregivers, Gordon looked after Marion at home until her death in 2009, after 68 years of marriage. Their closeness as a couple was legendary and we worried that he would not last without her, but he did. He carried on, painting every day, and it became evident that painting was what enabled him to survive. Without painting, without daily striving to do better, to reach higher, there would be no meaning. Once, when Gordon was attending an exhibition opening of a friend, a nervous fan inanely asked him if he was still painting. He shot back, “Are you still breathing?”
A typical evening with Gordon would begin with drinks in his living room, accompanied by discussions about books, artists, exhibitions, travels. He was endlessly enthusiastic about what he had been reading and seeing. (Enthusiasm and generosity seemed to mark his every relationship, his every encounter or undertaking.) Then there would be a visit to his (always immaculate) studio to look at and talk about his most recent paintings. This was not about egotism: he was not showing off but genuinely wanted our feedback, our insights, our criticism—the kind of analysis and discussion he had long shared with Marion. After that, we would decamp to a good restaurant, where he would treat us all to abundant food and fine wine, eat scarcely anything himself and tip the wait staff 25% of the very large bill. Later, as his strength diminished and it became more difficult for him to walk, to get in and out of the car, we would eat in his dining room, the food gathered and served by his wonderful assistants. He wouldn’t let us leave his home without a gift, often a print he had recently produced.
My last visit with Gordon was in the company of Ann Kipling, a dear friend to us both and an artist he deeply admired. He was very weak and very thin, and didn’t get up to greet us as he once would have. He sat in his small, painfully overheated den, wrapped in sweaters and blankets. Tea and cookies were served. He took a sip or two, ate nothing, tried hard to be convivial, but it was too much of a struggle. I badly wanted to have more time with him but I also felt guilty about taxing him so. It was clear our words, our presence, our humble gifts gave him no pleasure. He could no longer paint and he wanted to be gone. As so many have observed, his death was not a tragedy, nor was it a surprise: he was one hundred years and seven months old. Still, his passing marked, continues to mark an enormous loss for us all. The great gift of his art—his paintings, prints, drawings, collages and assemblages—remains, yes, and so do the cultural and educational bodies he endowed, but the loveliest, the most generous of men has left us.
Dearest Gordon, rest in peace.