Critically acclaimed and publically lauded, Michael Smither is one of a group of local artists that emerged in the 1960s to take New Zealand art in a new direction, which had previously been indebted to British art. During this time of cultural and social revolution, New Zealand artists were exposed to a plethora of new ideas from a wider range of international art. Like a gawky teenager, New Zealand art began to let go of the Motherland’s apron strings, and gain its own sense of identity. Smither led the charge in helping to help create a new style of art for New Zealand; one that referenced new international styles whilst also expressing local concerns.
Forty years later, Smither is still at the forefront of the contemporary art scene, and his works are synonymous with the New Zealand identity. He is noted for the use of realism with in his work- an ethos that depicts banal subject matter in an unflinching fashion. This is tempered by his used of crisp lines and flat, hyperbolic colour to create surreal worlds that are extraordinarily ordinary. He is also noted for his sculpture, murals, silk screenings, composition, and conservation work. Smither!, an exhibition at the Waikato Museum, is showing now until April 14th. It focuses on some of his earliest drawings and paintings from the 1960s through to the 1970s.
Smither was born and raised in New Plymouth, in 1939. An only child, Smither’s parents encouraged art and culture. His mother collected pottery and made rugs, while his father was an amateur painter and ran a screen printing business. “I grew up imbued, immersed in paper and paint” he muses. In 1959 he left home to travel north, up to the bustling city of Auckland and Elam Art School. A year later, he left Elam on the advice of his tutor John Weeks. “At that stage, you went to Elam to train to be an art teacher. John saw my interest in colour and in being an artist, and told me to get out there and start making art, because by the time I had finished the course I would have lost all interest in making art.”
In 1960, Smither returned to New Plymouth to continue creating art. While one would think being an artist in 1960s provincial New Zealand would be difficult, Smither asserts that it was “all go” during that period of his life. He set up Group60 with his long-time mentor and fellow Taranaki resident Don Driver, as well as experimenting with screen printing in collaboration with his father. Smither was inspired by artists with a distinct narrative – such as Van Gogh, Pierre Bollard and Stanley Spencer. Newly married to his first wife Elizabeth and raising their young family in Taranaki, Smither set about capturing his immediate environment and the people within it. This era of his art focuses on domestic life, landscapes, and spirituality; fleeting moments preserved only by Smither’s quick hand over a sketchbook. He carries a sketchbook with him everywhere, tucked away in a custom made pocket in his jacket.
Drawing has always been an important part of Smither’s artistic process. Despite creating some of New Zealand’s most well known works, Smither believes that it will be his drawings that will eventually be considered the most important part of his output, because “I haven’t had time to think, I just put it down onto the paper.” This preoccupation with “being honest and acting with integrity” stems from his Catholic upbringing. However, the quest for honesty is a common one, and perhaps one of the reasons why Smither’s work remains so popular. He maintains that “I just thought that if you were honest about what you painted, it would come out alright.” This ‘honesty’ is depicted through his drawings of his young children in the 1960s. “Children are so honest, and seeing them apply that world view was fascinating, it was proof of life. That’s what I was capturing.”
As well as drawing on universal commonalities, Smither’s works during the 1960s also have a distinctly localised feel. He has the ability to depict small-town New Zealand-ness in a straight forward way. His iconic landscapes are an arresting meditation on New Zealand’s natural environment and beauty, whilst also highlighting socio-political concerns. This is notable in his popular Rockpool series, which began during a nasty bout of toothache. “I sat down there for hours concentrating on drawing rocks, as a result, many of the early ones look like teeth” Smither laughs. “I have always been drawn to places with clear water, clean water. It’s important for diving and the environment in general. In a spiritual sense, water symbolises purity and honesty; Catholics used to leave a jug of clean water on the altar for anyone who needed a drink.” Despite good intentions ideologically, Smither notes that they are visually “the most unintentionally dishonest paintings I have ever done-I wanted to give people the experience of looking down into the water, but I never included distortions, I ruled them out. The works are descriptors of the real, but not real.”
Nowadays, Smither lives and works in Otama on the Coromandel Penisula, where he continues to paint “what I have always painted-my interest in shapes, colour, composition, things happening around me.” The works within Smither! highlight his then burgeoning interest with these idiosyncratic concerns. Rather than focusing on peripheral matter, Smither deftly captures essential forms in a parred-down and pure way that does not lose its resonance forty years later. Since 1960, Smither has create art that is truly ‘honest’ about the lives of himself and those around him – which invites people into his world, while also encouraging people to draw their own parallels. Therein lies an important element of Michael Smither’s longevity.
This article was first published in the Waikato Times in January 2014.