BLU SMITH'S HOME is tucked into North Saanich, nestled among towering Douglas firs. It sits on a sweep of green lawn that joyfully displays a clutch of toys belonging to his two young sons. His wife, a chiropractor, seems used to graciously leading arts writers and other visitors through their light-filled home to Smith’s basement studio, dubbed “the cave.”
It is not so oppressive as the moniker suggests: The ceilings are high; the walls are a crisp white and large enough to accommodate several paintings hanging and leaning. However, there is a marked lack of natural light, the windows having been covered to prevent it from wandering into the space.
It’s interesting, considering Smith’s practice revolves largely around seeking light out, in making the intangible manifest in pigment on an opaque surface. “Why is light important in my pieces?” Smith reflects. “It’s the pot of gold. It’s the elusive; what I have always been striving for. It’s the push behind me to always keep going,” he says; it’s “the prize.”
His reach for it happens in a predominantly abstract expressionist style, in which meaning can be elusive. However, through his luminous canvasses he has been able to connect with viewers. “Shedding a little bit of light—and life—that people can grab ahold of and gravitate towards, I think that’s one of the reasons why people enjoy my abstracts,” he notes. Abstract art operates on an intuitive, emotional level in its making and in its viewing, and that is where opportunities for communion between artist and viewer exist. “You get a lot of visceral reactions from people; it moves them. It’s amazing, because I spend all my time down here, and to put it out in the world and get these kinds of responses from people, it’s an honour,” he says.
Imagine, then, going back in time to tell Smith, a young University of Victoria art student, that this was how his career would play out. He would likely react with a derisive scoff. Early on, Smith had no time for abstract art. He laughs now. “I was just a naïve kid, because I could paint and draw realistically, so I thought that was being an artist. These people who did abstract, I thought it was a cop-out; that they didn’t know how to be artists. And I was vocal about it,” he admits.
This, mind you, was once he adjusted to the notion of even having an art career. Born in 1968 in Kamloops and raised in Vernon, Smith was playing junior hockey when, at age 18, a motorcycle accident put an end to that career path. As a kid, when he was not on the ice, he could be found drawing famous goalies (his own position)—or members of the rock band KISS—so he turned to art studies on the advice of a college counsellor.
At 21, he moved to Vancouver Island and worked as a sign painter before finishing his Fine Arts degree at the University of Victoria. Later, he worked in commercial art—“signage, murals, logos, chalk art for pubs and restaurants,” he lists, which demanded tight precision and technical skill. In a departure from an art-based vocation, he then spent some time as an electrician on luxury yachts. But any spare moment was an opportunity to paint.
Initially, his steadfast adherence to representational and figurative work left him frustrated. “It was just really lacking something,” he relates. “I knew that I had something to say as an artist; I just had to find what it was.” So in what would be an intense personal challenge, he immersed himself in what he had previously derided. “I would have 20 pieces of paper taped up to the wall. I would go from each to each, and I would work rapidly,” he explains, intuitively laying down colour and form. Eventually, hundreds accumulated. “I could pick and choose which ones I found interesting and build off that piece, and they would continue to build off one another. So this evolution started happening,” he explains.
That was 20 years ago now, and ever since, he has seen his work as part of a continuum. Now, five years focused full-time on his art practice, Smith works with combinations of acrylic paint, latex house paint, gel mediums, heavy molding paste and, recently, a return to oils. Part of the luminous effect is achieved by applying layer upon layer of colour—“just big stacks of colour” that he will rebalance “until the colours sing together.” He often uses charcoal lines to pull images out of these layers that can remain purely gestural or coalesce into a topographical quality.
His final step is to bring each piece “to life” by rendering the light. “Sometimes you want more of a glow; other times you want it where it’s just burning,” he says. The latter calls for big, bold brushstrokes that result in a luscious impasto. The light in each piece follows a path that leads the viewer through the composition. “Light is like water: It will find the path of least resistance,” Smith observes. “Same with electricity. Any way it can get through, it will find its way.”
He notes that his family’s move to their current property three years ago has affected the way light moves through his work. Previously, “we were up on the side of a hill and we had a gorgeous view of Mount Baker, so I would get the intense morning light from the sunrises every morning,” he says. “That’s what really started the light getting into my abstract work.” Now, nestled among the trees, “there is this fascinating light popping through little places in trees, just trying to get through.”
A desire to express that has brought Smith back to representational work in his latest series. He is aware of coming full circle, but now with his artistic voice ringing loud and clear. “I am able to really retain things I have learned with abstraction and apply them to this,” he says. His signature bold, expressive colourways prevail, as the light pushes its path through fauvist blue-grey-purple groves of trees in works like “The Long Shadow Stretch.” From the rippling surface of a pond in “The Willow” the light and colour leap onto three more purely abstract canvasses. Soon, Smith plans to build a studio in the backyard of his property, replete with windows and light. “I know [my work will] be completely affected being in there, but my work always changes. It moves and it grows,” he says. Following its inevitable path, as does a beam of light.
Aaren Madden lives in a house with west-facing windows that bathe her kitchen in the golden light of the setting sun.
Video featuring Blu Smith in 2020